The Frustration Index – Slow Processing Speed in School

Consider the definition of frustration: the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of an inability to change or achieve something; an event or circumstance that causes one to have a feeling of frustration and the prevention of progress, success, or fulfillment of something.

Kids who are frustrated with school often experience problems with achievement, a lack of success, slow progressing, a sense of not being able to change or learn, and poor grades/lack of fulfillment. The reaction of many kids to the frustration of school is marked by anger, annoyance, rage, avoidance, and oppositionalism. Kids who are easily frustrated by school may have difficulty getting started on their school work, take frequent breaks, shred or crumple their homework after making a minor mistake, or take hours to do what should be minutes of homework.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of frustration with school is the arguments and conflicts that occur between parents and kids over homework completion. As a part of our continuing series on slow processing, I want to explore how slow processing speed can cause school frustration.

The causes of frustration with school are varied. Some kids may not have the ability to learn academic content as well as their peers and may have a learning disability or modest intellectual abilities. Other kids may struggle to overcome most obstacles, perhaps experiencing some dysregulation in the autonomic nervous system that results in being easy to anger, feel depressed, or become anxious when confronted with frustrating academic experiences. Many kids have family situations or a history of trauma that do not encourage academic success, so they fall behind their peers. Poor modeling for handling frustration and a lack of drive for learning and  achievement by family members are also common causes of similar concerns for children. Most of these causes of frustration with school are obvious to the trained eye.

However, another significant source of frustration with school is often less evident: slow processing speed. By definition, kids with slow processing speed are likely to take longer to get started on their school work, require more time to complete it, and are less efficient while studying. But not all kids with slow processing speed are frustrated with school. Some of them are persistent with their school work, taking the extra hours needed to complete their work. Others have internalized a growth mindset that allows them to recognize that success is a result of ongoing effort. Some kids, particularly younger ones, do not realize that it takes them longer to complete their school work than it does  their peers. A large number of kids with slow processing speed may also be limited academically by other cognitive factors such as a restricted vocabulary or modest working-memory skills, so they essentially process information at expected levels.

Frustration with school is common with kids for whom slow processing speed is a relative weakness compared to many other cognitive and executive-functioning skills. These are kids who are “not reaching their potential” and might be described as “lazy” or “unmotivated” because their ability to learn is unquestioned. Parents and teachers note how bright these kids appear, how readily they are able to express themselves, and how knowledgeable they are about a variety of subjects.

As they get older the kids recognize this, as well, having the metacognitive capacity to realize that they can learn material easily and that they are as smart as, if not smarter than, some of their peers. But this insight into their strengths also reveals difficulty with slow processing speed. These kids begin to see that their peers work faster than they do, that it takes them 2 hours rather than 45 minutes to complete their homework, and that they are the last to finish quizzes and exams. While some of these kids can use a growth mindset and parental models for task persistence to overcome frustration, many of these bright kids struggle to show what they know and display signs of frustration as a result.

In my clinical work I have found the most frustrated kids with slow processing speed to be students who have very strong verbal abilities that are accompanied by slow written processing-speed skills. These are the kids who learn to hate writing assignments as elementary and middle school students because they are unable to get their thoughts (often high level, complex and well-considered thoughts) onto paper. It just takes too long to get their ideas out and keep them organized. (Look at these posts to see how to use typing and dictation skills to help these kids.) Unfortunately, many of these kids develop a low sense of self-esteem, based far too much on their pace of completing schoolwork rather than on their ability to learn.

I can often identify these kids by the large discrepancy between their Verbal Comprehension Index and their Processing Speed Index on the WISC-V (the most widely used measure of intellectual skills for United States students). An average score on the WISC-V Indices is 100, and it is quite common to see 10-point discrepancies among the 5 index scores (Verbal Comprehension, Visual Spatial, Fluid Reasoning, Working Memory, and Processing Speed). In contrast, these frustrated kids often have a 25-point or larger discrepancy between their Verbal Comprehension Index and their Processing Speed Index on the WISC-V. I call this discrepancy the “Frustration Index,” and the larger it is, the more frustrated the kid.

What is most remarkable is that some kids who are very verbal and display a wealth of knowledge (with WISC-V Verbal Comprehension scores above 120) can have average scores on the Processing Speed Subtest (90 and above) but still be very frustrated. So it is not the absolute score on the Processing Speed Subtest that matters but  the relative difference from other abilities that causes frustration. Kids with such discrepancies are frustrated because they struggle to ”show what they know.”

A more typical presentation is seen in children who muster a high “Frustration Index,” with average scores on other verbal and nonverbal measures of intelligence, but achieve below average scores on the Processing Speed Subtest. Children with a Verbal Comprehension Index  of 105 and a Processing Speed Index of 72 are likely find it difficult to keep up with the pace of school, even if they display many signs of intellectual skills. KIds whose lowest scores are on the Coding Subtest are more apt to work very slowly on written tasks. The Coding Subtest requires processing numbers into visual symbols and then “writing” these does quickly. Some frustrated kids have slow handwriting, some have illegible writing unless they work painstakingly slowly, and others may be deliberate while translating the numbers into symbols. Lower scores on the additional Processing Speed subtests of the WISC-V (Symbol Search and Cancellation), which measure visual attention and discrimination, are more commonly seen in kids who read slowly. However, a recent study suggests that the Coding Subtest is more strongly related to reading fluency.  These observations are not sure-fire, but may provide an insight into frustrated kids.

The most important intervention for these kids is clear identification and description of their difficulty in processing speed in terms of speed rather than in their capacity to understand and learn. A full neuropsychological evaluation can be helpful. Developing appropriate accommodations and helping these kids to modify skills that can improve processing speed and develop compensatory strategies are strongly recommended. But these kids and their parents need to have some type of acceptance, as well, in order to reduce frustration. Redefining success; finding fulfillment in activities that do not require fast processing speed; and achieving in areas where detail, depth, and definition are valued can also help to reduce frustration related to slow processing speed.


Featured image: Flickr user woodleywonderworks

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3 thoughts on “The Frustration Index – Slow Processing Speed in School

  1. Hello, I would like to ask a question: I´ve seen that is common for people to have a low Processing Speed in comparison with other categories, but what If the case is the opposite? In my case, according to WAIS, my IQ is 121 but my Processing Speed Index is 134, which is 26 points higher than my lower category. What could I conclude from this results? I haven´t found information about this thing, because all the people has a slow PSI, rather than a high one. Thanks.

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