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My Child Is a "Slow Poke"

By Allison Gardenswartz, Consulting Educator


My son went to kindergarten in a public school and has now started first grade in a private school. He is having a hard time finishing his work on time. Most of the kids in his class have attended this school since preschool and they are already writing in cursive. He calls himself "slow poke" and so do others. I have a hard time trying to get him to focus on his homework at home.

At times he writes some of his numbers like 2, 5 and 6 backward.
He is a smart boy, and the majority of his work comes home with A's, B's and one or two C's. He loves to read. But at times he looks at the first couple of letters and guesses at the words instead of sounding them out.

I'm afraid that he is going to dislike school and homework. We spend at least an hour and a half every day after school doing work that he didn't finish in class and his homework. Is there something that I can do help him?


You bring up several issues worth discussing. First, be aware that moving to a new school at any age is challenging. Allow your son some time to adjust to his new environment. Perhaps some of his slowness is due to his lack of familiarity with the system and process of the new classroom.

I would certainly chat with his teacher to see if she perceives him as being a slow worker and where she thinks he fits in, relative to his classmates. I would ask her about his focus in the classroom as well.

Next, it is important to note that poor focus and reversal of numbers and letters are in the normal range for first-grade boys. It is common practice to "guess" at a word that is challenging to read in hopes of just getting something out. The key at this age is to make learning a positive experience and school an enjoyable place.

I think you need to make sure the teacher is aware of the amount of time you are spending on unfinished class work and homework each night. Together you can decide upon an appropriate amount of time that is the maximum your son should spend. My recommendation would be no more than 45 minutes per night in first grade, and that should include some silent reading time. As long as you can verify that your son spent an active 45 minutes working, then you should be able to cut off the homework at that point. If need be, the amount of work can be modified for your son so that he is doing the same content as his classmates, perhaps just fewer problems.

Finally, make sure that the time he is spending on work is active, productive time. Use a timer at the kitchen table and denote specific amounts of time to spend on specific tasks. Tell your son, "We will spend the next seven minutes on this math worksheet," Then set the timer and go. When the timer is finished, move on to another task, even if the worksheet is not complete. Young children usually like working with a timer, and it should help his focus.

Examine each assigned task and determine the amount of time that you think is appropriate. Then add a few extra minutes to assure his success and assign it that way. Gradually, you can decrease the allotted time per task and get him working up to speed.

