The label of ‘Slow Learning’

I want to talk to you today about the label of slow learning. For some children, they do not keep up with their peers in aspect of their development and those children may be referred to as a slower learner or they may be given some other more formal label which implies a certain disability in their ability to learn.

I’m going to make a suggestion that where possible, we give young people a little bit of space to be able to catch up with the things that we expect them to have already learned by the age or stage that they have reached. I cannot juggle but if I practised enough, I could probably do it. Imagine if you have a young person who is just about getting by with the stuff that they’re learning. They’re just about managing it and then you (the parent or their teacher) comes along and puts a juggling ball into the mix. Can you imagine? For some young people, they are too busy sorting out the first problem to have another one on top of it and can’t be expected to cope with a new one too. What can happen at these times is that they freeze up. We often find that young people freeze up in their learning because their brain is trying to catch up on what’s already happened.

Depending on their life circumstances, there may be a variety of reasons why this is happening to them. Some of those reasons will require a great deal of exploring for you to be able to figure out what’s going on and I’m not saying we need to let them off the hook from catching up and learning to the standard that they should be, but we can perhaps deliver things in a slightly different way or give them a little bit more space to understand so that we don’t put quite so much pressure on them.

Think about it this way – Have you ever been making a cake and you get to the part where you need to sift the flour? Now your sieve, obviously, has little holes in the bottom where the flour is going to filter through. But have you ever packed in so much flour all at the same time in the top of the sieve that instead of it trickling through and dusting out the bottom of your sieve, it just sits there in the sieve and it doesn’t move?

It sits there like it’s completely clogged up because there’s so much stuff that’s coming, it’s packed it in so tightly and compressed. There isn’t a chance for the flour to filter through to the underside.

Imagine that there is a child who was perhaps premature as a baby. This can have an impact on them for many years. We quite often forget about that because they have appeared to have caught up in all other areas of their development but for a child who is born prematurely, they might be a little bit behind in some of their areas of development and so they have that effect as I just demonstrated with the juggling or the flour in the sieve.

There is so much coming in that the information gets compounded and then they get stuck and maybe go into a kind of brain freeze with it. Similarly, a child who speaks more than one language – the English language is a tricky enough thing to process already! If you have a young person who goes home and speaks a completely different language after a day of speaking English in school and you notice that they are slow at responding, it’s because they’re thinking about what you’re saying in a completely different language. They may be translating stuff to themselves in their head.

It can be difficult to focus on maths if you’re still mastering physical development. It can be difficult to master coordination if what you’re still focusing on is the development of language. Therefore, I think we need to be cautious about considering young people as slow at learning, in particular areas because in my experience very often there is something behind that there’s a reason why if you have a young person who is experiencing some kind of trauma at home or they recently had a bereavement then we would expect that that’s going to have some kind of impact in other areas of their life and if what you’re seeing in education is that this young person struggles socially. It might not be because they lack social skills. It might actually be because at this moment in time their brain is already busy juggling other things!

By Gemma Bailey

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