Taming Time 

Meeting the challenges of disability around the clock 

By Bill Cole 

Time is a constant, sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh. The beat goes on within all of us. For individuals with disabilities, time can be particularly challenging. Those with more severe disabilities are likely to have highly unconventional experiences with time frames, whether while performing daily living skills, processing information or just moving from one room to another. Society’s continued emphasis on maximal hourly productivity as an essential measure of self-worth inherently undervalues the lives of all of us, but especially those with disabilities or those with a diverse way of perceiving the world. Time in our culture has become inextricably tied to financial success. 

Contrary to the common expression, it is impossible to kill time. Just as we all are better served when we steer away from perceiving disability as a problem to be fixed, we are also better off not thinking of time as something to be overcome. However, we can appreciate time, negotiate with it and even coax it to our benefit. The uniquely fractious relationship that some students have with time can be represented within both neurological as well as educational contexts. How these contexts are addressed can make all the difference. 

Neurological context 

There are numerous examples of how neurodiversity or a disability affects a person’s relationship with time as reflected in specific regions in the brain.  

Students with ADHD typically have atypical executive functioning abilities, which includes such skills as time perception and time management and can be associated with underdevelopment in the prefrontal cortex.

Children on the autism spectrum have been found to have difficulty accurately gauging the passage of time when asked to estimate the intervals between three flashes. They tended to overestimate short durations and underestimate long durations. This misjudgment of time intervals more likely affects their processing rates and may contribute to increased feelings of anxiety based on a perception of unpredictability in their environments.

Studies have revealed those with hearing impairments are prone to difficulty with time perception. This suggests that there might be a unique capability in the auditory cortex related to the encoding of temporal information and that a lack of experience with speech might affect the development of temporal processing.

Studies have shown that individuals diagnosed with depression are more likely to report that time passes slower than it is actually moving, possibly related to lower dopamine levels. 

Educational context 

For students with disabilities, time can be an unwieldy obstacle affecting their academic functioning. Students who require special services due to various disabilities often rely on teachers to modify their learning environments by explicitly teaching them time management strategies to help them successfully get through their day. These typically include extra time on tests and assignments and building in “wait time” before expecting verbal responses.  

These modifications allow those students to sufficiently process what is being asked of them. Additionally, research suggests that students dealing with dyslexia often perform poorly on rapid naming tests and generally exhibit slower processing speeds, warranting highly specialized instructional reading programs that take these time-related differences into account.

Bill Cole is a school psychologist at Normandy Park Elementary School in the Morris School District. He can be reached at metacole14@gmail.com

Strategies for educators to “tame time” 

  •  Provide students with extra time on classroom assignments and tests. 

     •  Reduce the volume of expected work within reasonable limits, e.g., on a worksheet of math problems, assign the students only the odd numbered items; instead of requiring a five-paragraph essay, have the students compose a three-paragraph essay. 

  • Allow a few seconds of “wait time” after asking the students a question allowing them to more fully process the information before providing a response. 
  • Use a visual schedule or checklist for given classroom assignments to help the students work through the tasks in a more timely and sequential manner. 
  • Assist the students in actively articulating their goals and priorities related to completing specific tasks to help frame what is expected of them. 
  • Break down classroom tasks into smaller chunks, establishing adapted expectations for time completion for each segment. 
  • Provide brief work breaks to help students “recharge their batteries” and encourage optimal on-task behavior. 
  • Have the students use an egg timer or stop watch, if helpful, to reinforce a sense of time frames while working through classroom tasks. 
  • Have the students prepare for dismissal a few minutes ahead of time if it is anticipated they need some additional lead-in time when packing up their belongings. 
  • Have the students practice a “60-second challenge,” which entails the students “blindly” guessing when a minute has elapsed and comparing how close the guess is to the actual duration. Graph their progress in guessing. This activity can help students better appreciate the passage of units of time and potentially strengthen their ability to “feel time.” 
  • Discuss with students the role the prefrontal cortex in their brains play with their time management and time perception skills. Providing this physical, internal and personal point of reference can help them conceptualize time as a more concrete and real factor related to their learning. 

Time can be relentless for students with disabilities. There is no fighting it. A more effective approach is refining the art of modifying and working with the temporal environments and associated time frames. In doing so, we tame this most daunting of forces, treat it like the precious resource it is, and elevate the humanity of all disabled individuals as they strive to achieve their full potential.