Want Executive Function? Check out Visual-Motor Skills

These days the answer to better cognitive performance seems to involve the concept of “Executive Function”. Many a consultant can assess your child or you for performance in various aspects of executive function skills. They can then provide you with all sorts of support systems to help and generally instill new habits, not necessarily the skills.

What are executive function skills? They are commonly considered to be paying attention, organizing, and time management to name a few. The skills typically emerge over time with normal development, and this development has been the subject of much functional brain imaging. Where is clear—how, not so clear.

We see time and time again that the secret for brain development is in motor skill development. A recent study conducted by Oregon State University shows an association between executive function development and simple hand-eye manipulative skills.

Relations of Preschoolers’ Visual Motor and Object Manipulation Skills with Executive Function and Social Behavior

In preschool children, better visual-motor integration skills were significantly related to better executive function scores, suggesting that visual-motor skills help lay the foundation for executive function.

The study measured a child’s ability to throw, catch, kick, bounce and hit targets with balls. The manipulative skill assessment included tracing, copying, building with blocks, folding paper given specific instructions, and manipulating pellets into small containers.

Building with blocks. Playing with balls. Pretty simple stuff that cannot be experienced on a screen. Did you know by age four a child should be able to catch, bounce, and toss a ball?

Playing with balls requires so many little skills wrapped up in one. Bouncing a ball involves postural shifts engaging the vestibular/balance system, shoulder/elbow/wrist/finger coordination, as well as head and eye movement timing coordination. No wonder some of us have a hard time!

Four Early Life Events that derail development of visual-motor skills

The relationships necessary for well-integrated visual-motor development begin in the early months of life and can be thrown off by very common events. The saying ‘Life happens’ certainly applies!

Here are four early life events that could impact visual-motor skills:

Birth stress from C-section, breech, multiple, and wrapped umbilical cord. Birth characteristics have a variety of impacts to the movement and structural foundational relationships. The prenatal movement repertoire is often incomplete or the abnormal stress at birth upsets the prenatal movement foundation.

NICU or PICU support in the early months of life. The IV’s, mechanical breath support and other early medical interventions inhibit development of arm/shoulder relationships foundational to visual-motor skill evolution. These arm-based procedures are necessary at the time for medical care, but there is a lingering impact to subsequent development.

Falling in the first years of life. This literally jams the flow of the hand-eye movement flows. Seventy-three percent of ER visits in age 0-4 children are for falls. Falls, the largest source of concussions in children, are commonly from car seats, shopping carts, strollers, high chairs, stairs, beds, etc.

Broken forearm, hands, fingers, and clavicles. Together these account for over half of all childhood fractures. The injury and immobilization (cast) each have an impact to visual-motor skill function by blocking the flow in the segmental coordination for fluent motor skills.

At what ages can we identify gaps? 

Beginning at birth, there are distinct phases of motor control and visual integration.

At six weeks of age we are able to tell when this visual-motor foundation is working easily, or needs a little help.

Infant-Toddler aged children’s skills can be identified by play and exploration.

Preschool children should be writing shapes and mastering a variety of hand grasps, as well as having tons of fun with balls and blocks.

Elementary, Tween and Teens increasingly need speed and accuracy both with written tasks, social skills and large motor skills. (Think bike riding and driving navigation!)

Adults and Older Adults also can have challenges with visual motor skills which have nothing to do with getting older. They have everything to do with injuries, illnesses and medical interventions.

What to expect?

In your first visit we use our observations, your background information, your observations, and our passive movement assessments to surface the gaps. This often includes:

Passive core organizing movements of rocking and stretching.

Independent and integrated visual-motor movements

Play-based activities (for the little ones)

Drawing and writing activities (for everyone else)

Balance tests when vision seems to be related to vestibular/balance concerns or when a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is part of your history.

Where does BridgingŸ come into play with visual-motor skills?

There are two parts to problem solving visual motor skill glitches. The first task is not merely determining the skills are troubled. We go the next step to determine how they do work together.  The second aspect is to determine which aspects of developmental foundation preceded the skill gap. Before addressing the gap we need to rebuild the foundation. Sometimes the gap clears itself once the substrate supports the skills.

Some of the steps we follow to guide an intervention-

Identify how skills actually function, which also provides insight to what is challenging on a daily basis. Visual-motor skills are generally present, but often function in unstable and inefficient ways. Instead of a yes/no evaluation, we consider the ‘how’.

Identification of precursor gaps in the most basic aspects of integrated function related to stages of infant development. For example, we identify glitches in the establishment of a stable midline, ability to cross midline, differentiated hand use. We also check the underlying postural movement and control of the head/neck/core supporting visual movement.

Restore the stability of body, arm and head function making it easier for vision to work with the body.

Restore the ranges of postures and movements which are required for daily visual-motor tasks. Reaching up for a ball, or reaching down to tie shoes requires different skills and relationships between the body, hands and eyes.

What we don’t do? We leave the thorough evaluation of visual skills up to the many excellent Developmental Optometrists. They also have a very structured therapy program to refine and reinforce the visual skills with the motor skills we enable.

What do we do to correct the gaps?

In a nutshell—we use Bridging to rebuild the relationships between the body, hands and eyes in the same order they should have originally developed.

We stabilize the body and head in series of sequential progressive postures which follow development—laying down, seated, and standing.

We make sure specific transitions are working well. Again these relate to the sequence of development.

We test specific relationships of the arms, hands, head and eyes and find glitches in necessary transitions.(moving up, down, in, out, etc.)

What changes?

Amazingly the observation and feedback consistently indicate that emotional, cognitive and executive function gaps begin to fill in. All ages are able to concentrate more easily, complete tasks with less effort, and take on more complex challenges. Most of all they seem to have more fun and are playful!

We often sit back and check the list of developmental play and transitions at the end of a session. Once the structural relationships are enabled, the development of visual-motor skills unfolds right before our eyes. It is truly amazing to watch.

Want to see how well your child’s visual-motor basics work?

Consult the Kinetic Konnections’ team, or your Bridging technique professional.