Slow Processing Speed and Working Memory: What’s the Connection?

Kids who have slow processing speed and working memory problems face an uphill battle. These kids, many of whom are diagnosed with ADHD, often have difficulty following directions and getting thoughts from their brain onto paper. They struggle to keep information in mind. They seem to “know” something, only to “lose” it easily.

Understanding the relationship between slow processing speed and working memory is not easy because of the complexity of our brains and the overlap of these psychological constructs. Developmental issues, other types of intelligences, and individual differences contribute to the impact of these skills on a child’s learning and growth.

The best explanation for this complicated relationship requires an understanding of the importance of working memory. Working memory is the ability to keep information in mind, monitor and update recent information, and use this information for learning and problem solving. Working memory is assumed to have two major types, verbal and visuospatial working memory. Working memory is not simple short-term memory but memory that individuals access to transform, “encode,” or use. However, it is limited by the amount of information individuals can hold in mind and how long they can access it.

Consider this brief analogy for the mechanisms of verbal working memory written in a comprehensive research article about this topic by Astrid Fry and Sandra Hale:

A single, continuous loop of audiotape that records verbally encoded information. Presumably, information that is recorded onto the tape loop is lost through decay (or interference from new information) unless it is rehearsed or transferred to long-term memory storage. Brief retention of any information that undergoes verbal encoding, regardless of the modality of presentation (e.g., auditory presentation of words, visual or haptic presentation of nameable objects), is presumed to utilize the phonological loop.

More simply, individuals only have so much room and so much time to hold onto an immediate memory before it disappears, so they need to do something with it in order for it to be retained for further use. Slow processing speed impacts working memory because less information can be encoded (processed) in the same amount of time.

Of particular concern for students with slow processing speed is that it may reduce the effective use of working-memory skills, making problem solving and the acquisition of new information more difficult. These kids struggle to hold onto information and lose it before they can process it because of their slow pace. They tire mentally more easily than others because of the extra cognitive effort that is required. As a result, kids with slow processing speed may spend less time studying, avoid academic environments, and experience difficulty performing to the level of other, stronger capacities.

This is where additional factors such as personality issues, the drive to mastery, resilience, grit, and motivation need to be addressed. Because the impact of slow processing speed on working memory–and, in turn, academics–can be subtle, attending to concerns such as social skills, the ability to set goals, and the capacity to see one’s strengths is crucial.

It’s important to address these needs through the support of parents and friends and to have teachers who can identify skill sets rather than focus on slow or limited productivity. The development of strategies and technologies that address cognitive fatigue from slow processing/weak working-memory skills is necessary so that children can be successful within similar amounts of time. It is also important to encourage children with slow processing speed towards activities and future vocations where slower processing may be an asset rather than a disability.


For more advice, read our educator’s guide to teaching children with slow processing speed. What is processing speed? Take the quiz here.



Featured image: Flickr user torbakhopper


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