How Parents Cause Slow Processing Speed in Kids

Parenting a child with slow processing speed can be frustrating. Particularly in the months (or even years) before a diagnosis, it may seem that you’re dealing with a child who is lazy and unmotivated. But slow processing speed is a disorder that describes the natural way a child’s brain works. Simply put, it’s biology. And that means that, at least in a roundabout way, parents cause slow processing speed in their children.

Slow processing speed is most frequently the result of genetics. In all likelihood, either you, your child’s other parent, or a close biological relative has had difficulty with processing information efficiently. While this may not have been previously identified in your family, it is not a new phenomenon. Consider relatives who avoided homework, took forever to get moving, or always seemed to underachieve in the classroom. Researchers have recently discovered that individuals with slower processing speed have variants near a gene called CADM2. Other researchers have suggested that genetically-based issues with slow processing might contribute to behavioral and emotional difficulties.

  • Recognizing the genetic basis of slow processing speed should foster understanding and empathy for a child’s academic and at-home difficulties. Some parents have been dealing with these same issues for years in themselves or others. One of my goals as a clinical child psychologist is to increase parental awareness of the causes of slow processing speed and demonstrate how to help improve processing speed, at the same time creating accommodations that lead to success.

    Parents who understand these issues through their own experience often have empathy but are frustrated by the lack of available solutions. I recently worked with an 8-year-old child who had strong verbal and problem-solving skills but very slow processing. During the evaluation review his father commented, very slowly in halting speech, that he had experienced the same difficulties as a young child. He recalled that school had always been difficult for him, even though he had easily understood the academic content, and that he fell behind on work completion. He described his first high school job working in a Dunkin’ Donuts as an awful experience, as he could not keep up with the fast pace of taking, filling, and keeping track of orders, and he lasted only a short time in the job. Due to his difficulties in this area he chose to go into a trade rather than to college, even though he would have been capable of doing so. After many years of apprenticeship he is now an accomplished electrician, and his slow processing speed is more of an asset in this area than a liability. Being careful, attending to the quality of work, and not rushing through things that could cause danger are valued in electrical work.

    Children with slow processing speed are likely to get negative feedback at home, as well as school, when parents do not have this type of understanding. The side effects due to the genetics of slow processing speed can include a poor sense of self-esteem, a feeling of disappointing one’s parents, and, ultimately, a sense of resignation about one’s ability to keep up. Parents who understand the genetic, biological basis of slow processing speed are more able to help their kids overcome this difficulty.

    Here are some insights that can come from understanding the genetic basis of slow processing speed:

    It is not their fault. Children can do something about their slow processing speed, and there are ways parents and educators can help them to improve in this area. But the first job of parents, educators, and other adults is to understand the basis of these difficulties.

    Help children with slow processing speed define success. First, make appropriate accommodations and create expectations where children can complete tasks and succeed. Reinforcing effort should be the primary approach. The more children who develop a growth mindset can feel as if their efforts lead to success, the better their chances are for succeeding in the future.

    Help children understand slow processing speed. Teach them to advocate for themselves in order to minimize the negative impact of slow processing speed on them. Psychologists have long known that uncertainty is a more potent cause of stress than having a problem that one understands.

    Help children to find areas in their lives where slow processing speed does not cause problems for them. There are many activities, interests, and social opportunities where slow processing speed is not problematic. As children get older, steer them towards vocations and interests where slow processing speed is not a difficulty for them.

    Develop reasonable expectations for improving processing speed. Just as slow runners are unlikely to be able to transform themselves into world-class sprinters simply through effort, the strategies, practice, and technologies that are used to help children with slow processing speed  will not result in super efficient information processors. However, this does not mean that they cannot improve in this area. Researchers and educators have learned a great deal over the last two decades about methods that result in moderately improved processing speed in children. We should use these approaches but not focus overly much on them.

    On the LearningWorks for Kids blog, you will find a wealth of articles about slow processing speed, including a deep dive into the social-emotional toll slow processing speed takes on a child, a guide to parenting kids with slow processing speed, and strategies for success at school.


    Featured image: Flickr user David__Jones

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