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Developing movement skills helps cognitive learning in children with mild learning disabilities

12 October 2012

According to movement scientist Pieter Jelle Vuijk from the University Medical Hospital Groningen, children with mild learning disabilities in special primary education should do more sport to improve their movement skills and overall fitness. ‘This can have a positive impact on their reading and maths skills,’ says Vuijk. He discovered a positive link between movement and cognitive performance in this group of children; the link has already been established for children with an average IQ in regular primary education. Vuijk would like see a greater emphasis on practising movement skills in special education. He will be awarded a PhD for the results of his research by the University of Groningen on 17 October 2012.

Up until now, the link between cognitive performance (such as reading, spelling and maths) and motor or movement skills has largely been restricted to children attending regular primary schools and children with specific developmental disorders such as ADHD or autism. Vuijk’s research involved a group of children with mild learning disabilities and a low IQ attending special primary schools.

Four groups

Vuijk studied four groups of children. Three of these groups were in special primary education. The first group had mild learning disabilities, in other words an IQ of between 50 and 70. The second group consisted of children with an IQ bordering on a learning disability, i.e. between 71 and 84, and the third group were children with learning difficulties irrespective of their IQ. The fourth group taking part comprised children in regular primary education with an average IQ. A total of more than 400 children took part in the study.

Movement skills

Children with learning disabilities have significantly more problems with movement. Vuijk discovered motor problems in 82% of the children with mild learning disabilities, and in 60% of the children with an IQ bordering on a learning disability. These were problems involving hopping or running, and throwing and catching a ball.

Children with learning difficulties

Vuijk ascertained a link between the motor functions and performance in reading, spelling and maths in the group of children with learning difficulties attending special primary schools. Problems with dexterity were the most common, followed by problems with ball skills and balance. Vuijk thinks that the links he found between specific aspects of learning and movement skills will contribute to insight into the associations between developmental problems and motor problems.


Finally, Vuijk explored the relationship between fitness and being able to adapt quickly and easily to changing situations, otherwise known as cognitive flexibility. He found that ‘fitness’ was an important predictor of how children in regular primary education will develop language and maths skills. Previous research into this group of children had already shown that good movement skills have a positive impact on cognitive learning. It has now been shown that better physical fitness can also be linked to cognitive flexibility. The results of Vuijk’s research results suggest that the cognitive performance of all children, with or without learning disabilities, would be helped if they were to be activated physically by providing more sport and training their movement skills.

Curriculum Vitae

Pieter Jelle Vuijk (Smallingerland, 1974) studied Psychology at VU University Amsterdam. He conducted his PhD research in the Movement Sciences department of the UMCG as part of a programme studying links between sport and cognitive functions. His thesis is entitled ‘Associations between motor and cognitive functioning in school-aged children.’ Vuijk is now working as a postdoc researcher at VU University Amsterdam.

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.48 a.m.
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