Why is My Intelligent and Hardworking Child Struggling in School?

Some children just don’t seem to fit the mold at school.

These kids are often very bright, or even gifted, but still struggle. Many are extremely hard workers, putting hours into studying and homework every night. Often, these students do well in school before high school. In high school, however, tests, quizzes and finals become a big problem.

Although few of these students have “learning disabilities,” many of them have been tested through school or a diagnostician. Surprisingly, one of the most telling pieces of information from this report comes from the student’s IQ test (usually called the WISC-IV).

The two most familiar parts of IQ are “verbal comprehension” and “perceptual reasoning.” These have a lot to do with how well students understand math, reading, history, and science. Most of these students have no issues in these two areas, although, like most people, one area is usually higher than the other.

These students have problems in the other two areas: working memory and processing speed. One or both of these measures are well below average. So what are working memory and processing speed? And how do lower-than-average scores affect students?

Working Memory
Working memory is the part of the brain that we use to work through a question or problem. It stores information until we dismiss it from our minds or move it into long-term storage. Most people can hold 5-9 chunks of information in their working memory.

Sometimes, the “chunks” are simple, like the digits of a phone number, but they can also be complex, like the details of a word problem. When a student has otherwise normal ability (IQ) and this area is deficient, the student is “smart” enough, but can’t keep the information in his or her working memory long enough to get it into permanent storage or to finish working through a question or problem.

This results in “running in circles” when studying. The student reviews the information over and over, but is not learning it permanently. Students with these deficits will often do well on a quiz, but struggle to master the information or skills needed for the test (or worse, the final exam).

This issue also makes completing homework and assessments challenging because the student does not have enough space to store all the information that is needed to complete a task. This could include the directions, the details of a word problem or the task that was just read.

To help a student with working memory issues:

  • Use support tools (like note cards) to take information out of the working memory. If the steps to a math problem are written out, the student can focus on the details of the problem instead of trying to remember the steps.
  • Take as many “steps” out of work as possible: if the student doesn’t have to focus on thinking about how to organize her work, set up a problem, or get started, more of the working memory can be focused on the work itself.
  • Be wide instead of narrow: focus on a wide variety of skills in each session, and focus on them for more sessions. Just focusing on one skill at a time doesn’t work because students with working memory issues need more opportunities to move the material into long-term storage (true mastery).

Processing Speed
Students who struggle with processing speed may be very bright, but take a really long time to process information. These students may be choppy readers or very slow test takers. They typically take much longer to complete their homework than their peers. Some even give up, choosing to seem “lazy” rather than spending hours on homework each night.

Processing speed issues are frustrating because of the time needed to complete tasks. Also, students with deficits in this area tend to feel “stupid” because they are slower than their peers, compounding the problem. For these students:

  • Work on reading fluency, which speeds up reading and thinking to a more typical pace.
  • Maximize executive functioning skills to make sure the student approaches homework, note taking, and studying as efficiently as possible.
  • Practice a lot. Increased processing speed can happen much more easily when a task is automatic.

About the author: Amanda Vogel is the vice president of Nurturing Wisdom Tutoring Services.