How to help slow learners cope in class

It is a heartbreaking experience for a student to be in class day after day but fail to keep up with what the teacher is teaching, especially not because they haven’t been making an effort to cope, but simply because their mind works that way.
Pupils in a classroom. Teachers should encourage slow learners to participate in class activities more. (Julius Bizimungu)
Pupils in a classroom. Teachers should encourage slow learners to participate in class activities more. (Julius Bizimungu)

It is a heartbreaking experience for a student to be in class day after day but fail to keep up with what the teacher is teaching, especially not because they haven’t been making an effort to cope, but simply because their mind works that way. 

This doesn’t only affect the affected students alone, but the teachers and parents as well. As a parent, one can’t think of anything much more depressing than watching their child struggle in school. If your child is a slow learner, chances are he has a learning disability and needs a bit of help to cope in the mainstream classroom.

Again, if one is a teacher and some of his students are not performing well academically, there’s a lot more he needs to do to give these students a chance at learning.

In all these scenarios, the most important thing is figure out how to help slow learners cope with studies in the mainstream classrooms.

According to Alex Mushumba, the head teacher of Martyrs Secondary School in Remera, Kigali, teachers must face the challenge of instructing students of varying ability levels, often simultaneously.

“If a student is a particularly slow learner, this can present a problem for the teacher as he must allow him time to grasp the material without slowing the progress of the rest of the class. If your current student load contains a child who needs a little extra help or perhaps just extra time, the way in which you deal with the student and his needs could play an important part in determining how academically successful the child ultimately ends up becoming,” he says.

Mushumba explains that schools always play a vital role in helping these students to be able to have the same pace with the rest of the students.

“Particularly at our school, we often tell our teachers to always sit down with these students, get to understand their problems even at personal levels, and then guide them accordingly. If it persists, we collaborate with their parents to provide counselling and direction either at school or at home,” explains Mushumba, adding that, evaluation of slow learners is something that should be done regularly.

On the other hand, Ignace Nzeyimana, the head teacher of Bisate Primary School in Rubavu District, explains that people should first of all understand that being a slow learner doesn’t necessarily mean mental retardation, but rather that one learns slower than the average students and will need additional help to succeed, which is largely a responsibility of educators.

“For our case, there’s a ministerial order directing schools and teachers to make available extra time to engage these slow learners either after their classes or during the holidays as a way of helping them to keep on the same pace with other students. The follow up in every subject is also a matter that is important when it comes to evaluating the academic performance,” Nzeyimana notes.

Research shows that a ‘slow learner’ is not a diagnostic category, rather a student who has the ability to learn necessary academic skills, but at a rate and depth below average with same age peers. In order to grasp new concepts, a slow learner needs more time, more repetition, and often more resources from teachers to be successful. Reasoning skills are typically delayed, which makes new concepts difficult to learn.

Teachers’ roles

For teachers, there’s no other option than being close to these students. In fact, teachers are encouraged to spend more time with slow learners than even the students spend with their parents.

Fidele Muhirwa, a teacher at Groupe Scolaire de Kicukiro, notes that the first responsibility the teacher has is to identify these students and later come up with strategic measures to help them.

“Teachers, as the people who spend a lot of time with these students, have a bigger responsibility than any other person. However, the first step is to identify them and assist them to successfully achieve academic goals.

Through focusing on them when asking questions, keeping in mind that their learning process is different, giving evaluation tests, homework, and exercises, one will be able to determine how these students can go as far as obtaining good results is concerned,” he explains.

Theogene Ngendahimana, a teacher from Nyabisindu Primary School in Kigali, says that although teachers have a big role to play, parents are also critical in ensuring these students’ academic success.

“Teachers should always consider partnering a learner with stronger peers to give him a chance to re-learn information, something that can help cement the acquired skills and knowledge. However, parents play an important role among their children’s academic success,” he says.

A parent helps her child with homework. It is a parent’s responsibility as well to help their child cope with school work. (Net photo)

Ngendahimana explains that parents should be willing to be their children’s advocates and talk to them when they bring poor report cards at home to understand where the problem is.

“Parents should meet with their children’s teachers as part of the assessment, help them with daily homework and finally have conversations about their learning challenges within the family and community,” he says.

Joyce Kirabo, a Kigali-based counsellor, says such cases may require the services of a counsellor, who should play a collaborative role between the teacher and parent to help a slow learner cope.

“First of all as a counsellor you should acknowledge that in a class there are slow learners and quick learners. From here, a couple of activities are then put in place to help these slow learners and make them understand that they don’t learn the same way like other students. However, a collaborative effort among the counsellors, teachers and parents is what is more important,” she noted.


A parent’s responsibility

- If indeed your child does have a learning disability, don’t try to explain it away or hide it. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Well, nothing unless you are making your child feel less than cherished, loved and important.
- If your child is labeled a ‘slow learner’, then slow things down for them. Give them the grace and time they need and deserve to reach their potential. Provide for them the environment and tools necessary to excel.
- Think about it–if your child was a gifted musician, wouldn’t you do whatever you could to make sure they were able to develop that talent to the fullest? No child deserves any less of a chance.

What you can do to help your child

- Provide a quiet work/study area. Distractions are detrimental.
- Keep assignments and homework sessions short. Again, it’s the attention span thing.

- Be accessible. Help your child. Help doesn’t mean do the work for them, but help them work through the assignment giving clues, having them repeat the process or concept with similar questions and problems, etc.
- Ask questions such as ‘what does that word mean?’ ‘do you see how that works?’ ‘why did you choose that answer?’.

- Read to your child.
- Be patient and consistent.
- Do not allow them to give up on their work or themselves. If necessary, take a break, but always come back to the task and see it through to completion.

- Don’t be overprotective. Labeling your child as a ‘slow learner’ only makes them feel slower. Don’t ever tell them they can’t accomplish something. Instead, help them find a way to get it done–in their own time.
- Be their advocate. Stay connected with their teachers and make sure your child doesn’t fall through the cracks of the system.

Every child has potential. Not every child will be a doctor, nuclear scientist or college professor. But who cares! If they were, we’d be hungry, naked and wouldn’t have a cell phone to chat on, now would we.

Telling your child he needs extra attention

One of the most difficult tasks of parents and educators is to determine if a child is learning more slowly because they cannot keep up with others or because they choose not to keep up with others.

Children who are labeled ‘slow learners’ are those that:

- Reach normal infant and toddler milestones later than the average child on a consistent basis. These milestones include crawling, walking, speech and vocabulary and motor skills such as clapping, hopping, skipping, recognising eyes, ears, etc.
- Have trouble concentrating–all children have limited attention spans. but those who have trouble concentrating for more than two or three minutes at a time and are unable to recall what they did in that time and/or repeat what they did without instruction or prompting later on, will likely be in need of specialised attention and be labeled ‘slow learners’.

- Struggles with the simplest of concepts and has difficulty retaining what they learn. This is a true indicator of a child with a learning disability. But rather than focusing on the disability, focus on finding how to work with the disability to make it less of an issue.

- Is socially immature or reclusive. Children who are labeled ‘slow learners’ will a) notice the fact that they are ‘slow’ or learning at a different pace or b) be singled out by the teacher and/or their peers as being ‘slow’. This is embarrassing, humiliating and demeaning to a child. Their self-esteem and confidence levels suffer tremendously and they withdraw in an effort to shield themselves from the pain–holding it inside themselves.


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