Core Strength and Stability: The Physical Foundation

By August 18, 2020NESCA Notes 2020

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L

Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach

As our country heads into a period of unique learning, whether through a remote learning experience, a hybrid model or an in-person option with heightened rules and regulations, I find myself focusing on foundation. Foundation, simply defined, means, “the basis upon which something stands or is supported.” Currently, we are looking at a huge shift in how programs will run, how teachers will teach and how schools will support our children, but these principles are rooted in strong foundations. Our educators have knowledge, proven methods and an evidence base that allows for creativity, flexibility and evolution.

With regard to our students, foundational skills are the basics that help them feel secure and grounded enough to tackle the more individualized and creative aspects of learning. It is, in part, due to these foundational skills that many of our surprisingly resilient children have handled the COVID-19 pandemic with more flexibility and grace than the adults in their lives.

Today, let’s highlight the physical foundation that supports a child throughout their day, the core. Anatomically, the core refers to the transverse abdominis, internal and external oblique muscles, rectus abdominis, and the multifidus and erector spinae. This group of muscles holds a child upright when they are sitting at their seat, standing in line and running around on the playground. It is one of the foundational elements that promotes healthy motor development. Having a strong and active core makes it easier for a child to use their fine motor muscles with intent, stay alert for the duration of a class or a Zoom session, and develop healthy postural habits. Occupational therapists are trained to determine whether these activities are being affected by a weak core and if there is a need for intervention. Teachers and parents who spend substantial time with our children may want to be aware of and look out for the clues and signals of core instability, which include:

  • Compensatory strategies for stability – These are the subconscious ways that children compensate for core weakness. Essentially, they are bad habits that initially help to keep kids from getting too fatigued to participate in activities, but can have negative long-term effects. Some common examples include “W-sitting” and holding a breath during activities that require strength.
  • Leaning on anything and everything – Some children sit and lean their head on their hands or the desk when they write, lean against adults when standing up or sitting on a couch, and lean on furniture or tables when they are standing at home. These same students often slouch down in their seats and hunch their shoulders forward when they stand. This could signify a weak core.
  • Difficulty with balance – The inability to stay balanced and upright may be due to core instability. Many children are still developing the ability to run, jump, walk across a balance beam and stand on one foot, but if they seem to be falling over or losing control of their body more frequently than their peers, a weak core may be the culprit. These balance issues may also be apparent when a child is doing daily activities, such as getting dressed, putting on shoes or getting in and out of a car.
  • Difficulty with fine motor tasks – Sometimes children have a strong core and still have weak fine motor skills; however, often a weak core is exacerbating fine motor deficits. There is a little phrase that goes, “proximal stability for distal mobility” that is used by therapists, yogis and personal trainers alike. This means that it is important to have strength and stability at the core to easily move and control the muscles in our arms and legs.

Notably, helping a child to build their core is not always as simple as doing a few targeted exercises. While pure muscle strength may be the root cause of instability, it is not the only possibility. Other causes include poor alignment of the ribcage and pelvis, the need for some neuromuscular reeducation to help children engage the right muscles, and breathing habits that interfere with proper muscle use. If you feel like core weakness may be interfering with your child’s success, it may be worth seeking an occupational therapy assessment or speaking to your school’s occupational therapist about how to help them feel secure, sturdy and grounded. We can all benefit from a strong foundation.


About the Author

Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.