In college, I took a computer programming class. It did not go well. Luckily, the professor was from another era and did not believe girls should be in the computer science field. (The college was only fifteen years into admitting women, and there were still some professors who did not agree with the change in enrollment policy. It’s hard to believe in 2017, but it is true.) The professor had no problem “helping” us during office hours, but because he did not believe us girls could actually complete computer programming, he’d ask a question and then immediately complete the work himself, not giving us enough wait time to stutter through an answer. No surprise, I did not learn any computer programming in that class. The professor assumed I couldn’t do it, and instead of even trying to teach me, he let me slide. Now, I was a college junior and was using Computer Science to replace the Calculus 2 requirement, so I was not going to make too much of a fuss about not learning to program. I regret my effort now.
Giving students wait time is a part of presuming competency in our students. By simply asking a question and then waiting for the answer, we send the message to our students that we know they can answer. They have the answer in them. We’ll sit and wait for them to organize themselves, process our question, retrieve the words they want to say, and then motor plan how to verbally or digitally answer us. It may be awhile, but we’ll wait because we know they can.
Waiting is not always easy. Sometimes it seems like an eternity could go by while we wait for a student to respond. Yet children with motor planning difficulties need this time to process and organize themselves to respond to us. The more we cut them off, the more their planning becomes interrupted, and is not given the opportunity to develop. And even worse, the more likely they are to not even try the next time. They know, just like I did with my computer science professor, that eventually we’ll answer for them.
We often feel awkward while we wait. We want to do something while we wait, so we often repeat ourselves, or rephrase our request. If our student is having trouble paying attention, then he may need the repetition, but if they are intently working on answering us, then every time we give another prompt or rephrase our questions, we interrupt their planning process. Now they have to start over, which lengthens the wait time.
Joey often benefits from wait time. Sometimes I ask a question and he will quickly respond, but he can be inconsistent with this. Other times he takes longer to find his words or grab objects. In those moments, wait time gives him time to process what we said, and organize himself to answer. It lets him know we believe he can do it. Of course, we also have to monitor his face and his eye gaze. If he begins looking away from us we need to bring his attention back to the task we gave him, and remind him of what we are doing.
For awhile, I also assumed that some of the seemingly random words he selected on his eye gaze were from him losing attention or focus on our activities, or that he was trying to avoid what I asked him to do. But once we stepped back and remembered to presume Joey’s competence, we realized that often his random selects are because he is trying to answer correctly and just not keeping his eyes tracked on the desired button. He ends up choosing the button next to what he wants. Joey needs the wait time to find the wrong answer, and then select the right one. I need to stop jumping in over him when he chose a random word, but instead, give him the opportunity to find the right word and fix his mistake.
Finding the right wait time for each student in any given moment is a careful balance of searching for the child’s intent in the moment, and knowing how to keep that student engaged, while waiting for them. Sometimes, we’ll wait too long, but that is OK. That is part of learning the student and finding what he needs.