Processing Speed and Executive Functions

Slow processing speed and executive function disorders are two of the most common reasons children have trouble in school. While processing speed and executive functioning are two distinct neuropsychological constructs, there are many overlapping features. From taking notes to completing a school project, a child’s ability to complete a task is directly affected by their processing speed and executive functioning ability.

When psychologists and educators refer to processing speed, they are generally describing how quickly and efficiently a child can perform a cognitive task. Processing speed is made up of three components:

  1. the pace at which an individual takes in information
  2. how long it takes the individual to process that information
  3. the proficiency of the individual’s output

Executive functions, also referred to as thinking skills, describe how effectively a child can manage: their plans, their attention, their working memory, their stuff, their time, their feelings, their behavior, their effort, and their adaptability.

Many common academic tasks are impacted by a child’s processing speed and executive functioning skills. For instance, keeping up with the pace of a teacher’s lecture while taking notes requires the capacity to keep information in mind (working memory) and the ability to efficiently condense that information into notes and writing them down. Completing a school project requires the executive functions of planning, organization, and task persistence (focus) in addition to processing speed efficiency.

A child’s ability to perform home-based tasks is also dependent upon their processing speed and executive function proficiency. For example, getting ready for school in the morning requires planning and task initiation (focus) skills as well as an ability to think and move quickly enough to catch the school bus. Cleaning one’s room can become an all day project for kids with slow processing speed and also requires the skill of organization.

When assessing a child’s ability to perform tasks at school and at home, it is easy to confuse executive functioning problems with low processing speed. Here are some more examples of how poor executive functioning skills and low processing speed can mimic each other, and even combine to exacerbate learning difficulties.

Task Initiation – Children who have trouble starting tasks appear to display slow processing speed. They may become easily overwhelmed, struggle to break tasks into steps, or have trouble understanding the end goal — all characteristics of slow processing speed.

Organization – A child with poor organization skills often misplaces or forgets materials they need to successfully complete a task, resulting in an inability to finish on time or at all.

Metacognition – Children who lack confidence and doubt their knowledge and ability are often reluctant to start on a task and may have trouble working efficiently.

Sustained Attention – Children who cannot maintain focus and tend to be easily distracted will take more time to do things. Problems arise when a child gets drawn to more engaging things or takes too many breaks, causing them to process things even more slowly.

Task Persistence – Children with lowered effort and mental stamina often cannot sustain mental control, so thinking becomes hard work. Some kids with ADHD may not be getting brain-based neurotransmitter rewards (dopamine) for mundane task completion. These kids may complain that they are tired or bored, even before starting a task, consequently moving more slowly.

Regulation of Affect – Children with low tolerance for frustration may melt down or become overly emotional when beginning undesirable tasks. Many parents say, “if he’d only sit down to do the work it would take 10 minutes instead of an hour.” Kids may refuse to do their homework, become argumentative, or crumple up homework, dragging out the task. As a result, simple activities can take hours rather than minutes, appearing to reflect slow processing speed.

Working Memory – Children who struggle with working memory skills may forget what they need to do or what they have read. They may be unable to memorize their multiplication tables so they need to take extra time to perform a calculation, therefore processing information more slowly.

Response Inhibition – Children who are unable to sit still or need to constantly move may have trouble working on a task or homework. Excess movement can interrupt the process of getting something done and slow down processing speed.

Fortunately, many games, apps, and technologies can practice and support weak executive functioning skills and also improve processing speed. Some of the best tools can be found right here on the LearningWorks for Kids site. Take a look through our games and apps search engine to find technologies that aid time management, focus, planning, and working memory. For more information on processing speed, see “What is Slow Processing Speed?” and take a look at our list of our favorite web resources for helping a child with slow processing speed.


Featured image: Flickr user Oakley Originals

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