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Slow-Workers

 

A parent recently asked me for advice about her son. Although his academic skills are strong, he feels the need to complete every task to absolute perfection; this means he finishes his work long, long after the rest of his peers. Not only are his teachers frustrated by the time it takes him to complete assignments, he doesn’t especially enjoy spending hours every night making all of his work just right.

It’s easy enough to say we want all our students to work at their own pace, and in most classrooms, some flexibility is built in to allow for this. Still, when a student completes work at a significantly slower pace than his peers, sometimes taking three or four times longer than everyone else, it can create problems for the student and his teachers: Group work gets more complicated, whole-class instruction is limited, and the student is too often put in an uncomfortable position as the one everyone else is waiting for. Furthermore, working at this slow pace means the student is simply putting too many hours in on school work, time that could be spent playing, reading, socializing, relaxing, or exploring other interests.

To help this parent and her son’s teachers come up with some ways to help him, I did a bit of research, pulled together some of my own suggestions, and added strategies offered by other teachers. I shared what I knew on my weekly Periscope broadcast (you can see a replay here) and got lots more good tips from the teachers who were watching. Here’s a summary of what we all came up with.

First, Rule Out a More Serious Issue

Your first step in finding the best way to help this student is to determine whether a more serious issue is at the root of the problem. For an excellent overview of many of the causes of slow-paced work, read Steven Butnik’s article Understanding, Diagnosing, and Coping with Slow Processing Speed. In the article, Butnik focuses on twice exceptional students—gifted students who also have additional learning challenges such as a learning disability or attention deficit disorder. “Understanding the role of slow processing speed is essential,” Butnik writes. “Gifted students with processing speed problems who are ‘missed,’ misdiagnosed, or mis-taught may become discouraged, depressed, undereducated, underemployed, or worse. By contrast, when these twice-exceptional (2e) children are understood and well-addressed educationally, they can become treasures who shine in unique ways.”

Consider whether the student is being held back by anxiety, a learning disability that is making the content difficult to process, a condition like dysgraphia that makes handwriting especially challenging, eyesight issues that make the board or papers hard to read, or auditory processing difficulties that make working in a busy, noisy classroom very difficult. If one or more of these underlying challenges is found to be the cause, you may be able to address the problem with an IEP or 504 plan, which could establish modifications for the student such as extended time on assignments, voice-to-text support, or reducing the number of tasks required to demonstrate competence.

Whether or not the student’s slower pace can be given an official diagnosis, the strategies below are all possible ways to help.

Validate the Student’s Concerns

Sometimes, when a person demonstrates a thought or feeling that is problematic—such as the idea that she has to perfect an assignment before she turns it in—we attempt to change that feeling by dismissing it. We’ll say something like, “Perfect isn’t important! Your standards are too high!” What we think we’re doing is helping the person get past those feelings, but by flat-out denying her reality, we can actually make her cling more tightly to it.

Instead, if we begin by validating her feelings, we can help her manage the behavior that comes from them. In The Power of Validation, Karyn Hall and Melissa Cook define validation as “the recognition and acceptance that your child has feelings and thoughts that are true and real to him regardless of logic or whether it makes sense to anyone else.” Validation is not the same as agreeing with her feelings or supporting the choices that come from them; it’s just letting her know that her feelings are recognized. Instead of trying to dismiss her desire to do perfect work, acknowledge it by saying something like “Doing high-quality work is important to you.” Once you have communicated to the student that you understand her feelings, you can then move toward helping her solve the problems this feeling creates for her.

Model Your Own Process

Students who frequently get stuck on school work may lack the problem-solving skills they need to get unstuck. So whenever you can, model your own strategies with teacher think-alouds, and get other students to do the same thing. Think-alouds can also help students let go of the kind of perfectionism that slows down creative tasks: Many kids believe that “good” students start a task at the beginning, do every part perfectly the first time around, then finish perfectly at the end. But real creative work is much less linear, so let them see you draft an idea, cross some things out, draft some more, skip over something you’re stuck on and move on to something else, then come back around and around until you reach a point where it’s good enough. And that last part is the most important—the part where you stop trying to get it perfect and declare the work good enough.

