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.
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.
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.