Decline in Children’s Physical Readiness for Learning

Sally Goddard Blythe

Sally Goddard Blythe writes:

While the Department of Education is busy planning the introduction of 10 million pounds worth of assessment protocols for 4 year olds, children’s physical literacy appears to be declining.

Reports published in 2004[1] and 2005[2] based on the assessment of more than 600 primary school children’s motor skills indicated that the physical skills of 48% of 4–5 year olds and 35% of 8-9 years olds were immature. There was also a correlation between immature motor skills and lower educational performance using teacher assessment of baseline measures of education.

Subsequent unpublished interim reports have revealed a similar picture of children with immature motor skills performing less well on measures of educational attainment (SATS) than children whose motor skills were commensurate with age expectations[3] [4].

These figures seemed staggeringly high at the time but recent ongoing research suggests that the decline in children’s motor skills has continued to increase over the last 13 years.

A study involving 116 children carried out in cooperation with the University of Loughborough between 2015 and 2017 using the Movement Assessment Battery for Children (ABC-2), revealed a 6.2% decline in measures of balance, 19.7% decline in aiming and catching, 15.8% decrease in manual dexterity and 18.1% deterioration in overall physical development since the norms for the assessment battery were last revised in 2007. A second screening test for signs of neuromotor immaturity indicated that 78% of the sample showed some signs of immaturity – an apparent increase of 30% – since findings were last reported using the same screening test in 2005[5].

It would be easy to dismiss these findings as tests throwing up false positive results in a relatively small sample, or, a screening test that has set the markers for normal development too high, if it were not for corroborative findings from a sample of more than 600 children across primary schools elsewhere in the United Kingdom, tested between 2017 and 2018. Based on the same screening test used in the 2005 report[6], findings indicate that between 79% and 82% of the sample showed some signs of immaturity in motor skills.

Both research projects have introduced daily movement programmes into the schools (Movement for Learning, Better Movers and Thinkers and the INPP Developmental Movement Programme for use in Schools). Both projects have found that neuromotor skills of children in the experimental groups have improved with intervention groups showing greater progress than comparison groups. One of the projects is still in progress with results being prepared for publication, but preliminary findings on the incidence of immature motor skills will be presented at an international conference in Madrid on the 12th of May 2018.

Why do motor skills matter?

Learning is not all in the head. It is also a physical activity which relies on control of balance to provide the foundation for postural control. Postural control supports not only coordination but also centres involved in the control of eye movements needed for stable visual perception and the ability to sit still. Each one of these motor related skills is involved in reading, writing, copying, catching a ball and the physical basis for attention. Immaturity in motor skills can act as a barrier to performance.

The primary “window” for developing motor skills is the first 5 – 7 years of life. These are the years when physical experience combined with social engagement act as the medium for developing the physical and social skills that will support learning and adaptation throughout life. While some children are ready to read and write at 4 years of age, others naturally need longer. Forcing children into sedentary activities and assessments of cognitive attainment before they have the physical skills in place to support them will not guarantee better outcomes later on. The Minister’s £10 million would be much better spent on supporting and assessing children’s physical and social literacy in the early years.

Experts are rightly sceptical of the findings from these projects, criticising them on the basis that not all have been published in peer reviewed journals, that the developmental norms set in the standardised test battery must need revising and the INPP screening tests rely too heavily on a theoretical construct – that the continued presence of primitive reflexes in school age children provide signposts or markers of immaturity in the functioning of the central nervous system. While all of these criticisms may be valid, focus on criticism results in a “blind eye” approach to the figures that indicate:

  1. The same screening test is revealing an apparent increase in signs of immature motor skills over a 13 year period.
  2. A standardised test battery is revealing a similar, if less acute, trend.

Adjusting the norms on an existing standardised assessment would not solve the problem. It would simply mask it.

