This article was written by Nicola Tuke – Occupational Therapist – UK

This is a really complex and vast area to cover in one article but stay with me!

Let’s start with intelligence. Intelligence is often associated with academic success but comes in so many forms. Think about a world class footballer, these guy’s brains are functioning during a match at top capacity!

Any activity requires an amalgamation of what we call “performance skills”. To explain this further let’s stick with the football…

Performance skills used by footballers:

SPATIAL AWARENESS – footballers have to be able to judge the space between themselves, other players and the goal posts.

PROPRIOCEPTION – This relates to the ability to know where parts of your body are in space. For example, if you were asked to touch your nose with your eyes closed you are relying on proprioception instead of vision to do this.

MOTOR PLANNING – Footballers need to strategically plan their movements. As the ball comes towards them they are judging the angle, the speed, the power and the position of other players as they plan that next movement.

VISUAL MOTOR INTEGRATION – This relates to taking visual information and turning it into the correct motor response. A football player may SEE what direction they have to kick it in but they also have to produce the right movement to make that happen. Like when football fan’s are watching a match and shouting “that kick should have been more left of centre” the player probably knew that too but just didn’t perform the right movement.

COMMUNICATION SKILLS – The ability to take instructions from their manager and play harmoniously with other team members. You could be the best footballer in the world but if you can’t communicate with the rest of the team what use is that?!

The best footballers in the world are the ones who have all these skills functioning at a high level and fluidly in harmony with one another. That’s what sets them apart! People who do not excel in all these areas may make amazing football coaches or football managers.

Other performance skills can be better explained through other fine motor activities such as:

Playing the piano….

MANUAL DEXTERITY – This relates to the ability to produce small, precise movements in a synchronised manner and requires muscular, skeletal and neurological functions. A piano player requires these skills to manipulate the piano keys succinctly and accurately, in order to produce beautiful music.

AUDITORY PROCESSING SKILLS – A piano player requires these skills to be able to process the differences in musical pitch. We have all heard the phrase “tone deaf” and this relates to whether you hear what others hear. For example people who think they’re good singers when they actually sound like wailing cats!

VISUAL PROCESSING – Think about reading musical notes in a complex piece of music. What your eye sees and your brain processes can be two different things. Think about children who have dyslexia and interpret letters or numbers incorrectly. There is nothing wrong with their “vision” but what they’re brain interprets what they see incorrectly so they may struggle to read musical notes.

An amazing pianist will have all these performance skills functioning together perfectly. Let’s think about a person who has amazing music reading skills and auditory processing skills but has hyper-mobility in their joints (bendy fingers) and struggles to accurately manipulate the keys. This person could potentially become a successful songwriter. Or a person who has visual processing difficulty may be an amazing performer but from memorizing the music rather than reading the music.

As they say in the L’oreal commercials – that’s the science bit!!!

Now let’s relate this to real life and child development, health and well- being. All of the above performance skills are developed in early childhood through play and activity. The development of these skills are very much dependant on a child’s exposure and natural interest.

One child may have loved table-based activities such as colouring as a toddler. Let’s call him Zac. This results in Zac being so familiar with holding and controlling a pencil or crayon, that by the time he starts school he’s very much ready to learn to write.

Another child may have been more into outdoor play as a toddler such as climbing and ball games, let’s call her Jasmine. When Jasmine starts school, she may excel at sports but clumsily hold a pencil and find it difficult to write.

All this means is further development and support in this area of function is required but this can be achieved through means that suit the child. For example, Toni might enjoy playing a game in a sandpit where her Mum asks her to draw certain words with a stick. This is a much more multi-sensory approach and a style of learning that Toni is much more likely to engage with. Forcing her to sit at a table with a pencil is more likely to make her feel far less motivated to develop these skills.


How many times have you heard people label children as “The Sporty One” “The Clever one” The Artistic One”? This is dangerous territory and can have long term consequences. There is evidence that shows children take on board comments when they’re being spoken about more than when being spoken to as the comments can feel more genuine.

I remember as a child hearing my parents talking to teachers or family members not realising, I could hear everything they were saying and internalising it as fact. If you’re overheard saying to a teacher “yes she’s never been very good at that”, it can stay with the child for life and become a self-fulfilling prophecy that they could carry around with them for life!

What is a broad, final and quite frankly damaging comment, could affect their well-being long-term. Imagine if a child hears someone say “they’re not very sporty” this could result in a loss of engagement in physical activity. This may then lead to weight gain and physical health implications, which impact their well-being for the rest of their life. This sounds extreme but really can happen! If a child isn’t naturally adept at sports then just explain to them that no-one is good at everything and try to find them activities which fit their level of performance balancing challenge and mastery – not too easy, not too hard. Set them goals and reassure them no-one is good at everything and DO NOT compare.

It is also easy to assume that if your child struggles with handwriting …. they should practice handwriting, not the case! The action of using scissors, doing jigsaws and colouring will all benefit a child’s handwriting ability without them even realising and if these are things they enjoy and prefer to do, then encourage this!

Always allow your child the time to practice what we perceive as simple tasks and communicate to them that to keep trying is all you ask of them; this is what should be praised. Acknowledge their strengths and engage with them to develop areas of difficulty.

Please don’t think as someone who works in this profession, that I am not guilty. I am first a parent and human being, and second an Occupational Therapist. I’ve stood by the door first thing in a morning saying “get your coat on…. oh for heaven’s sake, I’ll do it myself!!”…. as they struggle with the zip. But as we know as adults, an apology can mean everything. I will often say to my children “I’m Sorry for the way I reacted this morning, Mummy was in a rush and was worrying about work, but you know what? you’re getting better, let’s practice together later when we’re not in a rush”. An explanation like this can make a world of difference.

As mentioned earlier, this is a huge subject to cover and took me four years of a degree to learn about, so I hope it makes some sense. This is a subject I am very passionate about and so have a tendency to ramble on! If any area has taken your interest and you’d appreciate more detail then I would be happy to expand on and explain further.

In the meantime, enjoy your children as the individuals they are, and spend time with them – you are their world! Every action, comment and affirmation can give them a Psychological discourse that will stay with them for the rest of their life.

This is a huge responsibility but you can do it!