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The Informed Parent

The Slow Learner

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Jul. 02, 2001

When a child is conceived, parents begin forming a set of expectations about who that child will become. Among these is the belief that the child will be bright, and that he will be able to hold his own in school and society. Not every child meets these expectations. About 22 or 23 percent of the population falls into a range that educators label low average or borderline. This means that the child will not learn as easily or as well as his same-age peers. Without strong parental and educational support, the slow learner experiences high levels of frustration and discouragement.

In this article, we will discuss the characteristics of the slow learner, what the slow learner needs to achieve academically, and the kind of support that parents can give the slow learning child. Parts of the article are taken directly from UNDERACHIEVEMENT: REVERSING THE PROCESS by Carolyn Warnemuende M.S. and John H. Samson, M.D.

Characteristics of the Slow Learner

The developmental history of the slow learner is rarely unique or disturbing. The child reaches developmental milestones such as walking and talking within the expected time range. As a preschooler, he may learn more slowly than some children but not enough so as to cause concern. During kindergarten and the primary grades parents of slow learners begin to suspect something is inhibiting their child’s learning.

Their youngster has difficulty with both reading and number concepts. Often a teacher suggests taking a “wait and see” approach with these children. This is not always inappropriate. Children mature at different rates and are ready to learn at different times. The young slow learner tends to appear immature and not quite ready to learn.

By the time the youngster reaches third or fourth grade, both his parents and his teachers are sure there is something causing his learning problem. He struggles with all academic subjects, and the learning gap between him and his peers widens. Frequently the child’s self-esteem suffers. He experiences negative feeling about school, and he is unmotivated to involve himself in extracurricular activities.

The slow learner cannot be picked out of a group of children by his looks, behavior, or social skills. His height and weight are consistent with other children of chronological age. His motor skills are comparable to same-age peers. Gross motor abilities used on the playground and small muscle control used in cutting or writing are adequately developed for his age. Although the slow learning child or adolescent may be somewhat delayed socially, it is rarely to a degree that is blatantly apparent. During adolescence, these youths may be more street-wise than their intellectually brighter counterparts. However, they tend not to make wise choices or use careful judgement.

In the ability to comprehend and reason the slow learner’s lower intellectual capacity becomes apparent. This is where he differs most markedly from his peers. He thinks at a more concrete level that the average child. Learning the same material takes longer and he does not remember learned material as well.

In the early grades, the slow learner can be expected to achieve between one and two years below grade level. Progressing through school that gap widens, resulting in the possibility of several years below his same-age peers. The slow learner who has been able to keep pace through the primary grades often begins to experience difficulty by third grade. During the middle grades academic material becomes less concrete. Answers for class discussions, homework, and tests can not always be found by locating the right words from the page in a book. The ability to reason, to think through and to arrive at an answer that is not directly stated is necessary. This ability to think abstractly is not strong in the slow learner.

Schools rarely provide special services for the slow learning child. He is in a gray area intellectually and educationally. This is not a case of mental retarded, so there can be no qualification for special education. Neither will he be able to receive full benefit from regular classroom instruction because the material is too difficult and the competition too great.

You can imagine the stress the child suffers. No matter how hard he tries, it is impossible to achieve as well as his classmates. Keeping the slow learner interested in school and motivated to learn is a difficult task. Providing opportunities for success in order to feel good about himself and his ability to be effective in life is often a greater challenge.

Academic Remediation for the Slow Learner

Only through appropriate evaluations can the slow learner be identified. When results indicate that lower intellectual capacity is behind the child’s inability to learn effectively, often parents become disturbed and discouraged. Some parents feel a sense of loss and go through a period of grieving. This is a normal reaction. Their loss is compounded when they are told their youngster will not receive services through the school to help him achieve academically.

While there is no cure for lowered intellectual capacity, steps can be taken to meet the child’s academic needs, and he can learn compensatory skills that will assist him in achieving more successfully.

  1. Modifying curriculum and expectations for the learner. Parents, teachers, and staff must sit together and discuss how the curriculum can be geared to the student’s ability and needs. Usually a modified grading system becomes part of the agreement. That is, the student is graded with the traditional grading system, and the report card and permanent records show that the grades are based on a modified program.
  2. Tutoring by a classroom teacher, college student, or a professional tutor. Tutoring assists the slow learner in comprehending and completing class work. This is done during after school hours, and a fee is charged. The professional who performed the evaluation or school personnel can aid you in finding resources.
  3. Peer tutoring. Peer tutors serve a vital purpose for the slow learner. Often peers can get a concept across through their choice of words and examples that an adult cannot. Successful and compassionate students in the child’s classroom and GATE students in the child’s school can serve as fine peer tutors within the classroom setting. These students are taught to assist the child and not to do the work for him. High school students are often available for tutoring after school. While charging a fee for their services, it is lower than that of professionals. Younger students enjoy working with teenagers. High schools keep lists of students available for tutoring.
  4. Learning compensatory skills. Compensatory skills are techniques that help offset or counterbalance a deficiency. These skills include effective time management, effective study habits and strategies, and the use of compensatory tools. Compensatory tools are devices that allow for greater efficiency and success such as the calculator and the word processor. These tools allow a student to complete work in a timely manner and with a likelihood of success.

Support in the Home

Your job in effectively parenting your slow learning offspring cannot be overestimated. Your understanding of his struggles and your genuine acceptance of him pave the way for greater self acceptance and success.

  1. Develop patience. It is hard to be patient when a child does not live up to your expectations. Developing patience is a necessary asset in parenting the slow learner. He needs your support and encouragement. He needs to know that you have faith and trust in him, regardless of his learning ability.
  2. Accept and expect his best efforts. Not pushing for achievement beyond his abilities indicates your respect for him. On the other hand, accepting less than what he is capable of accomplishing is not in his best interest.
  3. Allow extra time for him to complete tasks. The slow learner takes longer to complete academic work than his peers and siblings. Non-academic tasks may also take him longer to complete. Providing the time necessary for accomplishment of tasks requires patience and good time management on your part.
  4. Recognize your youngster’s strengths. Pay attention to what your child does well. Help him build on these strengths. Some parents of children who are slow learners become overprotective. Overprotected children recognize that their parents don’t respect or trust their abilities. Not worrying about your child may be difficult. Allow him the freedom to succeed and support and teach him in his failures.
  5. Keep the doors of communication open. Be available to discuss school, friendships, or other aspects of his life without insisting on such sharing. Recognizing academic and social success, and showing appreciation for good judgment and careful choices helps him to be aware of his appropriate behaviors. Exploring academic and career options together assists the child in effective decision making.

What about the Future

The diagnosis of slow learner is school-related. The problems experienced by these youth are primarily academic. If early and appropriate intervention is employed, slow learners need not experience social and emotional impairment.

Some doors will not be open to the slow learner in higher education and careers; however, there are post-high-school educational opportunities at community colleges and vocational schools as well as on-the-job training. To expect that your child will become a doctor, lawyer, or teacher is not reasonable. To know that he has the potential for responsible employment in a worthwhile job is realistic and appropriate.

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