Rather than continuing to deny or discredit the findings of these various projects, surely it is time for the sceptics to commission and carry out large scale independent research using the same and comparison assessment tools to verify or disprove the trend these independent investigations appear to be revealing. If there is a continuing decline in children’s physical readiness for learning this needs to be addressed as a priority in policy and educational practise.


[1] North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB), 2004. An evaluation of the pilot INPP movement Prepared for the NEELB by Brainbox Research Ltd. Commissioned by the Department of Education, Northern Ireland.

[2] Goddard Blythe SA, 2005. Releasing educational potential through movement. A summary of individual studies carried out using the INPP test batters and developmental exercise programme for use in schools with children with special needs. Child Care in Practice. 11/4:415-432.

[3] Griffin P, 2013. Personal communication.

[4] Harte S, 2015. Physical development and National Curriculum Levels – the incidence of neuromotor immaturity (NMI) in London primary schools and the relationship between NMI and National Curriculum measures of achievement. Paper presented at The Child Development in Education Conference. London. October 2015.

[5] Duncombe R, Preedy P, 2017. Personal communication.

[6] Goddard Blythe SA,2012. Assessing neuromotor readiness for learning. The INPP developmental screening test and school intervention programme. Wiley-Blackwell. Chichester.


UK local authority spearheading research in schools

Forthcoming Publications for Summer and Autumn of 2018:

Movement: Your Child’s First Language. Sally Goddard Blythe. Hawthorn Press. Stroud.

Early Childhood Education RedefinedReflections and Recommendations on the Impact of Start Right. Edited by Pat Preedy, Kay Sanderson and Sir Christopher Ball. Routledge.

The Physical Development Needs of Young Children. Rebecca Duncombe.

Further Information:

The 24th INPP International Conference. Madrid. 12th and 13th May 2018.

Corresponding author:
Sally Goddard Blythe MSc.
1 Stanley Street
Chester. CH1 2LR
01244 311414

Interview with Sally Goddard Blythe

Published originally on Teachwire, hosted by Richard House. You can read the article in its original context here.

Sally Goddard Blythe
Sally Goddard-Blythe

Richard House speaks to childhood expert Sally Goddard-Blythe about the impact of modern lifestyles on our children’s development… 

RICHARD HOUSE [RH]: Sally, coming across your important work many years ago, I immediately saw a kindred spirit in relation to holistic, unhurried perspectives on child development. Can you briefly summarise the nature of your research, and how it relates to healthy child development?

SALLY GODDARD-BLYTHE  [SGB]: My speciality: the role of underlying physical factors in school-children presenting with specific learning difficulties and underachievement. In assessment we interview families regarding developmental history from pre-conception to date. The INPP developmental questionnaire shows that if children score over seven ‘yes’s, subsequent assessment reveals clear signs of immaturity in the neuromotor skills needed to support learning. These include control of balance, posture, hand–eye coordination, and the eye movements for tracking along a print-line when reading/writing. These skills start developing in early childhood, through maturation combined with experience.

Many under-achieving children show signs of neuromotor immaturity, which can be reduced by introducing a developmental movement programme either at home (individual) or at school (class-based)

Analysing children’s development- questionnaire scores reveals many with a history of minor delay in motor or language development still having immature motor skills, eye movements and visual-perceptual skills when starting school, which can interfere with academic performance.

That these skills develop in early childhood, and respond to physical remediation using movements mirroring earlier developmental stages, led me to ask: (1) What naturally facilitates the development of these skills?; (2) Why is physical development important?; (3) What’s the best environment for developing these skills?; (4) What do children really need?

RH: A great summary, Sally – thank you.

Can you comment on the trends in modern lifestyles that you deem responsible for these developmental difficulties?

SGB: The apparent increase is probably multifactorial. Biological factors might include trends in pre-conceptual health, age of both parents and manner of conception (e.g. assisted conception); premature, post-mature or multiple births and events surrounding birth.

