When I ask elementary school-age children who the smartest students in the class are, they usually give me specific names. Then, I ask them why they think those children are smartest. Almost every child answers, “Because they’re the first ones done.” There appears to be unanimous agreement among kids that fast means smart. This commonly agreed-to concept causes many problems for children.


Many elementary school-age children have uneven development in the small muscle coordination needed for printing and writing, which seems to develop more slowly than other thinking and learning abilities. This problem seems to be more frequent in boys than girls. Because the coordination needed for building blocks or screwdrivers doesn’t seem to be affected, I call this problem pencil anxiety. Whether or not assignments are timed, these children develop an anxiety related to written work because they may lag behind their classmates in completing assignments. They soon equate fast with “smart” and search for a way to avoid feeling “dumb.” They may not finish their work and might make excuses about written work being boring. Unfinished work and excuses easily become a bad habit that eventually results in children learning to dislike writing and to develop unconscious anxieties about written assignments.


ChildwritingChildren’s slow handwriting and copying of material affects IQ and achievement test scores. For timed group-administered tests, scores may be underestimates of children’s ability and achievement. For individually-administered IQ tests, processing speed scores are likely to be much lower than other cognitive test scores. Low processing speed scores are often labeled executive dysfunction and may result in a child’s discouragement and underachievement.


Another manifestation of the “fast equals intelligent”Classroomequation is speedily and carelessly completed assignments. Teachers often tell parents that their children seem to be so anxious to finish first, that their work is of poor quality, sometimes to the extent of skipping parts of the assignment. These children, too, are attempting to appear smarter because of their speed. Kids often say they try to get done fast so they can get to recess and may write anything down so they can be finished. The timed math facts assignments in first through third grades seem to only exacerbate the pressure children feel to complete their work fast.


The process of thinking creatively or divergently can also be time consuming. It is not so much the speed of the thinking process, but the excursions the creative thinker takes that may delay the answering process. While some children are engaged in more direct responses, the creative thinker may not only question the question, but may want to consider several possible answers as valid. This more indirect kind of thinking simply takes longer. On oral questions and answers, the teacher and class may already have moved onto a different topic while the creative thinker may be concluding about an earlier question. It then becomes too late to respond. In norm-referenced, timed achievement tests, this kind of thinking simply takes too long to result in a good test score. The creative thinker is not necessarily aware of his or her different style of thinking, but the lack of speed often prevents the creative child from feeling intelligent. Instead, these children sense they are different and may have some very mixed feelings as to whether or not these feelings of difference are good.



Changes that can be made at home and school should help children adjust to their differences in processing speed without causing them to feel dependent or inadequate. Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage the use of the computer for first through final drafts of all creative or report writing. This can be effective for students from grades one through twelve.

  • When speed is the goal (as in completing timed math tests) use personal improvement compared to past performances as the marker of success instead of some finite goal like five minutes.

  • Set specific times for discussion or activities when slow thinking and analysis are valued and where there are many possible correct answers rather than only one.

  • Specifically talk about the values and characteristics of creative thinking in class.

  • Praise creative contributions in class, and label your comments with “good thinking.”
  • Questions


There is a place and value for intelligent, fast thinking as there is for intelligent, slow thinking. Since most young children seem to miss this important point, parents and teachers together will need to emphasize these thinking and writing differences, or we’ll see much more underachievement initiated as slow writers and slow thinkers lose confidence in their intelligence.

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©2010 by Sylvia B. Rimm. All rights reserved. This publication, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author.