I’m Mom to a little one at home who is very bright. He understands things well, remembers everything with such clarity, and scores very high on assignments and even standardized tests. He is also so much slower than the other kids. It takes so much longer for him to get work done. He needs directions more than once. He can get so anxious about taking longer that he doesn’t finish at all. This became such an issue at school that he was given a whole panel of tests to see if he had a learning disability. The test revealed that he while he was capable of doing work that was above grade level, he also had a slow processing speed, therefore taking longer to complete work.
I was a teacher for a long time, and I’ve read a lot of IEP and 504 documents. I’ve followed accommodations and worked with parents and colleagues to ensure the success of many students. However, I have to admit, when I saw slow processing speed on the report, I really didn’t understand it so well.
If you’re in the classroom, it’s likely that you have students with slow processing speed. Perhaps you’re like I was, and you don’t really know exactly what that means. I’ve done a lot of digging, and below, I’ll break down some of what I’ve learned. If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend the book Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up, by Ellen Braaten and Brian Willoughby. I’ve read it a few times already as I search for a way to find the balance in our household, and it’s a great tool for understanding slow processing speed.
What is processing speed?
Processing speed is how fast a person can take in information, understand it, and act upon it. It can be auditory information, such as directions given in class. It can also be visual information, such as reading written instructions or doing math calculations. A person with a slower processing speed can have difficulties with auditory or visual information, or they could struggle with both. In addition, some kids will struggle with slower motor speed, meaning the physical act of writing just takes them longer. In the easiest terms possible, slow processing speed is how long it takes to perform a task.
This short video from Clay Center explains really well how slower processing speed can affect students.
Slow processing speed can also play a role in other learning issues such as ADHD, dyslexia, or auditory processing disorder.
Want to know how ADHD affects our family? Read this.
A child with slower processing speed may not be able to complete the same tasks as his or her classmates in the same amount of time. My son takes 45 minutes every night to do 20 minutes worth of homework. It has nothing to do with his understanding of the homework; it just has to do with how fast he actually can do it. I could ask him the questions out loud, and he would be able to do them in a matter of minutes, but to have to read them and then write them, he needs significantly more time than his classmates.
Processing speed also does not have anything to do with how smart a student actually is. Very bright children can have difficulty quickly processing information, but this does not mean they won’t correctly process it if given time.
Some things that might be difficult for students with slow processing speed:
1. Taking notes
Whether the student is expected to copy from the board or to take notes while the teacher is speaking, this can be more difficult for a student with slow processing speed. If writing challenges such as dysgraphia or dyslexia are also present, this becomes even more difficult.
2. Finishing work and/or tests in the same time frame as others.
My son easily takes twice as long to complete his homework than should be necessary. Even with a modification, he still takes longer. It frustrates him, because he knows that he understands how to do it.
3. Following multi-step directions
Students are still processing the first step. If you give them 2-3 steps, such as “Get out your notebook, write your name and the date, and copy this sentence from the board,” you are likely to see a student with slow processing speed get out the notebook and look around at others for the next step.
4. Participating in class discussions or partnered conversations.
Students that process auditory information more slowly than others might still be thinking about what was said. They might need more time to respond than other students. They also do not always pick up on social cues, meaning they might not understand certain people and/or situations.
5. Solving simple problems quickly.
My son’s strongest area is math. He understands everything, and scores very well. However, basic computation still takes him much longer than others. Students who process slowly might take longer to solve simple problems in their head.
What do teachers need to know?
Not keeping up can become a source of anxiety.
A child is in class doing an assignment, and he/she looks around and notices almost everyone is done. He/she is only halfway done. Now, rather than focusing on the work that he/she is already taking longer to finish, the child can’t stop thinking of how he/she must hurry now.
Kids might need help understanding social cues
One on one, they might do okay, although they are likely to misread their friend’s gestures, tone of voice, or facial expressions. In a large group, they can be overwhelmed with everything that is happening, and they might prefer to stay off to one side.
It does not mean kids are lazy.
Kids who process information more slowly are always playing catch up. That, in itself, is exhausting. They might be slow to start, and this can be mistaken for being unmotivated. Usually, they are still thinking about the directions, or they might not have even heard all of them.
It does not mean they are not as smart.
Slow processing speed does not have anything to do with a child’s intelligence. It simply means that the child needs more time to think the information through.
How to help?
Give single step directions.
Give directions in a variety of ways. Write them on the board and say them out loud. This will allow them to catch up if they didn’t hear everything the first time.
Make sure they have understood the directions. Casually walk by their desks after a few minutes and be sure they know what to do.
Give notes to students who need them rather than asking them to copy from the board. If students are able to take notes but often miss information, working with a partner to discuss and add to their notes can be a big help.
Modify the amount of work you give. If a student can show understanding from doing 5 problems rather than 10, allow them to do 5. You can allow them to pick the 5, or you can have 5 “must-do” problems.
Help the student build an awareness of time. Discuss how long something should take and help the student work towards that. It may mean modifying the work slightly, but it will help them begin to manage their own time.
As the student works on time management, help him/her set time reasonable time goals. If you like, you can implement a reward system when the student meets the goals.
Allow the student to finish at home or in a resource room when possible.
How slow processing speed affects our home life:
1.Homework takes forever.
A ten minute assignment takes 30. A twenty minute assignment can take an hour. It isn’t lack of effort, not understanding the material, or unwillingness to try. I watch my son struggle to stay on task every night doing homework. We sit at the table, side by side, as I help him stay on task and it still takes longer.
2. I give single-step directions.
If I don’t, I have to repeat them. I also have to stop what I am doing and make sure he is listening before I give directions. For a busy mom, it is an adjustment I’m still making! Yelling something from another room or walking by and giving directions do not work.
3. Getting ready for anything is such a process.
We wake up 1 1/2 hours before school to have time to get dressed, eat, and brush teeth. It literally takes that much time. I’ve tried so many different things to help him move faster, and I just came to terms with the fact that he needs that time. The bright side? He has gotten faster with age and we now have time to read together, review spelling words, or just take a leisurely breakfast. Starting the day right without being stressed is really important to us.
4. I’m constantly working on my patience.
Even though I know that he needs more time, I get frustrated at mealtime, bedtime, and any other time we have a schedule to meet. He’s doing the best he can, so it’s really my reaction that has to change.
5. We talk a lot about social cues.
Remember how I said that kids might miss them? That’s very true of my little one. He misses tone of voice, sarcasm, and often doesn’t read facial gestures. Where other kids just seem to “get” when someone doesn’t like what they are doing, kids who process slowly might totally miss this.
What to remember?
They may look lazy or like they are not trying. In reality, they are trying so hard to keep up and just need more support. They are not able to just “be faster” because they cannot process the information as quickly. Asking them to just do it faster is like asking a child who needs glasses to just see better. It just isn’t possible.
Kids are aware of everything, so they surely know when everyone is done but them. This can cause anxiety, so finding a place where they can finish without worrying about how long they are taking can help them focus and perform better.
Slow processing speed is not an indication of intelligence. Slow processing speed affects many very intelligent students. Gifted students can also process very slowly. For more information on gifted students who work slowly, read this article by Jennifer Gonzalez. She has some great strategies to use in the classroom for students who work more slowly, and you can also get information about gifted students who have learning difficulties, also known as twice exceptional (2e) students.