Allison Gardenswartz is the founder of a San Diego tutoring center specializing in gifted and remedial learning and test preparation studies. An educator for over 15 years, Allison is an expert in identifying and enhancing the learning abilities of school-age children. Allison now fully devotes her time to parent education, consulting and college counseling. Allison has a teaching credential and has taught for several years in various public school systems. She has three children: Jacob, 11, Sofia, 7, and newly adopted Ryan, who is 3.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"I have been having the same issues with my son since the 1st grade. He is now in the 5th grade and his teacher said I should have him tested for ADHD. I don't believe my child has this condition be can focus for hours building intrecate buildings and machines out of legos or other building materials. He can absorb and explain any details and information he learns while working on the car with his dad or projects around the house. We also travel quite a bit and attend a lot of enlightening events. We are just having trouble getting him to show his intellect at school. "
"I have exact same problem except my son is first grader. He has Tonsils. I noticed that when I used homeopathic medicine for it, it reduces. During that time my son is very attentive. Then when he gets a cold or a virus.. tonsils grow back. Would you like to check if your son has tonsils. Tonsils when grown big make their breathing harder. That makes the brain work slower. Think about it..... observe...."
"My nephew IS a 'slowpoke'! He has ADHD...unfortunately the hyperactivity only comes into force when it is time to get into trouble. He is easily distracted, loses focus, rarely pays attention to what he should be doing, because he is paying attention to everything else. It is not that he doesn't like the work; that doesn't seem to be the issue. It takes him so long to get work done, he gets bored and once that happens, it's play time in his head. He will start playing with and ripping his paper, doodling, breaking the pencil, going to the bathroom evey 15 minutes, and doing things he knows he will get in trouble for. He also reverses letters (b,d, p, q). What is amazing is his mind is working so fast and not focusing that he will make many mistakes, even though it is taking him 6 hours to actually do the work! I do the timer, the quiet environment, punishment, reward for timely work and behavior...everything. The only consistent thing is if I actually sat with him and watche! d him and refocused him throughout...the work is done in half the time then. He is almost 7 now and on a low dose of Adderall which does make a difference. Without the Adderall, the work seems to NEVER get done. I think the problem with kids who appear to be 'slow' is that they actually are very restless!"
"My 1st grade daughter is also struggling with getting her class work done in a timely manner. She reverses numbers as well, but has shown some improvement since the start of the school year. She is an above average reader and doing well in all other areas. However, she is easily distracted. Her teacher is wonderful and has been working at finding a solution for a while now. Recently, she put a 'quiet desk' in the corner of the room where my daughter can go to do her work, with out being in trouble, anytime she chooses. So far it seems to be working. "
"I am having the same problem with my 5th grader. He's been in the same school and with the same kids since kindergarten, but every year his teachers say the same thing 'he,s not focused'. I tell them to call his name out when they think his drifting and that seems to help for a short time. My son is an 'A' student, but I worry about him and this problem. He also takes long doing his classwork and homework. Most days he brings classwork home, so that means he has double the work load. How can I get him to focus at school? A timer may work to reduce the amount of time it takes to do homework. I know for a fact that many of his classmates complete their homework in much less time than my son. If he's assigned 3-5 homeworks a night, he's still working on them at 9:30pm. Mind you, he's starting his homework at 3:30 in he afternoon. I am tired of telling him to focus, so what can I do?"
"This article hit very close to home for us. It is comforting to see others are experiencing the same thing. Most of all it is good to know the approach that you are using at home make sense and is a reasonable means to address the issue. I have been working with the same issues with my son. He can handle all the work. He does well at home. But the time in his class is not structured. He has an alloted time to finish a number of things. There are constant interruptions and rarely is format exactly the same. I try and structure his time at home so it becomes routine. But so far he still plays around or dilly dallys instead of getting his work done. What bothers me is he can do the work in a very timely manner when at home. We have talked with the teacher. I have gone in to observe and help him. But the teacher says she doesn't have time to do 'other' things like give him positive reinforcers. She always replies ' I have 21 other students'. "
"'Next, it is important to note that poor focus and reversal of numbers and letters are in the normal range for first-grade boys.' Does this mean in girls too? I have a first grade daughter and she does this behavior. She reversas her numbers and she Writes upside down sometimes as well. Dyslexia comes to mind. Could this be a possablity for her? "
"I have the same problem, but my kid teacher told me not to put a timer because in his classroom they work like that and maybe it would be a little frustrating for him to work the same way in home and maybe that way he dislike homework and school... she recommend me that set an especific time to do his homework and challenge him without a time frame to make it faster but neet day by day... I'm working on it!... Hope this works with you too... "
"I feel that if you allow a child who calls himself a slow poke to have less work even though he is capable then you have taught him that if he just moves slow then he will get less work. What happened to the if you pay attention and get the work done you will have more time to play method? I have a first grader and we spend at least an hour and a half, but since I tell him every day that the more focused he stays on his work, the more time he'll have for play our homework time has been decreasing. He sees that I'm not going to make accomdations for him being slow at completing a task. I think it is unfair to put the teacher in that position. She has so many other problems to deal with, especially since the no child left behind act. I would say, just be glad that your child is phsycally and mentally able to complete his work, no matter how long it takes."
"I can relate to the problem above. My problem is that on top he is having hard time dealing with some kids that try to boss him around; last week he just got so mad with another kid that he did turned the desk over and then broke the pencil that he was using at the time. His homeworks he does on time, he even finish with spare time but he still having hard time only with the 6 and the 9. He have a hartime only with thiese two, but still sometimes he just see the first 2-3 leters and try to gess the word. But... part of my job (His mother do have problems with English) is to make sure that he finishes his Homework completely. Time will tell and I'll be there for him. P.S. He loves to teach English to His mother, we're from Brazil. Our kids were born here."
"I understand the 'Timer' concept. But if the Math homework sheet is not complete when the timer rings, do I send my son to school with incomplete homework or does he complete it after his other subjects are finished?"