Slow Processing Speed and Executive Functions

Parenting a kid with slow processing speed can be challenging. Sometimes you’ll feel like pulling out your hair because she moves so slowly. If she does finish a task, the process is torture. You probably fight about schoolwork and chores way more than you want to.

Scientists believe slow processing speed is caused by biological factors. These possible factors include: less myelin surrounding neurons, inefficiencies in the prefrontal cortex, variations in the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine or larger spaces between the synapses of the neurons in the brain. These complex biological conditions indicate that slow processing speed is not a choice. Yet there are often other skills and behaviors that impact a child’s speed of processing. Many kids with slow processing speed are also delayed in their use of specific executive functioning skills, that may magnify the impact of slow processing.

For some kids, poorly developed executive functioning skills associated with slow processing speed cause further difficulties when  completing homework, chores, or daily routines are problematic. Executive functioning skills not only affect how quickly and efficiently a child can accomplish tasks, they impact social, emotional, and educational development. Specific executive functioning skills, which fortunately can be improved with training, have great impact upon how efficiently a child is able get things done.

Task initiation, part of the focus executive function skill, is needed to start on a task without procrastination.  This skill is demonstrated when one has an understanding of what is being expected and the wherewithal to ask appropriate questions if there are misunderstandings. It often appears that kids with slow processing simply can’t identify where they need to start on a project, divide it  into manageable components, or get the proper instructions about how to complete a specific task. It is not at all unusual for these kids to come home from school unprepared, not knowing how to do their homework, possibly because she did not have time to write down the instructions when the teacher was giving them.

Time management is the executive functioning skill that helps children in most effectively using their time. Time management involves the ability to respond to things in a timely fashion and have the ability to make and follow a schedule.  It often involves monitoring one’s effort and actions, having an appropriate sense of urgency to complete tasks.  Children with processing speed and time management skills deficits tend to underestimate the amount of time they need to complete tasks. Not only does this include homework, but sometimes more importantly it includes getting ready for school in the morning, being prepared to go on a family day trip, or getting ready when a friend is coming to pick them up to go to soccer practice.

Planning is also an important executive functioning skill that impacts processing speed. Components of planning include prioritization, sequencing, and foresight.  It may involve both short- and long-term goals and taking all aspects of a situation into a plan. Kids who are poor planners will not have everything available to complete a school project or her homework. A lack of planning can contribute to slower completion of task when a child is unprepared to get something done.

The model that we use at LearningWorks for Kids does not consider processing speed to be a specific executive functioning skill. However, efficiency at getting stuff done is impacted by a variety of executive functions. While, we are likely to have limited success in altering any of the biological underpinnings of slow processing speed, we can teach and improve complementary executive functioning skills such as task initiation, time management and planning.  By improving these executive skills, we can help a child to get things done more quickly.


Featured image: Flickr user Steven Depolo

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