Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Power of Wait Time

My understanding of teaching improved drastically the year I spent teaching a self contained class for students with intellectual disabilities. I learned so much about the basics of how we as humans learn new concepts, how teachers can break down concepts into the smallest steps to help students learn, and ways to think about re-teaching when you think you have already exhausted every concept and yet your students still are not making progress. But one of the most important lessons I learned that year was about biting my tongue, standing back and simply waiting.

So many of the students in the intellectual disabilities program needed to be taught to do tasks independently. Independence was our gold standard. It did not matter if the student could do a task 100 times with you right there. If they could not do it by themselves it did not count. So we kept track of every time we helped a student. We counted every time we prompted a student to sit down. We made made mental tally marks of every time we gestured for a student to follow directions or verbally reminded a student to do the work. Once you start making note of every time you are prompting your students you quickly become painfully aware of just how much you are aiding your students when they do not even need you. Often I'd find that if I just bit my tongue and waited a moment before I jumped in and correct a student the student would do the task independently. It was just up to me to stand back.

Every day in an elementary school starts with a teacher who has a long to-do list for the day. We cram so much into every single moment that we spend our seven hour days constantly feeling behind. And because of that feeling we are constantly on top of our students, reminding them what the directions are, telling them to hurry up, repeating ourselves, and quickening the pace. We do not have time to wait. Plus we are in charge. When you are in charge we often want to show we are in charge by filling silence with orders. We talk. We talk a lot. We talk constantly throughout the day. It's in our job description. Or is it?

Our rapid pace often limits our students. We are so busy talking that we do not give them time to follow through with the directions on their own, so we often do not even know what they can do. Will they follow directions if we do not remind them what the directions are? Will they give us an answer to our question if we wait in uncomfortable silence while they process their thoughts? If we say nothing else will they line up on their own? Most of the time we don't know. We never give our students time to find out. We keep our pace fast in our lessons. We expect students to do what we say when we say it, and we expect them to answer questions as soon as we ask them. We forget to give wait time. We don't give them time to process the directions, think about their answers, or figure out what to do next. 

Not only is our fast pace keeping us from seeing what our students can do independently, but we are creating learned helplessness. Students begin to know that they do not have to listen to the directions the first time because we will repeat it. Mrs. L gave a direction? I know she'll repeat it in a minute so I can keep talking to my friend. (If you don't believe me think about how we act in staff development meetings. After directions are given there is always a low hum as teachers clarify the directions with the people at their table. We don't always listen either.) 

Our children who are learning to speak English, or who have difficulty with receptive or expressive language, are the ones who benefit from wait time the most. Yet often we don't give it to those students because we are working so hard to close the achievement gap that we want to make every moment count. We repeat, remind, and restate over and over again because we want to keep our pace going. We have things to teach, assessments to give. We have over a year's growth of progress to make.

Our constant reminders and nagging of children with processing delays or who are learning English can also start to cause behavior problems. Once children start to feel like they do not belong in a classroom, once they feel the teacher is exasperated with them, or feel that the teacher is "always on their back" they will start to resent school. They will see themselves as someone who is often in trouble. Once a student sees themselves as one of the bad kids it is hard for them to turn that around. And who wants to work hard in school, or even come to school when you don't think your teacher cares for you? 

Giving students wait time- giving a direction and then standing back quietly to see who will follow it- asking a question and giving students time to formulate an answer before moving on- allows students to process information. They will either use peer models (a great life strategy), think through their auditory memory to find the directions and then follow them, or get off task, at which point it is time to intervene. 

When we interrupt a student's processing time- whether it is because of a processing delay or because a student is learning English- we are starting the student's processing clock over again. If a student takes five seconds to process a direction and we interrupt at the three second mark by repeating the direction then we have just started the clock again. Now the student needs five more seconds to process what we said when we repeated the direction, but we've added the stress factor of the student knowing he should really already have figured out the direction. 

So we can stand back and watch. We can stay quiet and see who follows directions, who lags behind but eventually follows, who is confused and needs a reminder, and who is not interested in following directions but understands them perfectly. By waiting, even when it is uncomfortable, we learn about our students. We gain information about how they learn, what they like, how they process information and what supports they need. We take away the crutch of the teacher prompt and take a step closer to independence. Sometimes we teach students more from being quiet than from jumping in.


Anonymous said...

I thought of this often as my next door neighbor's daughter progressed through K-6. She had autism and delays, and was in a regular classroom with an aide. The aide pretty much brokered every moment of her day. She did learn a lot of academics, but she sure didn't learn to manage her own actions/reactions. But without the aide she could not have been in the regular classroom; she needed too much support in that environment.

organized chaos said...

That's such a hard situation. I've seen a lot of that. Last year we had a student who was in the same situation. This year he is in a self-contained class, but because he became so accustomed to having someone with him all the time he is having a very difficult time working independently, even in the small environment. He needed the aide, but we should have had the aide sit across the room. It's a hard line to figure out when to watch and when to jump in.