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The Informed Parent

Another Look At The Slow Learner

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Oct. 04, 2004
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A number of years ago I wrote an article for The Informed Parent titled “The Slow Learner”. “The Slow Learner” peaked exceptional interest among readers. Some continue to ask questions about the topic. This month I will address those questions and provide added information for parents and caregivers. Some of the information is taken directly from UNDERACHIEVEMENT: REVERSING THE PROCESS by Carolyn Warnemuende M.S. and John Samson, M.D. Information from the previous article is not repeated.

While everyone knows there are differences in intelligence among people, most do not know that there is a pattern to those differences. When this pattern is plotted onto a graph, it forms what is called a bell-shaped curve. It is called this because it has the symmetrical shape of a bell.

The middle and largest section of the curve represents approximately half or 50 percent of the population. This group has what is referred to as average or normal intelligence. As the curve begins to flatten to the right, a smaller group equaling 22 or 23 percent of all people is represented. This group is considered high average and superior. When the curve flattens to the left, the corresponding 22 or 23 percent is labeled low average and borderline. Finally, at each extreme end of the curve, two very small segments of the population are represented. Each group contains just more than two percent of all individuals. At the upper right end of the curve those with very superior intelligence are represented while at the lower left are those considered mentally deficient or mentally retarded.

When the term slow learner is used, it refers to that 22 or 23 percent of the population that falls into the low average or borderline category. Generally, the IQ or number score received on an intelligence test by the slow learner falls somewhere between 75 and 90.

An IQ score itself is relatively unimportant. It does not show where a person’s learning strengths are, nor does it indicate how well an individual uses his abilities. To understand the plight of the slow learner, however, talking about number scores serves a valuable function.

In most schools, classrooms are set up according to children’s chronological age. Classroom curriculums, or courses of study, are created to meet the needs of the greatest number of students in a given grade. Since about half of all people fall into the average range of mental ability, you can guess that in most classrooms about half the children will have average intelligence. It is with this group of children in mind that textbooks are written and curriculums planned.

Generally classrooms serve students with a wide range of abilities. In fact, it can be expected that most public school classrooms serve children who function academically from approximately two years below to two or more years above grade level. If one were to look at number scores, theoretically, the IQ range in a regular classroom could be from 75 to 130!

As you can see, the slow learner is at an extreme disadvantage. He simply does not possess the intellectual skills to successfully compete in the academic marketplace. In most schools he does not qualify for special services.

What causes low IQ?

Low intelligence or slow learning is not reversible. Often the cause is not known. Trying to determine it is a misplacement of time and energy that can better be spent in assisting a child toward success.

Nonetheless, most parents cannot resist the temptation to look at what might have led to lower intelligence. There are two probable causes in the true slow learner. The first is medical. A number of possibilities fall into this category. Something during the growth of the fetus in the womb can interfere with normal development of the brain. The mother’s use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco during pregnancy may affect fetal development. A birth injury, birth trauma, or oxygen deprivation during or shortly after birth can result in the disability. An accident causing severe head injury or any process that deprives the brain of oxygen, glucose, or adequate blood flow can contribute to slow learning. Congenital metabolic problems, usually detected during the neonatal screening, are frequently associated with decreased intellectual capacity.

The second cause of low intelligence is genetic. That is, the disorder is inherited. Many slow learners come from families in which other family members have also experienced difficulty learning.

Where to find services

A number of readers have requested information on how to find services for their child. If a child or young adult falls within the two percent of the population labeled as mentally retarded, now called developmentally delayed, services are available through the public school system until the individual is 22 years old. These children are usually identified early, and services begin through the public schools at age three.

Services are available through Regional Centers for families with children having more severe disabilities. Your pediatrician or the school system can tell you how to get in touch with a Center near you.

Those children who are slow learners often fall between the cracks. Parents and caregivers need to be aware of how to best assist these children. Talk about your concerns with the pediatrician. He or she can help determine whether the child is within developmental norms. If your pediatrician shares your concern, ask for information about clinicians that perform evaluations to determine ability levels.

If the child is school age, talk with the teacher. Teachers are aware of where students should be performing at different times of year. Share all your concerns. Often schools have teams who consult about children to determine whether an evaluation is warranted. If so, they make a request of the school psychologist and the child is placed on a waiting list for testing.

If you feel dissatisfied with what is happening at the school level, send a written request for evaluation to the principal. When this is done, a mandated time line goes into effect. School psychologists are overburdened and may have to request an extension of the time line. Nonetheless the process is in place.

Finding special schools for slow learning or developmentally delayed students are not easy. Talk to the head of your county office of education for information on what may be available in your state. Private schools are very expensive. Therefore most parents need to use the local public school options.

For those living outside the United States, talking to the most senior education official in your area may give you information. Call or write to the Ministry of Education in the country where you live, describing your situation and requesting information on schools. If you are an American ex-patriot contact the U.S. embassy to discover whom best to go to for information.

Parenting children who do not learn as quickly as some requires extra care when it comes to education. Making sure that the child receives all that he is entitled to while knowing that public education may not have services for him is difficult to accept.

“The Slow Learner” article in The Informed Parent archives indicates how to go about finding and using private assistance for the slow learner. Utilizing the information from that article and the current one will help you to find what you need for the slow learner.




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