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Never the First to Finish: Why Pace Matters

02/18/2015 05:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Sarah Vander Schaaff

Remember how it felt to be halfway through a math quiz and a classmate gets up and turns it in to the teacher? Maybe that other student rushed, or maybe he or she just happened to be super speedy. Either way, I always came to the same conclusion: I'm just never going to be that fast.

Years have passed since I've had to take a math quiz. As an adult, I'm comfortable with my own strengths and weaknesses and the time it takes me to do particular things. But as a mother of a fourth grader, I relive those math quiz memories every time she comes home and says, "I'm just never going to be that fast."

She is what you might call "slow and steady." But many of her peers, some on grade level and some above it, sail through these drills.

The slower pace is not usually an issue at home or with homework. She does not get frustrated with the amount of time it takes to do her math work. She enjoys "crossing her t's and dotting her i's."

But bring in a timer, and it's a different story. I noticed this first when we worked on a website the school recommended for supplemental math work at home. I had to put a post-it note over the timer in the upper right of the computer screen.

Needless to say, the post-it was ripped off the computer, some tears were shed, and even when I tweeted the company for help hiding the timer from view, the damage was done. My daughter knew her times were monitored and a report of her performance was emailed to her teacher.

Then, came the timed tests in school. For the first minute of these drills, students work in pencil and cannot skip around. After one minute, they switch to pen and can go in any order. After three minutes, they stop and record their 1-minute score (up to their first mistake or skipped question) and their 3-minute score.

Now it wasn't just one kid finishing ahead of her, there were many.

I was at a loss. My first instinct was to increase the things we'd already been doing: more flashcards, more drills, more practices online or with apps. But when I considered we'd been doing the same things for more than a year with little progress, I decided we needed some fresh ideas. I wasn't going to figure this out on my own.

I turned to a tutor who had experience working with students with learning differences.

It can be hard to find the right tutor or resource for extra help. I was lucky. My friend was a math teacher at a school for children with learning differences and she had some open slots in her private after school tutoring sessions. Additionally, Understood.org is a useful site for many reasons, but in particular, they have an article "FAQs About Tutoring for Kids with Learning and Attention Issues," that is a good primer. A cognitive assessment to better understand your child's learning strengths and weakness can also be useful. It helped me narrow down the root cause of my child's slower pace and eliminate some of my misconceptions. Schools and private clinicians can offer guidance with these evalutions, but I took advantage of the online cognitive assessment at Mindprint Learning, the educational company for which I work and write. And, finally, the website Smart Kids with LD can help walk parents with every part of the process, as well.

The first thing the tutor said to my daughter about the timed drills was something along the lines of, "They're not fun are they?"

I'd forgotten that all-important piece to working with young learners, which is to acknowledge the fear or trepidation they feel confronting a task they find daunting. A little empathy went a long way.

Next, the tutor reframed the concept of the timer when it came to the online programs or apps. If she wanted my daughter to practice for twenty minutes, then the increase in time was a measure of that progress. Time was now on her side.

But the most surprising strategy was in how she helped my daughter learn and recall those fast facts. They drew houses for the numbers, with rooms for each multiple. And they sang songs with the multiples as the lyrics.

Fast? No.

A good pace for my daughter? Yes.

It was around this time that I was able to give my daughter a cognitive assessment. I had wondered if all the difficulty and slower pace with fast facts was related to a weak memory. The assessment revealed that her memory was typical, but her processing speed was slightly weak.

This information helped us in a number of ways. I was better able to appreciate how hard my daughter was working and how frustrating it must have felt to feel that she needed to work twice as hard in this one area of school just to keep up. Metacognition, they say, can help students in a number of ways, but certainly giving a parent and child a vocabulary to talk about stressful setbacks or challenges, is not the least of its benefits.

Still, the timed practice drills at school persisted. And I understood the teacher's emphasis on automaticity.

I told her teacher a bit about what was going on at home, with the tutor, and with the assessment. We weren't in the position to ask for extra time with the drills or tests, but I did want to bring him on board with the larger picture.

The quizzes continued. But all those songs and houses eventually gave way to faster recall. She understood her pace might be slower, but deep down inside, she knew she could get to the answers, and that her pace was what it was. A great deal of the anxiety washed away.

When the long winter break arrived, her teacher sent her home with a packet of worksheets and more timed drills. Some students might get a break, but we all acknowledged that we were better off keeping these skills sharp.

Another thing the teacher did was front load new units by sending me material before he'd introduce the concepts to the entire class. This gave us more time to sit with the material and made sure she'd become a bit familiar with it before that day that it was presented for the first time in class.

When I write this out, it sounds like a lot of work, and a bit dependent on finding the right tutor, the right explanation for the slower pace, and the right teacher to accommodate your specific child.

But any parent who has seen a child suffer or become frustrated and eventually want to throw in the towel knows that the real pain comes from not knowing how to help.

The road to finding help or integrating a solution is at least filled with minor triumphs. Triumphs such as the time, not too long ago, when my daughter came home beaming because she'd finished her timed drill with seconds to spare.

Was she first?

No way.

But did that matter?

Not anymore.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents series. We would love to have your voice in the Smart Parents conversations. To contribute a blog, ask a question, or for more information, email Bonnie Lathram with the subject "Smart Parents." For more information about the project see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Sarah M. Vander Schaaff writes the weekly blog, The Educated Mom. She is the managing editor of media and content for Mindprint Learning. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. Follow her on Twitter: @educatedmomMP