Slow processing speed often leads to feelings of frustration, low self-esteem, and a fixed mindset that hinders effort and personal development. Preschoolers and elementary school-age kids with slow processing speed may have always been a bit slower than their peers or siblings at getting things done, but as younger children were blissfully ignorant of this difference. However by later elementary and middle school, they begin to recognize that they are falling behind their classmates and peers, which can lead to negative self comments such as, “I am dumb or stupid,” or concerns that their classmates view them as such. The direct impact on self-esteem is bad enough, but this can also lead to a tendency to give up more quickly, show less persistence in the face of difficulty, and a belief that their abilities are stagnant and will never get better. This belief system, described by the noted psychologist, Carol Dweck, Ph.D., is called a fixed mindset and may be the most devastating result of slow processing speed for many children. Conversely, there are many reasons to think that growth mindsets, in which children believe their brains are capable of overcoming challenges, can improve processing speed.
A fixed mindset for children with slow processing speed typically means that they see their talents and abilities at school to be a fixed trait that defines their overall capacity. Instead of attempting to improve or develop their skills, they often assume that there is nothing they can do, that they do not have the skills or strategies to cope, nor are there assistive technologies that might improve their slow processing speed. It’s unfortunate, because so much of their identity becomes based on the one simple characteristic of doing things slowly.
Because it is often so obvious – children are the last to finish tests, homework takes hours rather than minutes, and they might be slow to respond in conversation – slow processing speed is seen as a defining characteristic. The ability to process information efficiently is a highly observable capacity that these children recognize, but so do their peers. In some ways, it is more like abnormalities in children’s height or weight rather than whether they may have some internal medical problem that is treated with medication.
However, slow processing speed does not take into account children’s other attributes. Many kids with slow processing speed are best described as twice-exceptional, or 2E. They may be gifted and talented in other areas of learning, yet at the same time demonstrate a specific learning, attention, processing, or executive-functioning issue. Fortunately, some 2E kids are able to use their other skills to compensate for slow processing speed, but their parents and sometimes teachers and the kids themselves may still have a sense that they are not reaching their potential.
Unfortunately, the variability of the skills of many kids with slow processing speed leads to a fixed mindset in which they focus on their weakness rather than their areas of strength. This can result in a sense of resignation, loss of motivation, and a struggle to maintain their effort. If parents and teachers can identify slow processing early and help children to view their other areas of strength accurately, there is a much better chance of them averting the development of a fixed mindset and modestly improving their ability to process information efficiently.
Not all kids with slow processing speed are impacted by low self-esteem and a fixed mindset. Some slow processors recognize that they are different from their peers and persist nonetheless. These kids are very hard workers who are able to see how their ongoing effort plays a role in their progress and have learned how to overcome the frustration experienced as a result of their slow processing speed. Many of them have internalized a growth mindset.
Growth mindsets help children with slow processing speed to recognize that their effort can pay off in success. They believe that they can change their brains and get better at things. This is supported by evidence. Kids who work hard at their schoolwork are able to increase their knowledge base – they know the answer and don’t have to think about it, so they can go faster. They are also building their brains. The research on neuroplasticity over the past few decades demonstrates that brains grow with effort and exercise. A growth mindset increases confidence and the willingness to take on difficult challenges and facilitates learning from mistakes and failure.
While a growth mindset alone is not likely to increase children’s processing speed dramatically, there are ways in which being more persistent, believing that effort pays off, and wanting to learn can help with slow processing speed. It helps with the automaticity of knowledge – if you keep working at something, you do it without needing to “process” it and just know it. A growth mindset also helps with focus, so there is less time for frustration or negative thinking. In addition, growth mindsets can indirectly help kids improve executive-functioning skills such as task initiation and time management, which can also improve slow processing of information.