Ravi is in class 1. He wears thick glasses and has unclear speech. He is very social and enjoys interacting with other children. He enjoys music lessons and can draw well. In academics, being unable to cope with the syllabus, he requires the help of the school counsellor.
Ravi has been diagnosed as a slow learner and he is given extra help in school. Having said this, a ‘slow learner’ is not a diagnostic category; it is a term that people use to describe a student who has the ability to learn necessary academic skills, but at the rate and depth which is below average when compared to same age peers. This is because on a standardized IQ test, the score of the child is in the 70-80 range, which is below average intelligence. Thus, as in Ravi’s case, a child who is a slow learner needs more time, more repetition and extra help to grasp new concepts.
Pinky is another 10-year-old slow learner studying in class 3. Although she tries to interact with other children, most of the time she sits alone in the class and struggles to complete her work during the extracurricular activities period. She gets easily distracted and has a tendency to move around in the class, disturbing other children. The class teacher finds it difficult to handle Pinky since instead of completing her work, Pinky puts her head down and pretends to go to sleep. Sometimes, she lies down on the floor or runs out of the classroom.
Most slow learners enjoy making friends but have difficulty in maintaining social interaction and lack social skills. Most slow learners face difficulties because of their lower IQ levels, because of which they are not able to understand the rules of social engagement. This immaturity may be due not only to lesser mental ability but also because of lack of experience, poor health or poor speech habits that further retard growth. These children like talking to people; but are not able to take the initiative – their low self-esteem makes them shy.
They sometimes appear immature in interpersonal relationships. They may find it difficult to keep friends, as they do not understand some simple skills like taking turns. There may be very few children who are willing to play with them. Many normal children are not patient enough to explain the rules and help the special children when they do not understand. In Ravi’s case, he is able to manage with the help of the school counsellor. However, Pinky’s teacher is all alone and being without any guidance, finds it very difficult to manage Pinky in a class of 35 children.
Ravi and Pinky both struggle keeping up with the class syllabus. They both require assistance and continuous support from the school counsellor and the class teacher. Many slow learners have difficulty planning for long-term goals. Completing a task within the given time frame is a major issue. This happens because the children get easily distracted and do not have internal strategies which can equip them to work on the task at hand. Due to this, they sometimes work very slowly and have difficulty taking multiple instructions. Reasoning skills are typically delayed, which makes it difficult for them to understand new concepts, and they require a lot of support.
Take the case of Mary who is also a slow learner. She faces criticism from her class teacher, who once told her parents – “Mary is not interested, no matter how hard I try to involve her in the classroom, I have 39 more children in the class. I think it will be better if she is sent to a special school.”
Such negative feedback has led to a poor self-esteem and low confidence in Mary. To hide these problems, Mary throws many tantrums in class, thus confusing her teacher. The teacher, who never understood Mary’s fundamental problem as a slow learner and what it implies, becomes less and less inclined to do so with each progressive tantrum. She finally gives up altogether.
Helping the slow learner
We have been working with slow learners in our organisation, and it is a long process. There is no cure for the difficulty and intervention is a continual process. The children are able to make progress and are able to cope with their studies through the support provided. The experience is very rewarding, especially when a child has been written off by the teachers and is then able to perform well. Then the happiness on the child’s face is the biggest reward that the parents and the therapists can get.
Creating awareness among teachers as well as parents about this problem is a major step in the intervention programme designed to deal with the problem.The teachers and the parents should modify their expectations according to the capabilities of the child. They should motivate the child so that he also develops the confidence to try hard to overcome the difficulty. Teachers and caregivers should encourage other children to interact with the child so that the child gets positive role models and also gains through peer learning.
Surabhi Verma is the Director of Sparsh for children and works with children having special needs, between the ages of 2-15 years.