How Do I Check if My Child Is a Slow Learner?

A boy is struggling in school.
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The term "slow learner" is used to describe children who aren't clinically mentally retarded and don't have a specific learning disability, but nonetheless have trouble keeping up with their peers academically. Also described as low-average or borderline, these children have difficulty with abstract thought and may need more repetition to grasp a concept. Slow learners are not eligible for special education services and are in danger of falling further and further behind as they advance past the elementary grades. Take a balanced approach when assessing clues about whether your child fits in this category.

1 Developmental Milestones

Some children who are destined to be slow learners meet their developmental milestones right on time, and others don't. If your child is struggling in school, look for clues in his early years. Was he sitting up at 6 months, reaching for objects at 8 months, speaking a couple of words at 1 year? Old photos, baby books and your pediatrician's records may all offer helpful clues. Think about the basic education you have already delivered: toilet training, shoe tying, basic safety. If you noticed that your child seemed to struggle mightily with tasks like these (almost all children struggle somewhat), he might be a slow learner.

2 Academic Difficulties

As a child advances through the primary grades, the types of learning required become more and more abstract, and slow learners tend to experience increasing difficulty. Talk to your child's early-grade teachers about her learning process. They may have surprising insights to share. Talk to your child's current teacher and ask about what subject areas and specific concepts she is struggling with and any techniques that may have been tried to help her with them. Read with your child and casually test her memory and understanding. And get your child's point of view about what is going on. You may discover that something is worrying her to the point of distraction, which can interfere with anyone's learning ability.

3 Formal Assessment

Before labeling a child as a slow learner, it's important to have him thoroughly assessed and rule out specific learning or physical disabilities that may be causing the problem. Many a successful adult was once considered slow because of conditions such as dyslexia, ADD, or impaired vision or hearing. The evaluation will probably include an IQ assessment, tests for specific problems and interviews with both you and your child. An IQ score that is average (100) or higher in a child who struggles to learn often points to a learning disability.

4 Helping Slow Learners

If your child's tested IQ is somewhere between 75 and 90, he may always make slower progress academically than some of his peers. That does not mean he can't master a subject, only that he'll need more time to complete a task, more repetition and more support. Encourage teachers to allow for this as much as they can, and be prepared to do some of it at home. Many children who struggle academically may have different learning styles that can be nurtured, and may bloom when exposed to music, art, mechanics or cooking. Don't accept a definition of your child as "less than" -- help him find what he does love to do and support him in developing those skills.

Anne Pyburn Craig has written for a range of regional and local publications ranging from in-depth local investigative journalism to parenting, business, real estate and green building publications. She frequently writes tourism and lifestyle articles for chamber of commerce publications and is a respected book reviewer.