One of the fundamental differences between childhood and adulthood is this: as adults we can choose a field of endeavor that highlights our strengths and caters to our interests. We can reject career or job prospects that will expose our shortcomings.
Children are not given choices and thus cannot shield themselves from failure; we expect them to be competent, if not expert, in a whole array of school basics.
Our children must be good writers, astute mathematicians, and must perform well in language arts. We expect them to be good at problem solving, memorization, critical thinking and organization.
In addition, they must follow instructions well, process data accurately, take good notes, produce exemplary work in both Hebrew and English studies – and do it all fast!
Is it any wonder that so many children do not measure up to the heavy burden expectations placed on their young shoulders?
Consider the case of *Yael, an eleven-year-old girl who is finding school increasingly difficult. She seems to easily lose the thread of class discussions, and is often confused when new material is explained in class. Instead of repeatedly asking for help, she tunes out and makes little effort at even trying to understand.
Yael reads well but very slowly. She requires instructions to be repeated in order to carry them out. She would rather take home school work to do at home where her mother explains and reviews the lessons. “My mother knows how to explain it slowly so that I understand,” she says.
Although children experience failure in any one of the broad array of subjects, a most frequent – if often undiagnosed – source of trouble that affects performance in almost every single academic area is the one Yael manifests: slow data-processing.
Achievement in school depends greatly upon being able to keep pace with the rapid presentation of information. During elementary grades, new facts and procedures are usually presented slowly and with lots of repetition.
Gradually, the pace accelerates. The quick processing of entirely new material is demanded with greater frequency during a child’s school years than during the career years of an adult!
Speed is vital for scholastic success. Students must be able to respond swiftly to rapid-fire quiz questions. They must think quickly on their feet during class discussions. They are pressured to grasp numbers, charts, pictures and other forms of nonverbal material with speed, as well.
There are many children who, like Yael, have difficulty processing material fast enough while they listen, read, or observe. Students like her may find themselves trying to digest the teacher’s first statement, while the teacher has gone on to a second or third idea which they have missed or heard only partially.
With a fragmented understanding of the subject matter, these students continuously find themselves at a disadvantage. As they struggle to keep up, them may experience frustration, mental fatigue and feelings of being overwhelmed. Apathy and loss of focus sometimes follow.
“Very often, slow-processing children become discouraged and anxious in school,” says Dr. Mel Levine, noted education specialist and author of “Educational Care.” He offers some practical suggestions – adapted below – when assisting these children at home and in school.
Allot more time than usual for homework, but stagger the material, giving frequent breaks.
Place strong emphasis on review of the material, locating the point where comprehension was derailed, and repairing the “holes” in knowledge and understanding.
Parents should work on giving the child scanning, skimming and reviewing techniques while reading. It also helps a great deal to approach new material in small “chunk-size” capacities rather than as complete units.
Giving a child a time limit for reading a chapter, finishing a page of math or studying a diagram can help her improve her rate of processing. (Using an oven timer or alarm clock provides the child with the incentive of trying to “beat the clock.”)
In day-to-day living, parents can help children with slow processing by repeating directions and explanations. Family conversations may need to be deliberately slowed to ensure the participation of these children.
Teachers should watch for disorientation in children who are slow processors. Because note-taking and copying may be especially difficult for these students, teachers can provide them with handout materials which can be studied at a comfortable pace.
Give either more time or fewer questions on tests to children who process slowly. Allow them to take standardized tests without being timed.
When a slower pace of instruction will not bore the other students, a teacher should make a conscious effort to slow the rate at which he or she presents new material.
When an important lesson or review session is being given, the slow-processing child could benefit by using a tape recorder in class. This will allow him or her a second opportunity to process the information at a suitable rate.
To avoid embarrassing students with slow data processing, teachers can refrain from calling on them to respond to complex questions rapidly.
“Tailoring” the teaching style as well as the curriculum to accommodate the slow-processing child is standard fare in many classrooms, and many of the above suggestions may fall under the category of “common sense.”
Yet, all too often, we find classrooms being managed by teachers who are insensitive to the anxiety, and at times, panic, that children like Yael experience, when they becomes so lost they cannot event articulate what it is they do not understand.
Tuning in to these children, anticipating their disorientation and acting compassionately to reduce confusion, will bring parents and teachers closer toward attaining one of our paramount goals in education: that no child is left behind.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.