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Helping Your Slow Learning Child

By National Hall of Fame educator Alan Haskvitz


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Perhaps the greatest challenge to an educator is a child who is a slow learner. These children do not fall into the category of special education, do well outside the classroom, and show no evidence of having a medical problem. They simply do not do well in school or a particular subject. In the days before formal schooling these students would carry on productive lives working and doing tasks that did not require extensive reading, writing, or math operations. However, today the emphasis is less on occupational learning and more on academic preparation. Thus there is a growing need for help to remediate these children to provide them the best possible opportunities in a changing world.

Having successfully taught for nearly 30 years in several states and countries two commonalities emerge when dealing with slow learners. The first is that they need extra time to complete tasks. This means that the parents must be willing to augment what happens at school regardless of how fruitless it might appear at times. Secondly, the child must be offered incentives that are appropriate. Depending on the child the best incentives are those where the family works together on a project such as building a model or attending a concert or game. The incentives should require delayed gratification so that the child learns patience and the importance of waiting to be rewarded.

The next area is proper nutrition. A child needs to have a breakfast. Period. Every study done points out that a quality breakfast and proper sleep are the two best ways to improve student performance. http://www.nassp.org/advocacy/views/healthy_better.cfm

With those two factors in mind, the next step for a teacher or parent is to search for lessons and other resources that make it easier to differentiate the curriculum and make learning more vital and relevant. To this end the special education sites on the Internet have some great ideas. It must be noted that this column is not dealing with those students that qualify for special education classes. However, the concepts that teachers use when dealing with these students are ideal for helping a slow learner once the student’s weaknesses have been diagnosed. In any one of my classes I have about ten percent who are slow learners so having a slow learning child is not unusual.

One of the best places to start looking for help is at http://www.reacheverychild.com/specialed/index.html where you can find a wide range of helpful sites. Also http://www.reacheverychild.com/feature/special_needs.html


Here are some general characteristics of slow learners. Students may display some or all of these depending on their age and degree of problems acquiring knowledge at school. First, they are frequently immature in their relations with others and do poorly in school. Secondly, they cannot do complex problems and work very slowly. They lose track of time and cannot transfer what they have learned from one task to another well. They do not easily master skills that are academic in nature such as the times tables or spelling rules. Perhaps the most frustrating trait is their inability to have long-term goals. They live in the present and so have significant problems with time management probably due to a short attention span and poor concentration skills capabilities.

It should be pointed out that just because a child is not doing well in one class does not make that student a slow learner. Very few children excel in all subject areas unless there is great deal of grade inflation at that school. That is why it is essential that standardized tests scores be examined in depth by the parent or teacher to look for trends. Also there is a difference between a slow learner and a reluctant learner. A slow learner initially wants to learn, but just has a problem with the process. A reluctant learner is not motivated and can also be passive aggressive creating even more of a problem for teachers and parents through a ploy that involves non-cooperation. There is seldom anything wrong with the learning ability of reluctant learners.

To help slow learners here are some proven ideas for educators

Have a quiet place to work where the child can be easily observed and motivated.

Keep the homework sessions short

Provide activity times before and during the homework

Add a variety of tasks to the learning even if it is not assigned such as painting a picture of a reading assignment.

Allow for success

Ask questions of the child while they are working about the assignment

Go over the homework before they go to bed and before they go to school

Teach them how to use a calendar to keep track of assignments

Read to the child

Use my “Three Transfer” form of learning in which the student must take information and do three things with it besides reading. For example, read it, explain it to someone else, draw a picture of it, and take notes on it.

Be patient but consistent.

Do not reward unfinished tasks

Challenge the child

Have the child do the assignments that are the most difficult first and leave the easier ones to later. Call it the dessert principle.

Don’t be overprotective. Students who have parents that frequently intercede in their child’s education are teaching that student that the parent does not respect their abilitites. If you do call a teacher make sure you are seeking a positive outcome. Remember that most teachers have dealt with numerous slow learners and have a vast amount of experience. However, sharing your child’s strengths and weaknesses could make the school year more beneficial for all concerned.

Contact the teacher if there is a concern. Calling an administrator solves nothing as the teacher is the sole legal judge of academic success.

Take you child to exciting places where they can see where academic success

is important. A trip to a local university or community college, a walking tour

of city hall, a visit to the fire station or a behind the scenes tour of a zoo are

highly motivating.

Examples of interventions for slow learners

Environment: Reduce distractions, change seating to promote attentiveness, have a peer student teacher, and allow more breaks.

Assignments: Shorter and with more variation, repeat work in various forms, have a contract, give more hands on work, have assignments copied by student, have students use three transfer method where they have to show the work three different ways.

Assessment: Shorter tests, oral testing, redoing tests, short feedback times, don’t make students compete

What to avoid: Cooperative learning that isolates the student and places him or her in a no win situation. Using a standardized test. Ignoring the problem.

What to encourage: Grouping with a patient partner. Learning about the child’s interests. Placing the student in charge. Mapping, graphic organizers, and hands-on work. Using Bloom’s taxonomy of tasks to make the assignments more appropriate. http://www.teachers.ash.org.au/researchskills/dalton.htm