Does lack of motivation cause slow processing speed?

In my work as a clinical child psychologist I have encountered many parents who believe that their children with learning or processing difficulties are lazy or not working hard enough. I hear comments like, “When his friends are waiting for him or when he is doing something that he likes, he can get it done quickly.” Parents are frustrated with what they think they know is lack of motivation.

These parents are right to a degree, but it’s a bit like running an automobile engine at its redline or sprinting in a 10 kilometer road race–something is going to burn out if you do it too long . These kids may need powerful reinforcers, perks for completing undesirable tasks and rewards for successful completion of work, to get their brains functioning at their peak efficiency.

Kids with slow processing speed are aware of this. They have experienced frequent frustration, failure, and negative feedback, unable to work at a “normal’ pace at home and school. They lack skills first and then, perhaps as a result, motivation. Their parents may see the result of this emotional wear and tear on their kids, a sense of resignation and difficulty sustaining their effort. But which came first? Does lack of motivation cause slow processing speed? Or do kids with slow processing speed just lose heart without support from their parents and teachers?

Motivation plays a role in sustaining attention and effort and can help with the development of a growth mindset. It is a driving force behind many accomplishments and plays a large role in achievement. After all, there are remarkable students with slow processing speed who persevere, spending hour upon hour doing schoolwork. But these super-motivated kids are the exceptions, because kids with slow processing speed are so often worn down and frustrated by their effort that they may appear to be lazy or lack motivation.

Of course there are kids who don’t want to put effort into school or who are unmotivated to engage in anything not of their choosing. However, children appropriately identified with slow processing speed or executive-functioning difficulties are almost always NOT lazy or unmotivated, or at least they do not start out that way.

Consider how you feel when you have to complete something you don’t want to do, that requires a poorly developed skill (for me that might mean constructing a piece of furniture from Ikea or organizing the garage), or that takes a long time to do well. We might avoid the task as long as we can, start it and get distracted by something more engaging, or rush through it and not care very much about doing a good job, thereby demonstrating a lack of motivation.

Imagine if almost every task you needed to do at home or school required more time and effort for you than for everyone else. Younger children might not notice this difference from their peers, but older kids who have dragged behind their peers for their entire school career might struggle to gather the motivation to keep up their effort. This is particularly true for kids with slow processing speed when there are more exciting activities to do that are fun and less demanding.

So what message about motivation and slow processing speed do we need to send to these demanding parents?

  • First, we have to help them to understand that slow processing speed is real and not a choice. The capacity to process information efficiently is a skill. Neuropsychological testing is an excellent tool to demonstrate the nature of slow processing speed, particularly when kids show strength in other areas and motivation is assumed to be consistent.
  • Second, we want to help parents understand the experience of kids with slow processing speed and how it impacts self-esteem, effort, and performance.
  • Third, we want to recognize that motivation is a real issue for some kids with slow processing speed and to find ways to understand these kids, enhancing their motivation to excel at home and school.

Here are some strategies for improving motivation and skills in kids with slow processing speed:

Play to a child’s strengths. Find activities and academic demands where children can be successful and develop a sense of accomplishment. Even if these occur outside of the school setting, learning what it feels like to complete a task and recognizing how effort leads to improvement can lead children to become more motivated in other areas.

Use encouragement… but recognize the limitations of repetition of skills. Just as kids who are very slow runners are unlikely to become world-class sprinters, kids with slow processing speed will rarely become super efficient. However, controlled practice of  executive functions and processing-speed skills in areas that interest and engage your child can lead to modest improvement.

Ask questions. Rather than heap praise when success is achieved, engage them in reflecting on the process. When children work hard at something, questions and conversation can allow them to develop insight into what motivated them to sustain their effort.

Learn a new skill together. Find something to do that you know your child will excel at and allow them to be better than you. Mastery of a new technology is often an area where children with executive-functioning difficulties learn at a faster pace than parents. Select an app such as Smiling Mind or Notability that can help to improve executive functions such as focus or time management and, in turn, motivate the child to try another new skill.

Make things manageable. Make homework and tasks something that can be completed. Classroom accommodations that reduce the length of assignments can improve compliance and motivation. Children are more likely to finish a task in a reasonable amount of time and feel good about their performance when they know this is possible for them.

Reward progress. While some kids appear to be driven from birth, others internalize motivation with the experience of getting better at something. Identify sub skills that children have mastered to highlight progress for kids with slow processing speed, for whom it may take longer to achieve competence. For example, make observations to children whose new skills at typing have reduced the time it takes to complete written homework so that they can see their progress in competence.

Kids who have low self-esteem and anxiety can struggled to remain motivated, but recognizing the social and emotional impact of slow processing speed and using strategies to undo the damage and promote success can make all the difference in the world. Read more about parenting a child with slow processing speed on our blog. If you’re a teacher of a student with slow processing speed, see our educator’s guide to slow processing speed.



Featured image: Flickr user r. nial bradshaw

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