Estimating Time with Elementary Students

Can a nine-year-old estimate time accurately? Many teachers and parents will tell you no. But reality, as always, is more complicated than that.

Ask elementary students to estimate how long it would take to make a soufflé or read a novel, and their times will probably be off. But what about something they are more familiar with? Can they estimate how long it will take to play their favorite game or tie their shoes? Even with something students are extremely familiar with, they may struggle to estimate a realistic time.

If we want students to be able to estimate accurately, we need to teach them how. This process involves helping them understand the passing of time, but teachers can go one step further by helping students break down the steps of a given task (such as completing homework, cleaning out their desk, or getting ready for school in the morning). When students are able to talk through the steps that go into successfully completing a task, they will have a better sense of what it takes to do the task and how much time they will need.

What if students still don’t estimate accurately, and end up taking more time or less time than they estimated? That’s actually a tremendous learning opportunity. Why did they go over? Did they lose focus or procrastinate? Do they need help understanding the topic more completely? If they overestimated, was it because they thought the task was harder than it turned out to be? These questions will help students internalize the knowledge they need to estimate successfully.

In SMARTS, teachers often start out by modeling how to estimate fun and consequence-free activities (How long does it take to tie your shoes? To do ten jumping jacks?). Students are then ready to apply a strategic approach to academic tasks, reflecting on how accurate they were and using that knowledge to plan and prioritize.

SMARTS Elementary, our newest curriculum, has 30 lessons you can use to teach young students strategies for accessing important executive function processes — including planning their time.

Many teachers don’t expect that their elementary students will be able to estimate time, but in the words of one SMARTS Elementary teacher, “My students surprised me! My expectations for what a fifth grader can do have grown.”

To learn more about our new curriculum for elementary students, check out the SMARTS Elementary curriculum overview page and download the free preview lesson “Prioritizing Time.”

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director