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YOU'RE A KLUTZ! <br> HELP FOR A YOUNGSTER WHO'S LESS THAN GRACEFUL

If there's a glass on the kitchen table, Jennifer knocks it over.
If there's an electrical cord on the floor, she trips on it.
A low ground ball to center field? Chances are, it will roll right between her legs.

And as Jennifer's mother sweeps up the glass, picks up the fallen lamp or dries the tears of a daughter picked last for the softball team -- again -- she shakes her head and wonders: What's the mother of a clumsy child to do?

Take heart, say the experts. Most clumsy children can be helped, and it can make a difference not only in your child's gracefulness but also in her self-esteem.

Coordination counts

"The most important thing for children is a sense of confidence and mastery," says Laurie Oestreich, a pediatric occupational therapist and social worker in New York.

"They need to know they can cope with the world around them," she says. "When children feel they can't keep up with their peers, it affects their confidence and willingness to engage in social interaction. It could even cause them to withdraw and become very shy, or start grabbing and hitting for attention."

Why the clumsiness?

You can't help until you understand the underlying reason for a child's awkwardness.

Is there a medical problem?

If you suspect a medical problem or developmental disability, consult your pediatrician, who will treat it or refer you to a specialist.

Is your child going through a growth spurt?

According to Roberta Altman, a teacher at the Bank Street College of Education in New York, the first three years of a child's life are one long growth spurt, with big changes occurring again between ages 6 and 8 and then again during puberty.

"While kids may feel awkward in these stages," Ms. Altman says, "it is especially important for them to remain active. Their brains are wired to learn from physical interaction with the world, and avoiding that interaction during important developmental stages can actually increase a child's clumsiness."

Is he overreaching?

For every kid who's "growing too fast" -- a misnomer, since growth spurts are perfectly natural -- there's a kid who's not growing fast enough to suit his own dreams.

When a pint-size kid has giant-size aspirations, you get a child who climbs higher than he should to keep up with his big brother -- and ends up in the emergency room with broken bones.

Even kids who don't get hurt may appear clumsy if they're too exuberant about tackling new physical challenges.

"Some kids are so over enthusiastic that they're always failing at physical tasks," says Barbara Horton, who teaches gymnastics to children ages 2 through high school in Queens. "In most cases, these kids just need supervision and to be encouraged to pursue age-appropriate activities, so they can master the skills they are ready for."

Make sure that the toys and equipment your child uses at home and at the playground are not too big or heavy for her to handle.

Does she understand the task?

For some kids, it can take more than time and physical maturation to master a skill -- they need explicit instructions and a step-by-step approach to learning physical skills.

"If your child appears clumsy and halting," Ms. Oestreich says, "it may be that she can't figure out which step of shoe-tying or rope-jumping comes first.

"In that case," Ms. Oestreich says, "you can help by breaking the skill down and encouraging her to tackle one component at a time. For instance: You make the first loop of the shoelace bow, and let her take it from there."

Is he simply clumsy?

If your child's clumsiness is nonmedical and nondevelopmental, lasts longer than a growth spurt and is apparent even in attempting familiar, ostensibly easy tasks, he may simply be a clumsy kid.

Just as some youngsters are less musical than others, grace and agility vary widely from child to child. But if your child isn't hard-wired to become grace incarnate, he can still develop stronger coordination and have ample self-confidence.

How to help

Whatever the cause of your child's clumsiness, you can help make it manageable. Here's what professional experts -- and experienced parents -- suggest.

Accentuate the positive.

"Resist the temptation to call your child clumsy -- or klutzy, spazzy, spacey or any of the other insults so often heaped on less-coordinated children," says Arlene Eisenberg, co-author of "What to Expect: The Toddler Years" (Workman Publishing, 1996). "Kids are great at fulfilling our prophesies. When we call them klutzy, they live up to that name."

If your child is clumsy, focus on skills he is competent at, to reinforce his self-esteem. Make a big deal about those stellar spelling grades or the progress he's made in his violin lessons, and avoid harping on sensitive topics.

Practice, practice, practice.

"The more a child is exposed to an activity, the more natural it begins to feel," Ms. Horton says. "Practice may not make perfect, but practice does make permanent. The more times you repeat a skill, the more strongly you develop neural pathways that make the motions automatic -- the same way you don't have to think about brushing your teeth while you're doing it.

"It may take your kid a hundred throws to catch the ball, but all those hours of softball will eventually pay off in stronger skills."

Go one-on-one.

Unfortunately, many clumsy kids are denied the practice they need, either because of embarrassment or due to impatient playmates and coaches.

If this is the case, it can help to have a parent, friend or patient older sibling play with him in a less competitive environment.

Find a niche.

Most children can find some physical activity to be good at -- and proud of.

"Parents really have to take the lead and help their child try a whole range of activities," Ms. Altman says. "Your child doesn't like basketball? Try karate or riding a bike. There are dozens of ways for children to be active and strengthen their coordination."

"Dance can be especially helpful," Ms. Eisenberg says, "because you learn how to use your right hand and left hand, right foot and left foot at different times. Eventually you get better at it. And for children over 3 years old, swimming is wonderful. You feel less klutzy in the water, and it's a great way to learn arm and leg coordination."

A surprising number of non-physical activities can also teach coordination.

"Piano lessons help a child learn how to coordinate her hands and eyes and how to use both hands at once," Ms. Horton says.

And just as playing "Chopsticks" gives kids eye-hand practice, so does eating with chopsticks, which is a low-pressure family dining treat.

Arts-and-crafts projects are also a good way to give your child skill-building practice without making a big deal out of coordination. Pound-the-pegs toys and crayons are great for toddlers. So is making beaded necklaces -- start with big wooden beads strung on shoelaces in the toddler years, and progress to smaller beads and threads as the child grows.

For school-age children who enjoy building and making things, wheel-thrown pottery and woodworking projects are excellent coordination-building hobbies.

Accept and encourage your child.

Remember that the point of all the attention to your kid's physical skills is to make her feel better about herself, not to foster insecurity. As long as she is comfortable with her own skill level, there is no reason to upset yourself, or her, about the fact that the U.S. Olympic team is an unlikely career option.

"As a parent," Ms. Horton says, "you have to decide what's more important. Would you rather have a kid who's klutzy but feels OK about her skill level, or one who's continually dissatisfied?

"If a kid can socialize, play with friends and be healthy, it's not important how well she can jump rope."

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