Parents frequently take their children to psychologists because their kids are struggling, failing in school, unable to control their impulses, sad and anxious, or without friends. However, many parents also seek out a child psychologist when their children are doing OK, with no overt signs of distress or disabilities. Their children appear happy and well connected to others and often show sparks of great curiosity, intelligence, and an understanding beyond their years. Nonetheless, their parents observe intelligent children who are unable to demonstrate their abilities at school or to use their skills to their potential.
In my work as a clinical child psychologist I often find that executive function issues and slow processing speed combine to prevent children from reaching their potential. I have addressed the impact of executive functions on academics and other life skills in other essays, so now focus on the impact of slow processing speed on children’s abilities to reach their potential in and out of school.
When parents tell me that their children are not reaching their potential they usually mean they can see that the children have an innate intelligence by which they are able to understand, create, and make connections. Some may have a wealth of knowledge about their world, while others may have skills in putting things together, visualizing solutions, or synthesizing information. Other children may be able to demonstrate an understanding of people and emotions, sometimes seen in a child who is referred to as an “old soul” or as mature beyond his years.
These potent and observable skills do not necessarily manifest themselves in these children’s performance at school, in their capacity to demonstrate their knowledge, or in their pace of getting things done. It is not unusual for children who are not reaching their potential to display slow processing speed that prevents them from keeping up with their own or their parents’ expectations. Unfortunately, these children and parents may eventually become frustrated or never recognize what they might be able to do in order to help these children.
When parents and educators talk about children’s potential they are often attending to the children’s most obvious assets and not those that account for underlying skills. For example, if we were assessing a child’s potential as a basketball player, we might look at his height, quickness, speed, and shooting abilities. Yet at the same time, the assets that might help him to become an outstanding player could include more subtle skills such as his sense of movement and motion and his level of drive, motivation, and competitiveness.
Similarly, when we talk about academic potential, we generally look at the grades children achieve, the quality of their schoolwork, and the capacity to complete schoolwork in a timely and effective fashion. Children with slow processing speed may struggle with the output of their academic work. They may be extremely knowledgeable, have great verbal skills, harbor an awareness of world events, and be well read but are unable to put it all together in the classroom, where we measure achievement, not potential. Even more confusing is the ease with which children who are not reaching their potential can pick up new subjects and think on highly abstract, complex levels. Socially, they may be able to pick up an adult conversation and use their knowledge to converse with adults on a sophisticated level. However when it comes to showing what they know in the classroom, children with high potential but low slow processing speed can fall behind their peers. Parents and educators may attribute these children’s inability to reach their potential to personal characteristics such as laziness, lack of motivation, and not caring. As the childrens get older, they may be less likely to take on challenges and not achieve at levels that match their potential.
If we can identify slow processing speed as the major factor in children not reaching their potential at a young age, we can (almost) perform miracles. This allows us to make accommodations that result in success, not failure. Identifying slow processing speed at a young age can help reduce frustration so that children are more likely to maintain the drive and growth mindset that is needed to reach their potential. Teaching skills and using technologies that can make modest improvement in processing speed can go a long way to helping these children reach their potential.
Featured image: Flickr user PawPaw67