Socio-environmental factors may include changes in early child-rearing practices, e.g. over-reliance on baby equipment/gadgetry at the expense of free time and space to move and play; substitution of social engagement with electronic devices which entertain, but are  pre-programmed  and do not adapt to the child’s response; lack of conversation and increasingly sedentary indoor lifestyles.

RH: A concerning list, Sally. Can reputable empirical research be conducted on the relative importance of these factors? And what can parents do about these difficulties?

SGB: Tapping into a large-scale longitudinal research project such as the Millennium  Project would be one option, with its extensive database on children born in 2000.  Analysis of developmental history compared to SATS results  might  yield  interesting  results.  Parents can be helped to make choices by understanding the physical-development process, how it lays foundations for life, and the differences between real and virtual experience.

RH: Are parents receptive to acknowledging problems with modern technology, and to making lifestyle changes, Sally? And what are the core themes of your new book, Raising Healthy Happy Children?

SGB: Some are. But it’s increasingly difficult, as new generations experience e-technology as a way of life versus a tool for life. Raising Happy Healthy Children explains children’s development from the biological perspective of what children need to grow up into healthy, happy adults.

It doesn’t offer advice, but leads readers into understanding stages of development – what’s important, and why. It also acknowledges there to be many different ways of raising children, and aims to help parents, carers and educators make informed choices about what’s best.

Sally Goddard-Blythe is Director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester. Raising Happy Healthy Children is published by Hawthorn Press.

Buy the book here…

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Review: Raising Happy Healthy Children by Sally Goddard Blythe

This review of Raising Happy Healthy Children is in issue 32 of Kindling, Autumn/Winter 2017 edition. The journal included a great deal of really wonderful articles, and we’re very grateful to be included in it. Many thanks to Janni Nicol, the incredible editor, for all her hard work.

This is a fully updated second edition of What Children and Babies Really Need. It includes the latest research about pre-conception, baby and child development and explains how social changes have unleashed a crisis in the experience of childhood. It really values motherhood, and provides parents (and teachers) with the information needed to support children in these crucial years.

Sally takes the child’s perspective as she views their development over these crucial early years. She explains the shared physical environ between mother and child – that of ‘first love’, as sympathy – derived from the Greek, meaning ‘to be affected like another’. This potential relationship between baby and mother after birth, the baby;s ‘first love affair of life’, is described as ‘unconditional love for its mother’. It is interesting to go on to read how modern living, driven by economic and political agendas, interferes with the natural cycles of fertility and conception making work versus motherhood a critical social question, and how this can detach mothers from motherhood. In my own experience, the glut of information, mostly on the web, and not all of it accurate, also helps detach mothers from the more instinctive approach to parenting.

Sally Goddard Blythe’s deep research and insights into the pitfalls of modern life, and the threats to natural parenting, and her examples of what can be done to embed the ‘deep love of motherhood’ and its advantages for the growing child, are welcome in this very useful book.

I would certainly recommend it to all educators to enable them to support parents and their children. Marie Peacock’s endorsement of the book says “(this book) provides parents with the information they need to raise healthy, balanced, resilient children. Above all it demonstrates that what babies and children really need is the time, love and attention of the loving adults in their lives.”

Buy the book here…

More about Kindling here…

Book Review: Raising Happy Healthy Children

Raising Happy Healthy Children

This short but sweet review appeared on the website What About the Children? Many thanks to Lydia Keyte for reviewing this title.

The beginning of September sees the publication of two new books about children and childhood: ‘Raising Happy Healthy Children: Why Mothering Matters’ and ‘Transforming Infant Wellbeing: Research, policy and practice for the first 1001 days’. Both publications identify important messages for our policy makers if we are to achieve real improvement in the lives of children and ultimately society.

In her latest book Sally seeks to explain why ‘mothering’ and indeed parenting as a joint responsibility of mothers and fathers, is so important in our ‘ever-changing’ world. Not only does she provide information about child development, but she also provides possible answers and policy action points to address issues which concern so many of us.

Lydia Keyte

Buy Raising Happy Healthy Children here…

More information about What About the Children here…