The Intelligent, Hardworking, Struggling Child
Parents frequently come to us with children who just don’t seem to “fit the mold” at their current school. Often very bright, or even gifted, these kids still struggle in traditional learning environment. Many are extremely hard workers, putting hours into studying and homework every night. Often, these students do well in elementary and middle school. In high school, however, tests, quizzes, and finals become a big problem.
Few of these students have “learning disabilities” although many have been tested through their schools or private diagnosticians. Surprisingly, one of the most telling pieces of information these reports show comes from specific measures within students’ IQ tests (usually called the WISC-IV).
The two most familiar parts of IQ are “verbal comprehension” and “perceptual reasoning.” These reveal how well students understand math, reading, history, and science. Most of the prospective students we encounter have no issues in these two areas, although, like most people, one is usually higher than the other. Discrepancies surface in the other two areas of the test: “working memory” and “processing speed.” Many of these students’ reports show that the first two numbers are well above average, but one or both of these last two measures are significantly below average. So, what are “working memory” and “processing speed?” And how do lower than average scores in these areas affect a child’s ability to learn in a traditional school environment.
Working memory is the part of the brain we use when we’re working through a question or problem. It stores information until we either dismiss it from our minds or move it into long-term storage. Most people can hold 5-9 chunks of information in their working memory. Sometimes, the “chunks” are simple, like the digits of a phone number, but they can also be complex, like the details of a word problem. When a student has an otherwise normal ability (IQ) and this area is deficient, it can cause a lot of problems. The student is “smart” enough but isn’t able to keep the information in his or her working memory long enough to move it into permanent storage or finish working through a question or problem.
This weakness in working memory results in a student “running in circles” when studying. Even when reviewing information over and over, the student is not learning it permanently. Students with these deficits will often do well on a quiz, but struggle to master the information or skills needed for the test (or worse, the final exam). This issue also makes completing homework and assessments challenging because the student often does not have enough space to store all the information that is needed to complete a task. Typical examples of this may include the directions for a worksheet, the details of a word problem, or the first step of a set of oral directions.
At Vine, we address issues with a student’s working memory by:
Utilizing support tools | We use materials such as note cards to take certain elements of problems out of the working memory. If the steps to a math problem are written out, the student can fully focus his attention on the details of the problem instead of working to remember the steps.
Taking as many “steps” out of work as possible | If the student doesn’t have to focus on thinking about how to organize her work, set up a problem, or get started, more of her working memory can be focused on the work itself.
Being wide instead of narrow | We intentionally focus on a much wider variety of skills each day in class, but focus on these skills for more days. Focusing on just one skill at a time often doesn’t work for students with working memory issues because they need more opportunities to move the material into long-term storage (true mastery).
Processing speed is the time it takes for a person to assess and apply the information he or she has received. Students who struggle with processing speed may be very bright, but often take a really long time to process information. Such students may be choppy readers or slow test takers. They typically take much longer to complete their homework than their peers. Sadly, some even give up, choosing to appear “lazy” rather than spending hours on homework each night.
Processing speed issues are frustrating because of the extra time needed to complete tasks. Students with issues in this area tend to feel “stupid” because they are slower than their peers, which often compounds the problem.
At Vine, we address processing speed issues by:
Working on reading fluency | This can speed up reading to a more typical pace.
Maximizing executive functioning skills | This ensures that the student approaches homework, note taking, and studying as efficiently as possible.
Lots of practicing | When tasks become automatic, processing speed increases.
Customizing to the student’s pace | Not all students can speed up, and sometimes the best answer is to work at the pace that is natural for that individual.