Given that a child’s cognitive processing speed is directly related to how efficiently their senses, brain, and body respond to their experiences, you might think major biological changes would need to occur to improve slow processing speed. In reality, neuroscientists have demonstrated the plasticity of our brains (they change quite easily) and we have many technologies that can assist us with output.
Simply put, we can improve slow processing speed. Not only can we can speed up our brains, we can use technologies to reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a task.
Traditionally, schools have approached slow processing speed with a number of accommodations; more time, less work, and adjusted expectations. These tactics are all reasonable and necessary for children with slow processing speed. The three general strategies of accepting, accommodating, and advocating for children with slow processing speed (promoted by Ellen Braaten, Ph.D. and Brian Willoughby, Ph.D. in their excellent book Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up). However, there is also increasing evidence that we can help children modestly improve their processing speed and efficiency by teaching and practicing skills.
Here are some skill-based strategies that can help children to improve the speed of processing:
Make things that are important automatic. We include this strategy in many lists as an aid to time management and working memory. “Practice makes perfect” is a cliché, but it can actually help increase processing speed. Children who have over-learned a task to the point where it is automatic do not have to think it through, reducing their need to actively process information. When talking to your child, draw the analogy that in any sport, athletes must practice each day to get better.
But just as athletes focus their efforts, your child should over-learn a skill or system that will serve them well into the future. For example, making the times table automatic may have a large impact on processing math calculations and word problems, whereas getting faster at handwriting through repeated practice may only be marginally useful in a world where everything is electronic.
Improve complementary skills to compensate for slow writing fluency. Look for ways to help your child overcome issues that exacerbate slow processing speed, such as perfectionism or poor planning and organization skills. This may mean teaching brainstorming, clustering, and mind-mapping skills to help with generating ideas and getting started on papers and projects. Encourage them to “write badly” on purpose just to get ideas out, and pair this strategy with dictation to remove the burden of writing or typing. Learning editing skills can help students transform drafts and notes created with speech recognition software into finished products.
Teach them to prioritize. Tests are a big problem area for kids with slow processing speed. A common test-taking strategy is to skip the problems that hang you up and take care of the questions you know and feel comfortable with first. But this doesn’t just apply to tests; when it comes to writing a paper, working on a project, or just completing a homework assignment, the aspects of the task that your child knows or can easily complete should come first, and the items that will take more time and research should come after that. Teach your child to scan assignments and tests before they start working so they know what will be easy to complete and what will take a little longer.
Schedule big tasks during peak energy levels. Low energy is another factor that can compound slow processing speed. Help your child develop better time management habits by scheduling homework and other projects and tasks for high-energy hours. Make a mental note of your child’s most active time of the day. This can vary greatly in children, some being more energetic before school in the morning and others before bed at night.
Establish a series of time trials. Engage your child in timed activities where the objective is to beat their own best time. This helps them keep their brain sharp and begin to process information more quickly. Challenge your child to find someone’s telephone number in an online directory, or a specific word in a print dictionary. Help them keep track of how long it takes and then practice to reduce their time. Another challenge is to find and correctly count out change from a large pile of coins and then try to beat that time with each consecutive turn. Or they might do a series of math minutes or play slapjack or another fast-paced card game to increase their processing-speed efficiencies.
For more information, see “What is Slow Processing Speed in Children?” We talk about adapting to the diagnosis in “Parenting a Child with Slow Processing Speed.” We have also scoured the Web for the best resources for building the skills that can help a child compensate for this biologically based issue, and curated a list of helpful videos for understanding and explaining processing speed. See “Using Videos to Explain Slow Processing Speed to Kids” and “Best Web Resources for a Child with Slow Processing Speed.”
Featured image: Flickr user b10lm