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4 Motor Learning Strategies To Enhance Natural Movement Results with People of all Abilities

By Dr. Connie Johnson, PT, DScPT

I recently took the MovNat Level 1 Certification, with two aims in mind. The first was to learn someone else’s movement system, primarily because my toolbox was lacking movement programming that was intense enough to get a fitness benefit, functional enough to address the needs of the youth I work with, and interesting enough that people would want to do it. My second aim was to enhance my own movement, which I wrote about in this review. I am still working on number 2, as I need to master lateral traverse and jumping!

My instructor said to begin teaching MovNat immediately, which was not a problem as I had already started from activities learned in preparation for the class. I had been working with Get Ups, Side Bent Sit variations, and carrying items with the students I worked with. When I returned home, I found these motor learning strategies enhanced my MovNat teaching and thought I would share them with you.

First things first, all abilities are on a continuum. Movement abilities. Cognitive abilities. Perceptual abilities. Kinesthetic abilities. Regardless of whether you have a disability or neurotypical development, even “normal” people are on a continuum…and could have very poor ability in one area and exceptional ability in another. When you work with a person with a diagnosed “disability” or other label, please consider their abilities on a continuum. They may have strengths that will surprise and delight you, and they may be the pieces you can build on.

Here are my four favorite motor learning strategies, in no particular order.

1) Motivation

More motor learning happens when a person is motivated and engaged, this is especially true for those with any type of cognitive limitation or intellectual disability.

  • Ask the individual what they would like to do or better yet give them choices…would you like to use the agility ladder or the Bosu ball? Then create your activities from the items they chose.
  • Consider use of intrinsic motivation…motivation that creates an internal drive to complete a task….use of timers (broad jumps for 20 seconds then rest), apps (Tabata), defined end points for activity (work for 10 minutes, do 10 repetitions).

These motivators can be tremendously useful to encourage the level of intensity and repetition that might be necessary for skill mastery.

Note from MovNat HQ: If you’re training on your own, ask yourself what would motivate you to practice? What would you enjoy doing?

2) Salience

Make the environment interesting for the person, both aesthetically and structurally. Environments that are salient have an appeal. These can be applied in indoor or outdoor environments.

  • The teenager can’t remember where to put their hands? Use tape to outline the place on the bar they are supposed to put them.
  • Use markers to define the working environment or space so the person can “see” where they are supposed to be. This is especially useful for people with perceptual or boundary issues. Colored tape can be used to draw arrows for a path, highlight the edge of a step or box, mark the path for an obstacle courses.
  • What is interesting to the person? Is the child interested interested in nature? Focus your session on frogs! Jump like a frog, squat like a frog, how can you move like a frog, how would a frog sit on a log…Is the youth obsessed with firetrucks? Run fast like a firetruck, jump over pictures of a fire truck, pull a large rope simulating a fire hose…

Note from MovNat HQ: Using your imagination and playing games are great ways to make any Natural Movement practice more fun and interesting. Even just pretending that a certain context exists (e.g. stepping over an invisible hurdle) can bring a whole new dimension to your practice.

3) External / internal focus of attention.

External focus of attention is when the participant is focused on the result of a movement and internal focus of attention is when the individual focuses on the way the body moves to execute a movement. External focus of attention is typically more effective for those with cognitive, processing or intellectual disabilities.

The list below describes some examples, and I had to include my current nemesis, the Lateral Traverse ☺

Internal Focus of Attention

  • Get Ups – Push the outside of your feet into the ground, and tighten your abdominal muscles to stand up
  • Side Bent Sit – As you rise to your knees, squeeze your gluteal muscles
  • Lateral Traverse – Engage your trunk muscles, active hang, swing your lower body

Dr. Johnson is using an internal focus of attention (hand on his back) to get him to squat, which is unsuccessful.

External Focus of Attention

  • Get Ups – Stand up from the floor without using your hands
  • Side Bent Sit – From side bent position, get on your knees
  • Lateral Traverse – Without your feet touching the ground, move your hands across the bar until you reach the other side

Dr. Johnson is using an external focus of attention (i.e. saying “look at me” – using my voice and my face).

Objects can be used to subconsciously increase internal focus of attention. Consider the use of a kettlebell held in front of the body to assist the person performing a Get Up.

4) Feedback

Feedback is a funny thing: too much and a person does not learn, because they don’t intrinsically develop a motor pattern for the movement. Not enough and the person does not know what they are doing correctly. The best feedback is minimal and concise. Even better, structure your cues to help a person remember what they are supposed to do. When instructing in jumping, watch what the person does on their own. Then consider:

  • If they are missing one component, ask them what component is missing?
  • What is the first step?
  • Where should your arms go?
  • Formulating questions so the participant has to generate the responses increases motor learning.

Note from MovNat HQ: If you’re training on your own, you can get some feedback by filming your practice sessions, enlisting the help of a partner, or even using a mirror.

About the Author

Dr. Johnson is a physical therapist with Fairfax County Public Schools where she provides training and program development for PT and OT focusing on Knowledge Translation. She has published in peer reviewed journals on physical therapy practice, fitness of youth with disabilities and case studies on work capacity evaluation for youth with disabilities; she is the author of Fit4Work: Work Capacity Evaluation for Youth with Disabilities. She is most interested in promoting health and fitness for people of all abilities. Her MovNat experiences are pushing the boundaries of what she can expect for the youth she works with, and for that she is grateful.

Note from Dr. Johnson: If you are working with people with disabilities, I recommend the article cited below. While it is for youth with autism, many of the recommendations are useful for working with people of all abilities.

Reference

Sudha M. Srinivasan, Linda S. Pescatello, Anjana N. Bhat; Current Perspectives on Physical Activity and Exercise Recommendations for Children and Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorders, Physical Therapy, Volume 94, Issue 6, 1 June 2014, Pages 875–889, https://doi.org/10.2522/ptj.20130157

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