Slow Learner FAQ

FAQ Parents ask about Struggling (Slow) Learners
By Erin N. King, Ed.S., Nationally Certified School Psychologist


What does it mean to be a struggling learner or slow learner?

A “slow learner” is not a diagnostic category, it is a term people use to describe a student who has the ability to learn necessary academic skills, but at rate and depth below average 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. A slow learner has traditionally been identified as anyone with a Full Scale IQ one standard deviation below the mean but not as low as two standard deviations below the mean. If a cognitive assessment (IQ test) has a mean (average) of 100, we expect most students will fall within one standard deviation of 100. That means that most students have an IQ of 85 to 115. Those who fall two standard deviations below the mean are often identified as having an Intellectual Disability (IQ below 70). A slow learner does not meet criteria for an Intellectual Disability(also called mental retardation). However, she learns slower than average students and will need additional help to succeed.


What are some of the challenges educationally for struggling or slow learners?

Typically, a slow learner has difficulty with higher order thinking or reasoning skills. This suggests that it will be more challenging to learn new concepts. New skills need to be based upon already mastered concepts. This can be difficult when the majority of the class has already mastered a concept and is moving on, while the slow learner needs more time. This can lead to gaps in knowledge and basic skills. The more gaps in a content area, the more challenging it is for anyone to learn new concepts. It’s also important to recognize that these students are typically keenly aware they are struggling and self confidence can be an issue. They are prone to anxiety, low self image, and eventually may be quick to give up. They often feel “stupid” and start hating school. They spend all day doing something that is difficult for them, it can be very draining. Finding other activities that the student can be successful in is very important. There should be emphasis on strengths as well.


If these students struggle so much, why do are they often not eligible for Special Education?

Special Education services are provided for students who have a disability. Slow learners typically do not have a disability, even though they need extra support. Cognitive abilities are too high for these learners to be considered for an Intellectual Disability. However, the abilities are usually too low to be considered for a Learning Disability. Consider that a learning disability consists of discrepancies between average abilities and below average academics, coupled with a processing deficit. Schools often look for a discrepancy between a student’s ability and where they are performing. Slow learners tend to perform at their ability level, which is below average. To the disappointment of many, slow learners often do not receive special education services. See A Parent’s Guide to Special Education Testing for more information about testing. Although a student does not receive special education services, a student will require additional help, support, and accommodations through regular education!! Parents need to advocate for their child to be included in programs that schools already provide. Ineligible for SPED Services might answer more questions on this topic.


What are some classroom recommendations?
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition. You might feel like you are saying the same thing over and over, but it helps make a concept more concrete.
  • Encourage other activities in which the child can experience success and keep them connected.
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Tutoring- This helps fill in gaps in basic skills and it helps a student stay caught up.
  • Teach study skills to help a student become more efficient in studying
  • Teach the most important concepts and leave out some of the less important details.
  • Peer tutoring


What about Slow Learners and standardized assessments?

Whether you support the No Child Left Behind act and the additional testing that comes with it, is not going to be argued here. I see positive outcomes and negative outcomes. However, being in the schools, it is my perception that the one group who hands down benefits from these assessments are the slow learners. These students have to take these tests and the teachers are responsible for helping them pass the assessments. Years ago, many teachers would teach to the majority of the class and the slow learners were often left behind. Teachers are now being forced to find a way to teach the slow learners. Parents of slow learners tend to hate these tests, because their children have such difficulties with the assessments, they generate anxiety, and then sometimes still do not do well. While those are valid concerns, consider that globally these laws and assessments are actually positive for the overall outcomes of slow learners. More remedial programs have been created to help these children pass the assessments.


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