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Why Is My Intelligent and Hardworking Child Struggling in School?

bright students struggleFrequently, we work with bright students who struggle in school regardless of their intellect and diligence. During our consultations, parents tell us some version of the following:

“Math word problems are really hard even though he knows how to do them, because he forgets to answer the question once he’s worked out one or two of the equations.”

“She takes forever to do her homework. I mean she’s working for hours every day, and she’s really working the whole time.”

“It’s truly in one ear, out the other for him. Doesn’t remember what he’s supposed to do for the group project. Can’t remember what we studied together literally ten minutes ago. It’s so frustrating because he’s a smart kid!”

What’s going on? For many students, it’s poor working memory and/or slow processing speed.

A Specific Learning Profile

IQ tests measure four areas: verbal comprehension (understanding and using language), perceptual reasoning (non-verbal reasoning and problem solving), working memory, and processing speed. Typically, for the children we’ve described above, verbal comprehension and perceptual reasoning scores are above average, but they have low working memory and/or processing speed scores.

This sort of profile is very difficult for both children and parents. They can’t figure out why, when they understand the material, they can’t just remember better or work faster. Students feel misunderstood and “dumb” while parents (and sometimes teachers) feel helpless.

Working Memory

Working memory is the part of the brain that stores information until we dismiss it from our minds or move it into long-term memory. Most people can hold five to nine chunks of information in their working memory (that’s why phone numbers are seven digits!). Sometimes, the chunks are simple, like an address, but they can also be complex, like the details of a word problem or characters in a book.

Students with poor working memory don’t have the capacity to hold on to information in their working memory long enough to get it into permanent storage or to finish working through a question or problem. Think about solving a math word problem: students have to read and comprehend the text, determine what answer(s) they need to find, set up the equation(s), solve the equation(s), and write the answer in the correct form (e.g. complete sentence, with a label like inches or ounces). That’s a lot of information and steps to keep in your working memory, and some kids simply don’t have the space.

It makes sense, then, that they choose the wrong math operation, or don’t answer all three parts of a history essay question, or put their homework in the folder but don’t put the folder in their bookbag. When studying, students with working memory issues will review the information over and over, but not learn it permanently. You can imagine how frustrating it is to do the work, but not be able to perform on the test.

Thankfully, there are several strategies students can use to compensate for low working memory!

  • Put it on paper. One example of this is with math. Write out the steps to types of math problems on a notecard, and then refer to it as you do homework. Now you can focus on the details of the problem instead of trying to remember the steps. In addition, you can use the notecard to work on memorizing the steps! For stories or books with several characters, make a bookmark with the characters’ names and a couple of identifying traits or plot points.
  • Interact with text. If a test question has many parts, number them 1, 2, 3. For math word problems, underline the main question to be sure it gets answered.
  • Build order and routines. Keep your workspace (both physical and digital) organized and stocked so that you won’t waste brain power and time looking for a pencil or searching for your essay draft. Also, do your homework and studying in the same order every day so that you don’t have to think about what to do next, and so that you’re not hopping back and forth between tasks.

Processing Speed

When a student’s processing speed is below average, they need more time to respond or to complete a task. Not only will they take longer to finish homework and tests, but they may also be choppy readers and have a tough time following multi-step directions. This does not mean that they don’t understand concepts or can’t do advanced work; they simply need more time to move through each step.

As with poor working memory, slow processing speed is extremely frustrating for children, parents, and teachers. Sometimes students are labeled as lazy or unmotivated because they aren’t able to keep pace with their peers. We’ve worked with students who have just quit doing homework because it became overwhelming to spend so much time on it every day.

The good news is that with practice and accommodations, children can complete work more quickly without sacrificing learning. Here are some actions they can take:

  • Work on fluency. Spending just a few minutes every day on reading fluency exercises will help students increase their reading pace. Similarly, working on math facts daily to will make them automatic.
  • Maximize executive functioning skills. This includes learning how to stay organized, manage time, and study effectively so that your brain power and time is going to the work, not everything surrounding it.
  • Self-advocate. Parents should help with this one! Extended time and modified assignments (e.g. fewer math problems) can make a world of difference for students, so talk with teachers about how they can incorporate these accommodations.

Team Up with School

If you suspect your child has poor working memory or slow processing speed, we strongly recommend that you talk with their teacher about having them tested. If your child’s already been tested, but they’re not getting the support they need at school, be the squeaky wheel! Meet with teachers to work as a team to determine how they can teach strategies and apply accommodations that will help your child thrive.

Work with Nurturing Wisdom

We’ve seen students grow by leaps and bounds with customized 1:1 tutoring. The tailored instruction helps them maximize their strengths and master strategies. It also puts students in control of their learning, which boosts confidence and curiosity! Contact us to learn more.