 

Perfect

 

Talk Them Through It

Second-grade teacher Michael Dunlea finds that in many cases students get hung up on one specific aspect of an assignment, so if he is able to figure out what’s confusing them, he can help them continue. Sometimes it’s just that they don’t understand one particular word in the instructions, or they can’t answer the first part of a question, and that’s keeping them from moving on to the rest of it. If the child is shy or doesn’t know what they don’t know, they may not be capable of asking for the help they need; it just feels like they don’t get it.

With my own children, when they come to me for help with their homework, the first thing I’ll ask them to do is read the instructions to me out loud. They hate this, by the way, because they want me to just tell them what to do. But more than half the time, when they re-read the instructions, they discover some detail they had overlooked the first time around. Then they go, “Oh, never mind,” and wander away.

Set a Timer

For some people, simply setting a time limit for a task is enough to get them moving more quickly, so it’s worth a try with your slow-paced students. Use this one carefully, though: For some students, it could cause even more anxiety and make them shut down completely. So present this as one possible strategy you’d like to try, and see if the student thinks it might work. If it does, and you want to get more structured with this approach, take a look at the Pomodoro Technique, a method that has you work in 25-minute increments, then give yourself a small reward before starting another 25-minute chunk.

Break Large Tasks into Small Ones

Plenty of adults I know, including myself, have trouble getting started on a large task. And depending on the person, some tasks seem larger than others. Show the student how to take any assignment and break it into small, manageable chunks. Then put those chunks on some kind of checklist, so the student can mark off items as he finishes them. You create the list for the student the first time, then do it with him the second time, but eventually release responsibility so that he is able to create his own checklist.

Offer a “Can Do” and a “Must Do”

Lauren Bright often gives her second graders a list of tasks to complete. One task is a “must-do” that has to be done first, no matter what. Then she offers them up to three “can do” options to choose from after the “must do” is finished. Having these optional activities waiting at the end is often a good incentive for students to get the “must do”s taken care of.

Provide Estimated Times for Each Activity

When she noticed that some of her students took a lot longer than most to complete written assessments, high school English teacher Ruth Arseneault decided to add estimated times in parentheses beside each item. She found that this simple tweak helped slower-paced students get better at planning their work and rationing the time they spent on each task. This principle could be expanded to almost any classroom task: Whether it’s a written activity, a science lab, cleaning up after a project, or doing a set of math problems, letting students know about how long something should take can help them set a reasonable pace for themselves.

WIRMI

I learned this strategy when I was a college student from the book Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing by Linda Flower. You use it when you get stuck on a writing task. If you get to a point where you can’t figure out how to say something, just write “What I really mean is…” and continue in whatever language you would use if you were describing the idea to a friend.

Establish a Bare-Minimum Goal for Formative Assessment

Although he often lets his students take work home to finish, high school English and journalism teacher Gerard Dawson will have his slow-working students complete a specific portion of a task and show it to him before they take the rest home. This allows him to quickly assess whether the student is on the right track before they continue the work on their own.

Mix Low-Stakes with High-Stakes Tasks

To help her perfectionistic students learn how to flex their “good enough” muscles, high school English teacher Jori Krulder deliberately mixes high-pressure with low-pressure tasks. She alternates between the kinds of activities that require close attention to detail, like polished pieces, with quicker tasks that require a less rigid approach, like free writes, where students just have to get their ideas down as fast as possible.

Mark Problem Items for Later

Instructional coach Gretchen Schultek Bridgers advises students who get stuck on an item, especially on a test, to mark it with a small post-it note, a highlighter, or a star as a reminder to come back to the item later. This kind of strategy will be useful to everyone, not just your slow working students.

Whatever You Do…

I think it’s important to be sure you are strategizing with the student, not for him: Talk about this process as a team effort. Present a few of the above solutions and ask which one he’d like to try first. Then debrief afterwards to see how it worked. By giving the student ownership of the problem and its solution, you are building his self-efficacy. This is not something you’re “making” the student do; you’re just helping him figure it out. ♥

 


What Works for You? 
Do you have an effective approach for helping slower workers pick up the pace? Share them in the comments so we can all learn together.


 

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31 Comments

  1. Tina Casibang says:

    Love this post! Any ideas for slow note takers? I teach high school world history and slow note takers drive me crazy! Any strategies to get them moving? I can lose a whole class (chatty) while one or two people finish writing notes.Thanks!

    • Hey Tina,

      Take a look at item #2 on this post about ineffective teaching practices. It’s all about note-taking, and while I would obviously not advocate giving them prepared notes, there are some links in that section that will take you to other articles about specific note-taking scaffolds and strategies that might help these students learn how to take notes in a way that works for them. I hope this helps!

