Helping Your Slow Learner

“Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.” – Willingham

I believe very strongly in the malleability of intelligence. The old idea that intelligence was fixed mostly by genetics has been largely disproven. This doesn’t mean genes have no role to play, it just means their role is much more insignificant than scientists originally thought. It has been shown over and over again that hard work, and the belief that you can learn, are the only ingredients needed to shatter your own previous barriers of intelligence.

(You are reading the eighth post in a series about cognitive science in your homeschool, click here for the introductory post and links to the other posts in this series.)

The name of my blog arose from these ideas. I think of genius as just a pool of knowledge that we can jump into whenever we decide we want it enough. It is not predestined, fixed, or relegated to a few lucky people.

A Growth Mindset is Essential to Improving Learning Abilities

Improving a child’s intelligence in large part is convincing them they want to be smart, that smartness can be attained through effort, and the effort is worth the acquired smartness.

Well, it is easier to convince some kids than others. Also, I will say, some kids do seem to learn more easily than others. Some kids just don’t need much repetition. The science on why this is true is still being worked out. Possible theories are: the speed and capacity of working memory could vary between people or perhaps people have different neuron firing speeds. We don’t know.

Slow Learners Can Become Fast Learners

Regardless, we do know that intelligence is not fixed. Perhaps one of the reasons I believe so strongly that intelligence can be changed is that I have lived through the frustration of teaching a slow learner. The hours and hours needed to acquire reading skills and math facts that another child seemed to grasp and memorize in the blink of an eye. Not only that, but I am on the other side. The slow child is smart, considered highly intelligent by his peers, and actually learns faster than he did years ago. He is no longer a slow learner.

I saw first hand that slow learners are not only smart, but we can actually change their brain, so they will not be slow learners forever. The main point of this idea in Willingham’s book is to convince everyone that slow learners are not dumb, they are not incapable of learning, and we should not put them into dumbed-down classes. They actually need sped-up classes, because we need to start where they are, but keep teaching at a rapid pace until they are caught up with their peers. They need learning to be deep, long, and intensive, this will help their brain get used to doing the work of learning. And then learning will become faster and easier.

In the homeschool world, we don’t have to worry so much about whether or not our child is behind or ahead of their peers. But we do need to worry about whether we are sending the right messages about intelligence.

Research has shown the danger of certain forms of praise that are seemingly benign and widely used in our society. Telling your kids they are smart actually limits how they think about intelligence. We need to praise hard work and effort. Don’t praise a kid for doing well on an assignment if you know they put in little effort, even if it was done perfectly. Praise the effort, the reach into unknown territory, the courageous spirit it takes to tackle things so hard for your student that they know from the start they might very well fail.

Sometimes if You Want More You Have to Do More

Slow learners need more hours of structured learning and they need to work hard and care and believe. This is just done with sheer grit. More hours of math facts, more time spent reading, more background knowledge that may need to be presented more frequently before it makes it into long-term memory. And their brain will change. Because brains do.

How do we get our kids to believe they can change their brain? That learning will get easier? Just by believing yourself. Believe so hard your kid can’t get around it. Eventually, your deep, stubborn, unbreakable belief will rub off on them, because you never let them quit. And sometime after you refuse to let them quit trying they will improve so much that they will notice. (This could take years, so be patient and don’t despair.) They will remember their old struggle, they will see their newfound ease, and their own belief in their ability to learn will never waver. Sure, they may meet frustration again, but they will thrive in it, seek it out because they seek the high that came the last time they got to the end of frustration and conquered it.

Slow Learners Need to Be Challenged Too

This is why sometimes previously slow learners picks the hardest thing to learn.

When it comes to this kind of growth mindset, it is actually easier to teach a slow learner how to have this mindset than a kid who is a born a fast learner. Sure, there are hair-pulling moments, for both mom, and child when learning is difficult. But when the conquering is done, the belief is there, unshakable. Etched deep inside the neurons of the brain from the personal story that was lived through.

