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Back to basics
Physical impairments


Physical ability, also called motor skills, sets the stage for a child’s earliest learning. As babies explore their hands and feet, they learn about their bodies—and that parts are connected. By putting things into their mouths, babies discover important information about texture, taste, temperature, and shape. Through reaching, sitting, and crawling, they engage the hard-wired impulse to explore and discover—to learn about the world.

Every baby is different, but physical development does tend to follow a pattern, described as developmental sequence. Children tend to build skills at broadly predictable ages described as developmental milestones. Sequence and milestones offer early care and education professionals a framework for what to expect and when. Some children may evidence delays in reaching milestones and some may develop out of the expected sequence (walking without crawling, for example). Being alert to typical patterns makes identifying atypical patterns easier—and allows for earlier intervention and therapy.


Causes of physical impairments
Physical impairments can occur in the womb, during childbirth, or in childhood. Many impairments result from accidents or illnesses that affect the brain, spinal cord, joints, bones, or muscles. Some impairments are due to inherited conditions or the result of birth defects whose origin may or may not be known. Learning disorders or emotional problems may accompany some physical impairments.


Identifying physical impairments
Be alert to any baby who shows little interest in physical activity, especially reaching for and grasping toys or responding to stimuli in the environment—materials as well as adults and other children. Balance and body coordination should improve steadily throughout childhood. Note whether toddlers and preschoolers have difficulty walking, climbing, skipping, running, or getting up off of the floor. Look for any difficulty children have using hands and fingers or any sensitivity to touch.

If you observe any physical challenges, lack of improved skills, or regression, encourage parents to seek medical attention for the child.


Working with all children
All children can grow and learn. Use these tips to work with every child in your care, including those with physical impairments.
Communicate with parents to learn how you can cooperate in the child’s development plan. This may involve working with therapists but could also mean coordinating a unified home-school plan for toilet learning, for example.
Learn how to match equipment and materials to children’s needs, interests, and developmental skills. Similarly, learn to use any specific adaptive equipment a child might require.
Use non-slip placemats to encourage children to learn to feed themselves. A two-handled cup or stationary cup with a plastic straw can make drinking easier for some children. Use plates with raised edges and spoons with lowered bowls to help children improve grip, coordination, and fluid movements.
Use caution and common sense in introducing large-motor activities. Scaffold for success and avoid activities that are boring or that frustrate. Help children build confidence and skill and use positive guidance techniques to quell teasing and daring. Allow adequate time for children to complete their tasks and celebrate their successes.
Help children learn to do things for themselves. Avoid letting children rely on others or to expect assistance. Independence is the goal for all children.