New research published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research adds to evidence suggesting that children who are clumsy are more likely to be victims of bullying. The study, conducted among an ADHD sample, found that adults who said they performed poorly in physical education class as children were more likely to say they were bullied by peers.
Psychology research has unearthed various risk factors for being victimized in school. These characteristics tend to share a common theme — being different than other kids. For example, children with physical disabilities or mental disorders are more likely to be targets of bullying.
Study author Susanne Bejerot and her research team note that these risk factors often coexist. For example, children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often present with motor coordination difficulties, which is commonly described as clumsiness. And both ADHD and clumsiness have been associated with a higher likelihood of being bullied.
“I noticed that many of my patients with OCD, autism, or ADHD often were clumsy, and it is well known that children with development coordination disorder (DCD), which equals to being clumsy, often are bully victims,” explained Bejerot, a professor of psychiatry at Örebro University. “It fascinated me that patients with social anxiety disorder were not clumsy and not bullied to any higher rate than so called normal controls. To be bullied throughout school is devastating for many children.”
The researchers set out to re-explore the link between motor skills and bully victimization among a large ADHD sample. The participants were 403 adults with ADHD who were recruited from outpatient clinics in Sweden. The adults completed questionnaires where they were asked questions related to their school days. As a measure of motor coordination, participants were asked whether their performance in physical education class — defined by ball dexterity, coordination, and agility — was below average at age 12. They were also asked whether they were victims or perpetrators of bullying during school.
The results revealed that 20% of the respondents reported having been both victims and perpetrators of bullying in school, 43% of the respondents reported being victims only, and 11% reported being perpetrators only. Poor motor coordination was also common — 32% of the sample reported below average performance in physical education class, which is almost twice the rate previously reported in non-clinical populations.
Participants who had performed below average in gym class were more likely to have been victims of bullying — 78% of those with below average motor skills were victims of bullying versus 56% of those whose skills were not below average. By contrast, there was no association between motor coordination and bully perpetration.
In tune with past studies, the findings suggest a strong connection between poor motor skills and likelihood of being bullied. According to the study authors, this connection might be explained by the fact that motor skills and social skills are deeply intertwined — to perform well socially, a person needs competent motor skills. For example, social interactions require being able to execute and interpret facial expressions, postures, and features of speech. Children with deficits in these areas come across as different from their peers and may end up being rejected.
The authors further pointed out that social skills and motor skills share connections in the brain. The cerebellum is involved in the coordination of movement and also social and cognitive function.
“Clumsiness is not the reason for being bullied, rather it is known known that the cerebellum, i.e. the area in the brain that is important for our motor skills, has a crucial role for coordination and connection of sequenced motor actions,” Bejerot told PsyPost. For example, communicating appropriately requires coordination and timing in conversation through precise motor actions.
“No known physical or environmental risk factor for bully victimization is on par with the impact of clumsiness,” Bejerot and colleagues wrote, “the clumsy child has an approximately threefold elevated risk to be victimized compared to the non-clumsy counterpart.” The researchers say that exercises to improve muscle strength and coordination might be helpful for these vulnerable children, in addition to special attention from teachers.
Overall, the findings are in line with a body of past research suggesting that motor coordination difficulties and developmental disorders are risk factors for victimization. But like any study that relies on participant recall, the authors say there is a risk of recall bias — the adult respondents may be underestimating or exaggerating their memories of childhood bullying.
“People should know that the clumsy child is more vulnerable to being bullied than other children,” Bejerot said. “I believe it is important to keep an eye on them in school to protect them. Also, as they don’t excel in group sports parents and teachers should enable them to test single sports like swimming, biking, or running or riding. They should not need to be humiliated in the school PE.”
The study, “Below average motor skills predict victimization from childhood bullies: A study of adults with ADHD”, was authored by Susanne Bejerot, Lovisa Ståtenhag, and Martin R. Glans.