Written by Shawna Wingert of Not the Former Things
I remember exactly when I first heard the term “slow learner.”
I was in the third grade, and my desk was next to a sweet boy with freckles and blue eyes.
In class, I diligently filled out all the worksheets, and raised my hand to answer all the questions (my husband and I went to school together and he distinctly remembers me being “very Hermione”).
I was careful to listen to the teacher, to write my name in the upper right-hand corner, and painstakingly bubble in A, B, C or D, with my Number 2 pencil.
The little boy next to me could not have been more my opposite. He struggled in the classroom. I often read things to him under my breath when he was unable to decode them. He seemed to have a motor inside him that kept parts of his body moving at all times. One time, he drew me a perfect, frame-able picture of a cat, instead of writing a summary of the story we had just read aloud (which incidentally, was about a cat.)
A teacher’s aide often came to assist him. When another student asked why she was always at our table, she answered, very plainly, “Because he is a slow learner.”
When she said this, the boy blushed so red I could barely make out his freckles. I looked away, not wanting to make it more embarrassing for him.
My stomach ached every time that aide came in for the rest of the year.
I was eight years old and it was clear – being a ‘slow learner’ was a shameful thing.
My youngest son is ten years old.
It took him three years (count them, three years) to learn the alphabet fluently.
Four years to spell and write his first and last name correctly.
He still sometimes fails to recognize basic sight words, that he has been practicing for the better part of five years.
Last week, when asked by his therapist to recall a particular discussion from his last session, he shrugged at her and said, “I am just a slow learner. I get confused in my mind and have to sort things out. I think it’s cuz of my dys-a-lexia.”
My heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest.
I immediately tried to encourage him, to dispute his use of that term, but he looked at me like I had two heads.
He did not feel ashamed of his assessment, nor the description “slow learner” at all. Not one little bit.
For him, it was like saying the sky is blue, or ice cream tastes good.
He said to me, smiling, “Well, it does take me longer most of the time to learn things. I am a slow learner, Momma.”
Then, he turned to the therapist and said, “But the good news is that once I know it, I don’t forget it. I have a mind of steel.”
I sat up a little straighter, regained my composure and said to her, “He’s right.”
Maybe you are a mom, like me, struggling with having to do the flash cards again, and again, without really ever being able to move a card into the mastered pile.
Maybe, like me, you started off the school year with the same curriculum as last year.
Maybe, like me, you have often worried that your child is not progressing as fast as the other children in the co-op, or as fast as his older sibling did at the same age.
If you are teaching a “slow learner” please let me encourage you.
I think it is infinitely more important that our children feel confident in their ability to learn something, than in how long it may or may not take to actually learn it.
Speed has never been the goal. Mastery, progress, confidence – these are all things that take time, and that are worth the wait.
Apparently, I needed my sweet son to remind me of it.
After the appointment, I thought about that little boy in third grade.
He might have been slow with the worksheets and the test forms, but he was also the kid who climbed the highest, created the most beautiful artwork, and fixed my backpack strap when it broke so that I could still carry my stuff home.
Like my son, he might not have learned everything at the same pace as the rest of the class, but I am 100% certain he was intelligent and kind.
Like my son, he had talents and interests that were well beyond his years – they just weren’t the ones being measured.
I wish I could go back in time, get him outside, moving, and away from that desk.
I wish I could compliment him on his art, and ooh and ahh over his skills on the jungle gym.
I wish I could tell him, “You take all the time you need.”
Do you worry about “slow learning” in your homeschool?
Originally published October 6, 2016.