Help with movement and handwriting difficulties

Professor Anna Barnett

Children and young people with movement difficulties can face real challenges in everyday life and in education. Better assessment, especially at a young age, is key to improving their confidence and achieving their potential.

Psychology professor Anna Barnett has developed a set of assessment tools widely used by health and education professionals to identify movement and handwriting problems so the right support can be planned and delivered.

Tools for change: benefits for young people

Girl writing at school desk

Anna’s extensive research has resulted in four new standardised tools to assess general motor skills and handwriting skills in children and young people aged 3-25; the Movement ABC-2 test and checklist and handwriting test (the DASH and DASH17+).

The Movement ABC-2 is also used to help confirm a diagnosis of developmental coordination disorder - or DCD - which affects around 5-6% of all school-aged children. According to one clinical scientist at BC Children's Hospital in Canada, it’s ‘the ideal tool’, enabling professionals to take ‘the critical first step’ which can change that young person’s developmental pathway both within education and their wider lives.

The DASH test (Detailed Assessment of Speed of Handwriting) is used in schools to help identify children with slow handwriting, while the DASH 17+ version caters for young people aged 17-25. Problems with speed of handwriting are common in those with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), dyslexia and autism. Identifying slow handwriting through this test not only relieves the distress that many young people feel; it also gives access to support including special arrangements in exams.

As one young person put it, ‘I’m really slow with my handwriting…when my tutor got the results (from DASH) I was allowed to use a computer for my exams. This helps me a lot.’

An essential tool for healthcare professionals

Widely recognised globally for assessing motor skills, the Movement ABC-2 test is used in healthcare settings including paediatric services. The figures show the scale of its popularity with at least 612,000 tests being carried out from 2014-2020. 

Leading UK charity Action Medical Research describes the Movement ABC-2 test as ‘one of the most popular and respected tests worldwide for the assessment of motor skills.’

The test is also being used in developmental medicine, for example in studying prematurely born babies. As a professor of paediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine in the US noted, ‘I’ve found the test an extraordinarily useful tool both for research and clinical applications.’ 

“I’ve found the [Movement ABC-2] test an extraordinarily useful tool both for research and clinical applications.”

Professor of paediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine

“I routinely used the DASH17+ test of free writing speed as part of assessments for access arrangements.”

Tutor at a London FE college

Helping educators assess student performance and needs

The DASH tests play a crucial role in identifying handwriting difficulties for children at school. Chief Executive of the Professional Association of Teachers of Students with Specific Learning Difficulties says that many of their members in UK schools use the DASH test ‘as evidence in applications for supporting access arrangements.’ A trainer of specialist literacy teachers at UCL's Institute of Education points to its value in ‘helping identify where support is required and to monitor progress.’ 

The DASH17+ version is similarly relied upon by those in further education (FE). As one tutor at a London FE college puts it, ‘I routinely used the DASH17+ test of free writing speed as part of assessments for access arrangements in exams.’

Game-changer for professionals and young people

The assessments also form part of good practice guidelines. The Movement ABC-2 test is highlighted in the international recommendations on DCD, published by a team of international experts in the journal Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology. Both the Movement ABC-2 and DASH tests are also highlighted by the key national body for assessing specific learning difficulties in the UK.

But most importantly, Anna’s expertise and test development have been a game-changer for children and young people struggling with movement and handwriting. By ensuring that they are clearly assessed, she enables the best support to be put in place, helping to boost their confidence and to fulfill their potential both in education and wider life.

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