For my fast learners, it is much more difficult to instill this belief. They are used to ease, want to remain in the safe zone of learning, where they know they will get every problem right. They fall much more easily into the trap of thinking they are dumb if they don’t understand something at first glance. These kids are a whole different jungle to wade through. One that will be easy if you let it, ’cause you certainly can just let them coast. But if all they do as kids is coast, when they hit a wall in learning later, they will most likely let it stop them. This is not okay. I make these kids work hard, which means well above grade level, in at least one subject. Because they need to learn how to struggle, how to overcome, and that failure just means you aren’t done yet.

It is time to take another lesson from The Tortoise and the Hare, it doesn’t matter how fast you learn if you just keep going. And also, if you are a hare, don’t be so confident that you take a nap.

Slow Learners Need More than Academic Repitition

  1. They need to move. Moving grows the brain.
  2. They need brain food.
  3. They need love.

If you are homeschooling, summer schooling, or after schooling a child with special needs you can find some great resources by visiting Can I Homeschool My Child with Special Needs?

This is just a short explanation of the concept covered by Willingham in his book, Why Students Don’t Like School. There is so much more in his book, and I strongly recommend reading it. One thing Willingham does in his book is take you through many more examples, persuading you as he introduces each idea. If I had a top ten books home educators should read, this would be on it.

Another resource you might find helpful on your journey to help your child learn is a podcast interview I did with Learning Success Systems. Beyond Homework: More Ways to Help Your Child Learn. Listen here.

49 thoughts on “Helping Your Slow Learner”

  1. thanks for this.. my kid doesn’t like to think hard and seems she can easily forgot what ive just taught her.. any tips how to addresa this.. i feel so frustrated right now but.. I dont want her to feel my frustration.. thank you

    1. I know it can be very frustrating when kids forget things you have just taught them. There are several things that could be contributing to this lack of retention. First, I just want to say it is perfectly normal for her to not like thinking hard. Thinking is hard, and therefore every one has a limit of how long they can/will sustain intense, hard thinking. Some kids just can’t think for very long at a time before they are exhausted. Here are some quick trouble-shooting questions to think about…it can take some time, observation, and thought, on the part of the parent/teacher to figure out which one, or what combination of, these things are going on. That trouble-shooting process can be painful and take longer than we like…but it is worth it in the end.

      1. Is she happy/relaxed while you are teaching her? This is important because if she isn’t her brain will actually block information from being sent into the higher areas of the brain for processing and storage. In other words, stressed kids can’t learn new things. They can practice old things, but even that practice will be less effective when they are stressed than if they are relaxed.

      2. Is too much new information being presented at the same time? Often lesson plans will bombard kids with a lot of new info…but our working memory system is limited. The less information the child already has stored in their memory banks the less new information they will be able to work with. Her brain could just be overwhelmed by the amount of material being taught. When this happens the child will get confused, then stressed, then there brain will just shut-down and block-out information.

      3.Is her attention switch on before you start teaching? Sometimes we just expect a child to be ready to learn, but they are sleepy or hungry, or restless (usually a sign they need more movement), There are several ways you can try to turn on the attention switch. You can find a post about that in my neuroscience section.

      If you are sure that the material is on-level for her, well-organized, and presented in and interesting and curiosity provoking manner, then she may just need to learn how to put in a little effort. Learning isn’t easy. Sometimes just telling the child that what they are about to learn is hard but you know they can do it, and you will work on it for 15 minutes and then come back to it again the next day is enough to change their outlook and attitude. But often the problem is not their attitude. Of course, their are all kinds of specific details to help with these things, but it is hard to trouble-shoot specifics when I don’t know you or your daughter. You can read my post titled Organizing Ideas so Kids Remember What You Teach under Cognitive Science for tips on how to arrange the lessons, and what methods to use or look for in your curriculum to help her remember things. Sorry I can’t be more specific but hopefully one or two of these jumped out at you as the possible problem area. Don’t hesitate to ask if you think you know what the general problem is and want more specific ideas of how to turn it around.

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