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Physical education important for academic achievement in special primary education

23 May 2014

On the whole, children with learning difficulties who attend special primary schools have poorer gross motor skills than children in regular education. Although they develop these skills, by the age of 11 many of these children are still at least 3 years behind other 11-year-olds. Furthermore, gross motor skills appear to have a correlation with academic achievement . These are among the conclusions in a thesis written by human movement scientist Marieke Westendorp of the UMCG. A ball skills programme seems to improve their planning skills and problem-solving abilities. She will be awarded a PhD for her research by the University of Groningen on 26 May.

Some forty thousand Dutch children attend special primary schools, which provide teaching for children with learning difficulties. These children have specific learning problems, behavioural problems and/or low intelligence and need extra attention in order to develop properly. The focus of the teaching and research aimed at this group of children is usually on their cognitive development. Much less attention is paid to the way their motor skills develop, despite motor development playing an important part in a child’s overall development.

Westendorp’s research examined the links between the gross motor development and cognitive development (executive functioning and academic achievement) of children with learning difficulties in special primary education between the ages of 7 and 12 years. Her main interest was the possible relationship between motor skills and cognitive performance. The results are important in developing suitable teaching methods for these children.

Poorer motor skills

Westendorp’s research shows that children in special primary education have poorer motor skills than children of the same age in regular education. Although they develop these skills, by the age of 11 many of these children are still at least 3 years behind other 11-year-olds . She also confirmed a specific link between gross motor skills and cognitive skills.

Effect of ball skills programme

According to Westendorp, specific attention must be paid to training the gross motor skills of children with learning difficulties in special primary education. She tested the effect of a ball skills programme. The programme not only improved the children’s ball skills, but also appeared to have a positive effect on their executive functioning, particularly on their planning skills and problem-solving abilities.

Physical education lessons very important


Westendorp advises teachers to pay extra attention to the development of children’s gross motor skills. Physical education lessons provide the perfect opportunity. ‘It is important to take the different levels of the children into account. Make sure that children can do the exercises at different levels and give them individual, specific feedback’, she says. The results of her research highlight the importance of good gross motor development. Westendorp: ‘It shows how important good physical education is to children’s development. I hope that my results will help to raise awareness in society and in political circles about the importance of physical education on the school curriculum.’

Curriculum Vitae

M. Westendorp-Haverdings (Zuidlaren, 1981) studied human movement sciences at the University of Groningen. She conducted her research at the UMCG in the Center for Human Movement Sciences and the Research School for Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences (BCN). Her thesis is entitled: ‘Movement and cognition. The relationship between gross motor skills, executive functioning, and academic achievement in children with learning disorders’.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.34 p.m.
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