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What Is Slow Processing Speed?

Kids need to know that it has nothing to do with intelligence

Published on: September 18, 2017

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I’ve known for a decade that my 12-year-old daughter takes longer than other kids to complete tasks, from getting dressed to doing homework. But it wasn’t until I saw the words “slow processing speed” on her latest learning differences assessment that I had a name for this trait.

A name was helpful but I still didn’t know what it meant — so I asked.

“It means it may take four times as long to start and finish a task,” says educator Abby Mansfield. She’s a teacher at St. John School, a private Catholic School in North Seattle, which my daughter attends. Slow processing speed is the speed in which someone’s brain takes in information, processes what to do with it and then responds appropriately, she adds.

“That little person in the brain who’s being told what to do — that guy’s kind of slow! By the time he gets to where he’s going, he forgets what he was going to do and what he needed to take with him,” says Mansfield.

Slow processing speed has nothing to do with intelligence and kids need to know this.

Kids with processing speed deficits often have other primary diagnoses such as ADHD, a learning disability or an autism spectrum disorder, writes child psychologist Ellen Braaten. Still, it’s slow processing speed that often poses the biggest challenge, says Braaten, co-author of Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up.

So, how do you know if your kid has a slow processing speed? Braaten offers a checklist in her book. These signs range from “My child has difficulty taking notes in class” and “My child needs additional time to respond in conversations,” to “My child can do the assignments, but not in the time allotted” and “My child frequently responds, ‘What?’” Parents can find a similar checklist in this article on Understood.org, a website created by 15 nonprofit organizations to support the parents of kids with learning and attention issues.

What it means for your kid

Slow processing speed has nothing to do with intelligence and kids need to know this, says Mansfield.

“A child knows if the kid next to them is on problem 14 and they’re on problem 2,” says Mansfield. “Very quickly, this child thinks ‘I’m not smart like Billy. I’m dumb.’ [Not knowing they have slow-processing speed] can contribute to that fixed mindset that is so detrimental to kids.”

To adapt, ask for accommodations at school. Talk to your child's teacher about assigning four math problems instead of 20 for your child’s homework, giving your child extended time on tests and having your child take written tests orally. Mansfield, for example, often has her third-grade students count to five on their fingers before they raise their hands to answer a question. “If I don’t create a space for everyone to think, the only children that contribute are really fast processors and strong extroverts,” she says.

At home, establish clear routines and modify the rate, tone and complexity of the way you talk to your child, writes Braaten. This means giving your child one- or two-step directions rather than rapid-fire multiple options.

And remember: processing more slowly isn’t always a deficit. “I also caution kids from getting discouraged,” says Braaten. “I find these kids have more successes as life goes on because they’re in environments that nurture their strengths as slow, deep thinkers.

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