What is Slow Processing Speed in Children?

Slow processing speed is one of the most common difficulties observed in children who struggle with ADHD and other executive functioning and learning issues. But slower processing speed isn’t a characteristic unique to kids with learning differences; there are many students who perform well at school and in other settings who process information at a slower pace than their peers. Some kids are simply long distance runners rather than sprinters. So exactly what is slow processing speed in children? And when is it something to worry about?

Definitions of slow processing speed

Processing speed refers to the rate at which children are able to take in information about their world, consider it, do something with it in their brain, and then produce a result.

It is essentially determined through a three-step process. Step one involves the time to perceive information through the senses (sight and hearing for our purposes here). Step two is the internal processing of that information. Step three is the formulation of a response and the corresponding action — it involves absorbing new information, retrieving related information from memory, and performing an operation (doing something) with this information. How quickly can one make connections between learned and stored information? How quickly can one get things done?

Slow processing speed affects a child’s ability to handle verbal information, reading, writing, and decision-making. Children with slow processing speed frequently take an excessive amount of time to complete their homework, may not be able to complete class work in a timely fashion, and are among the last to complete tests and exams. Some kids with slow processing speed write extremely slowly. Others have such an aversion to the time, effort, and frustration involved in completing work that they sacrifice neatness in the rush to get through an assignment.

Slow processing speed is a cause for concern when it results in one or more of the following:

  1. A lack of productivity.
  2. Inconsistencies in pace/the time it takes to complete a task.
  3. Difficulty judging one’s capacity to complete something in a timely fashion.
  4. Frequent arguments about homework.
  5. Difficulty or inability to get ready to go out the door.
  6. Chronic lateness.
  7. Failure to complete or turn in schoolwork and homework assignments.
  8. Difficulty taking notes or copying down information quickly.

Does slow processing speed indicate a lack of effort or laziness?

Be careful not to blame laziness when slow processing speed is the real culprit. Slow processing speed is genetic, and often hereditary. One crucial thing to remember about kids who struggle with slow processing speed is that they would probably not choose this constraint. A student may be easily frustrated by schoolwork and want to give up quickly because it takes too long, and parents and educators need to look beyond these “problem” behaviors to get at the root of the problem.

It is true that under certain circumstances kids with slow processing speed can keep pace, and may even have certain advantages. However, when they speed up for an extended amount of time they tend to burn themselves out, like a car revving its engine too high for too long. Rather than blame kids with slow processing speed, parents and educators need to accept, accommodate, and advocate for them. Psychologists and educators can identify slow processing speed in children and are beginning to recognize its impact on performance in school and in many other areas of life. Our team at LearningWorks for kids strongly suggests that you remain open to utilizing technologies to help kids with slow processing speed.

To learn more about how slow processing speed can affect children, check out the book Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up by Ellen Braaten, PhD and Brian Willoughby, PhD. Read articles about processing speed in our blog archives, and watch for more articles in our series on slow processing speed in children coming soon.


Featured image: Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal

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