Processing Speed: What You Need to Know

By Kate Kelly

 

At a Glance

  • Slow processing speed is not a learning or attention issue on its own.
  • Kids who have trouble with processing speed may struggle in school.
  • Slow processing speed has nothing to do with how smart kids are.

Does your child take two hours to do math homework that takes other kids 20 minutes? Does she often do poorly on tests even though she knows the material? Are multi-step directions hard for her to follow, especially when there isn’t much time to get the task done?

While there are many possible reasons for these struggles, slow processing speed may be a factor.

What Processing Speed Is

Processing speed is the pace at which you take in information, make sense of it and begin to respond. This information can be visual, such as letters and numbers. It can also be auditory, such as spoken language.

Having slow processing speed has nothing to do with how smart kids are—just how fast they can take in and use information. It may take kids who struggle with processing speed a lot longer than other kids to perform tasks, both school-related and in daily life.

For example, when a child with slow processing speed sees the letters that make up the word house, she may not immediately know what they say. She has to figure out what strategy to use to understand the meaning of the group of letters in front of her. It’s not that she can’t read. It’s just that a process that’s quick and automatic for other kids her age takes longer and requires more effort for her.

“Having slow processing speed has nothing to do with how smart kids are—just how fast they can take in and use information.”

Saying too many things at once can also pose a challenge. If you give multiple-step directions—“When you come downstairs, bring your notebook. And can you also bring down the dirty glasses, and put them in the dishwasher?”—a child with slow processing speed may not follow all of them. Having slow processing speed makes it hard to digest all that information quickly enough to finish the task.

Slow processing speed impacts learning at all stages. It can make it harder for young children to master the basics of reading, writing and counting. And it impacts older kids’ ability to perform tasks quickly and accurately.

Watch as an expert explains slow processing speed and how it affects kids.

Slow Processing Speed and Learning and Attention Issues

Slow processing speed isn’t a learning or attention issue on its own. But it can contribute to learning and attention issues like , ADHD,dyslexia,dyscalculia   and auditory processing disorder.

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It can also impact executive functioning skills. These are the thinking skills that help kids plan, set goals, respond to problems and persist on tasks. Kids who are slow to process information may have trouble getting started on assignments, staying focused and monitoring how well they’re doing.

What Slow Processing Speed Looks Like

Slow processing speed can affect kids in the classroom, at home and during activities like sports. Kids might have trouble with:

  • Finishing tests in the allotted time
  • Finishing homework in the expected time frame
  • Listening or taking notes when a teacher is speaking
  • Reading and taking notes
  • Solving simple math problems in their head
  • Completing multi-step math problems in the allotted time
  • Doing written projects that require details and complex thoughts
  • Keeping up with conversations

Parents and teachers may notice that a child:

  • Becomes overwhelmed by too much information at once
  • Needs more time to make decisions or give answers
  • Needs to read information more than once for comprehension
  • Misses nuances in conversation
  • Has trouble executing instructions if told to do more than one thing at once

Finding Out If Your Child Has Trouble With Processing Speed

If you suspect your child is struggling with processing speed, the first step is to talk to your child’s teacher. Discuss your own observations and find out what the teacher has noticed in class.

If processing speed is interfering with your child’s ability to learn, you might want to have her evaluated to determine what kinds of help the school can provide. A full evaluation should include tests that look at speed of processing for visual and auditory information. Testing can help you and your child’s teachers develop a plan to address her challenges.

Learn what else to do if you’re concerned your child has slow processing speed. Find out whether processing speed can vary from task to task. And read about the connection between slow processing speed and anxiety.

Key Takeaways

  • Slow processing speed can affect the ability to make decisions quickly.
  • Trouble with processing speed can affect a child’s executive functioning skills.
  • Having your child evaluated can reveal problems with processing speed.

About the Author

Portrait of Kate Kelly

Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Sheldon Horowitz

Sheldon H. Horowitz, EdD, is senior director of learning resources and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

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