      • mike says:

        I am generally a slow worker, but I was always fast at note taking. My method: In a high school class I would have about 10 pages of notes at the end of a semester, where other students took 10 pages a week. Remind those students they don’t have to write down EVERY SINGLE THING you say!

    • Barb P says:

      Some kids are slow note takers because they need some OT or PT therapies. All should see a special eye doctor called Vision Therapist to test if his eyes are able to work together. He may have a neurological disorder that inhibits his brain from tell his hand wht to write.
      But, until any of that gets done, ask the best student if she would get her notes copied (wherever there is a copier) and give them to you so you could give them to a student who has trouble writing. Decades ago we used carbon paper. The slow student will be grateful as long as no one knows about the “deal”.

  2. Eloir Martins Valença says:

    Olá Jennifer!

    Eu gostei dessa edição como um bom conselho para os educadores.
    Parabéns!
    Eloir

  3. Great ideas here! This is something that often occurs in my classroom and is something that I have personally struggled with as well. I connected with this both as a teacher and learner! Thanks for the tips!

  4. Rachel Bourke says:

    Great ideas thank you. I sometimes find that students don’t know how much is “enough”. At times, during writing I rule off where the children need to write too. I also tell them that they can write past the line and usually they do. They even get quite excited about it. I teach 8 and 9 year olds.

  5. Jessica says:

    I love the WIRMI idea! What a great idea to get students past their writer’s block and to add voice to their writing! Thanks for posting!

  6. Dawn Carr says:

    Thank you so much for these suggestions! This year, I have an exceptionally bright, focused student who happens to be a much slower worker than my other students. You have provided more strategies to consider, and I appreciate that you stressed that I need to strategize WITH him and not FOR him. I want him to feel empowered and find ways to be able to pace and help himself.

  7. Susanne Hannigan says:

    I have taught me students visualization techniques, including 12 structures of visualization, which they can use to increase their own comprehension of a learning task. This has been a powerful tool, especially for my slower learners. My students feel success with their ability to tap into their thoughts…and relate this thinking to task completion. In addition, I found that drawing is a tool which assists students (especially when paired with the visualization process).

    • Susanne, that’s a great suggestion. Do you happen to have any resources I could link to so other teachers can learn specific visualization techniques?

      • Susanne Hannigan says:

        I would suggest that teachers check out the Lindamood-Bell program Visualization and Verbalization (V/V). This program provided a model of introducing the visualization strategy and structures to students to increase comprehension. I have added the drawing piece to my teaching, as well, and have found it to be very effective with students of all abilities.

  8. This could not be more timely. I’m working with a 3rd grader who does legitimately need a little more time to process (not enough to qualify for anything) but is also an extreme perfectionist. I am going to work with her classroom teacher to chunk out tasks and work with the student to set reasonable time limits for each chunk. Thanks!!

  9. Jen W says:

    Thank you so much for providing the link to Steven Butnik’s article. I found it, along with your article, to be extremely timely and helpful. I have a high school freshman who is extremely frustrated right now. These resources have given me some ideas to discuss with him. Thank you!!

  10. Laura J. says:

    I found some great ideas in your article. I’m trying to see how any of them can work best with a 6 year old. I had a kindergartner in my K/1 combo this year that was very bright, but moved and worked extremely slow. Just packing up his things at the end of the day was at times difficult to watch. Teaching in a group setting, he was often way behind and appeared lost. However, if I just sat and talked with him, giving him all the time he needed, he proved to be quite verbal with advanced vocabulary and critical thinking skills. His slow pace has not affected his pre school learning and I don’t want it to become a problem now. Any ideas for the first grade experience?

  11. Penny Newton says:

    My college age son was finally diagnosed twice exceptional. His ADHD was what triggered getting a 504 his senior year of high school. He was always the last to turn in his tests even in elementary school. His algebra 3 teacher mentioned to the 504 committee that even though he had a 101 in her class, he was always last. Thankfully, because of that teacher speaking up, my son is given extra time to complete tests in college. I will always be grateful for that!

  12. pfleury says:

    I love Can Do and Must Do lists for my 2nd graders. I am looking for strategies with a student that knows the academics when asked but writing it down takes her forever. She forms letters correctly and her fine motor skills are great. I have used the timer system, more wait time to complete a task and encouragement through words and mini rewards. Now she is refusing to do work in every class. Any suggestions for this 2nd grader?

  13. Angie says:

    My daughter is in kindergarten. My husband and I recently had a meeting with her teacher about her slow pace. She is smart and understands everything, but she is the slowest pace child in her class. Which strategies would be best for a five year old?

    • Debbie Sachs says:

      Hi Angie, this is Debbie Sachs, one of the Customer Experience Managers with CoP. Having several years of experience teaching 1st Grade I can share some thoughts for you to consider. First, do you see some of the same slow-paced behaviors at home or in other settings? The reason I ask is because it’s so important to dig down to the root of what’s going on. The strategies you try will really depend on what you observe. If you notice patterns of distraction, then consider finding ways to remove them. Example: Some kids are distracted just by markers or erasers sitting in the middle of the table…move them to another location. Also consider seating placement and proximity to the teacher. If you notice it’s difficult for her to complete a task in a reasonable amount of time, try setting a timer along with using a visual checklist. I’ve found checklists work great…they help kids become self-directed and provide a sense of accomplishment. If you notice patterns of perfectionism or “fear” of getting started, consider providing lots of modeling along with teaching her when she can put more time into getting work ready for an audience. You can also check out the post The Trouble with Amazing: Giving Praise that Matters The strategies you try will really be trial and error. You may have to play around to see what works best. And if you haven’t already read some of the other readers’ comments, check those out too. There are some other good suggestions. Thanks, Debbie

  14. Olive says:

    I have a problem of being slow, my teachers, friends and family members say that I take an abnormal amount of time on one small task and when I study it takes me a whole day to study one small topic. Please help me

    • Debbie Sachs says:

      Hi, Olive. I’m a Customer Experience Manager with Cult of Pedagogy and a former teacher — thanks for writing in! I hear your frustration and want to run a few ideas by you. I’m assuming you’ve read through the post and am wondering if you came across anything you thought might be worth trying? If you’re comfortable, I suggest sharing the post with your family and teachers; these are the people who know you well and who work with you on a daily basis. Maybe they will see something in the research that makes them say, “Hey, this sounds like you! Wanna give this a try?” You also mentioned something about studying; take a look at 6 Powerful Learning Strategies You MUST Share with Students. There are great study strategies in this post that maybe you aren’t familiar with yet. You can also take a look at a bunch of videos made by Seth Perler; he made these videos specifically for students who are looking for help with planning and organization. I hope you find these resources helpful, but regardless, I’d definitely continue having conversations with your family and teachers so you can get the support you need. Best Wishes!

    • Hi, I am afraid I have no answer for your question, I just want you to know you are not alone. I too am an A+ student who barely has time for any life at all outside the university and my job, because I work very-very slowly and need time to understand things.

  15. Suby says:

    Hi,
    hopefully you are doing well. Before bed time me and my son discuss how the day went. He told me the teacher made him stay behind while the rest of the class ran laps outside because he didn’t finish his work. Eventually causing him to cry. Is this a good method used by the teacher? My son gets distracted easily and has trouble keeping focus. Communication skills are excellent. He definitely works slow a lot of the time. Although his writing is neat.Should I question the teachers method?

    Please help Jennifer
    Suby

    • Suby says:

      Sorry, he is in grade 1. Writing skills are neat but slow.

    • Debbie Sachs says:

      Hi, Suby, this is really a great question. As a retired teacher who taught 1st grade for many years, I first suggest, if you haven’t already, requesting a meeting with the teacher. I do think it’s fair to keep in mind that for some kids, it can be appropriate to miss a recess/running laps to finish an assignment when time in class is purposely misused, and when the consequence is known in advance. (I will say though, I think recess as a consequence should be used sparingly and as a last resort.) Based on what you’ve shared about your son regarding his strengths and challenges with focus/task completion, I’m not sure this kind of consequence will be effective or have any benefit. I think moving forward it’s important for school and home to closely observe specific behavior patterns, take in data, and together discuss interventions to put in place that help your son be successful. You may find some helpful ideas in Jenn’s post, 7 Systems that Work for Outside-the-Box Learners. Overall, the idea is to consider systems that work to your son’s strengths and help manage his struggles. I hope this helps.

      • Suby says:

        Thanks so much Debbie. I’ll schedule an appointment with the teacher to get the ball rolling
        Take care!

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