Executive Function Strategies Blog

Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up: The Cost of Slow Processing Speed

Editor's note: This week, we feature guest blogger Dr. Ellen Braaten, associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. Read her full bio below.

Some kids are naturally fast. They run, talk, complete homework assignments and do all sorts of things at a rate that seems appropriate for their age.Ellen_Braaten.jpg Other kids don’t, or perhaps it would be fairer to say they can’t. These are kids who may have what are called processing speed deficits. In my work as a child psychologist who specializes in pediatric neuropsychology, it seems as if I’m evaluating more kids with processing speed deficits every year. In conversations with other professionals around the country, many tell me they are experiencing the same trend. Is this a real increase in the population at large? Is it an artifact of the types of curriculum used in our schools? Is there too much value placed on product and not enough on experiencing the process? Or does it just seem like a bigger problem because what was once more of a behavior trait is now a real disability given that quick processing has become a more important necessity in the world in which we now live? It’s impossible to answer this question with the data we now have, but regardless of the cause, the emotional toll of having slower processing speed has significant consequences for children.  

Processing speed involves one or more of the following functions: the amount of time it takes to perceive information (this can be through any of the senses, but usually through the visual and auditory channels), process information and/or formulate or enact a response. Another way to define processing speed is to say it’s the time required to perform an intellectual task or the amount of work that can be completed within a certain period of time. Even more simply, processing speed could be defined as how long it takes to get stuff done.  

Because we place such a high value on doing things quickly in our culture, it can be difficult to live with a nervous system that needs more time to process information. In addition, most of the kids I see who have processing speed problems have other primary diagnoses such as ADHD, a learning disability, or ASD (autism spectrum disorder). However, often it’s the impaired processing speed that can eventually be one of the more challenging problems in a child’s profile. In fact, perhaps the most difficult question parents ask me is “What exactly is processing speed and is there any way to fix it?”

The short answer to that question is, “It’s complicated and we don’t know how to fix it.” It’s complicated because there is no single region of the brain that is responsible for the primary problem with processing speed; rather, one’s abilities in processing information involve a complex network of different parts of the brain, any or all of which may result in slower speed of processing. Regardless of the reasons for the deficit, the real-world impairments are significant. In the studies done at the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at MGH, our research has indicated that:

  • Boys are more affected by processing speed deficits than girls (70% of the children with significant processing speed deficits were boys). When you consider that many experts have argued that the typical elementary school classroom is already structured heavily to favor the learning style of girls, this presents many boys with an ever greater challenge than most teachers realize.
  • Social difficulties are common in about 1/3 of the children with processing speed deficits and these social difficulties are not just limited to kids who also have ASD-related diagnoses.
  • Language impairments were reported in about 40% of the children.
  • The vast majority of the children with processing speed deficits (77%) were currently receiving services under an IEP or 504 plan which indicates the level of impact this has on academic functioning.
  • Having a processing speed deficit is not the same as having ADHD as only 61% of the kids with ADHD also had processing speed deficits as compared to their age-matched peers and significant numbers of children with other diagnoses present with this profile, most frequently: reading disorder (28% of the sample), math disorder (20%), generalized anxiety disorder (20%), autism spectrum disorder (17%), and disorder of written expression (15%).  

Given that the causes and comorbid diagnoses are so varied, what can be recommended? In the book, Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up, my colleague and I describe how to put into practice the Three A’s of Processing Speed – accepting a child’s unique learning style, helping him or her to accommodate any learning challenges, and advocating for a child’s need. Eventually, a child needs to integrate these A’s by better understanding his unique qualities and accepting those qualities as being an important and valuable part of who he is, learning to make accommodations for himself, and advocating for himself in school and work environments.  

In terms of acceptance, the first step is to help parents and children acknowledge there is a problem. Oftentimes, a comprehensive evaluation is what’s necessary to see concretely where the processing speed deficits fall in comparison to other areas of cognition. Slow processing speed has significant effects on life at home, social relationships, and school functioning. The quicker parents and kids recognize these problems, the quicker they can be addressed. For example, at home, homework time is the most commonly reported problem and admitting that it’s a problem can be the first step in finding an appropriate school-based accommodation such as a reduced homework load when appropriate. In terms of accommodations at home, keeping the environment structured and predictable is associated with better functioning. In any environment, changing the rate of speaking, assisting in time management, and using both verbal and visual cues are recommended strategies. Advocating can be tricky for parents - but it’s important for parents to act as advocates because their children are often described as “lazy,” “unmotivated,” or “not smart,” by teachers and even other family members. Teaching family members and teachers about a child’s cognitive profile can be one of the most important roles a parent can have, particularly when it eventually includes teaching a child how to advocate for him or herself. Many people in today’s fast paced world don’t understand why kids with slower processing act the way they do. They don’t understand why someone wouldn’t just pick up the pace. This can make it even more difficult for kids who have emotional difficulties, such as depression and anxiety. The relationship between processing speed and emotional difficulties is likely somewhat bidirectional and can be a vicious cycle for many children. Thus, children with slow processing speed are at risk for lower self-esteem, depression, and anxiety – and if these emotional difficulties arise, they slow down children even further.  

Our world has become more fast-paced. In order to be successful in today’s classrooms, a child needs to be able to process large amount of information quickly and be able to shift back and forth between different types of tasks. Although experienced as a very real deficit by these kids, it’s important to note that there is a valuable place for kids with slower processing speed in our fast-paced world. In fact, one could argue that much of the world’s progress has been made by deep, slow thinkers. Whether it is in the field of inventions, art, or literature, many of our most treasured works are likely completed by gifted individuals who worked at their own pace. Those of us who work with these children need to help them learn to embrace their challenges while working with the systems in which they live to better understand them. Otherwise, we risk losing much of the value these deep, slower thinkers and producers bring to the all-too-quick and superficial world in which we live.

Self-advocacy is a critical skill for all students to develop - especially for students with slow processing speed. Download our Self-Advocacy Checklist of specific skills that students need to be successful in school and beyond.

Download Student Self-Advocacy Checklist

Dr. Ellen Braaten is associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at MGH, and an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Braaten received her M.A. in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado, and her Ph.D. in psychology from Colorado State University.

Dr. Braaten is widely recognized as an expert in the field of pediatric neuropsychological and psychological assessment, particularly in the areas of assessing learning disabilities and attention disorders. She has published numerous papers, chapters, and reviews on ADHD, learning disabilities, gender and psychopathology, intelligence and neuropsychology, and psychological assessment of children. Dr. Braaten is the co-author of Straight Talk about Psychological Testing for Kids, a book that has become a classic for parents and professionals. She also wrote The Child Clinician’s Report Writing Handbook, which has been called “the most comprehensive child assessment handbook available.” In 2010 she published How to Find Mental Health Care for Your Child, and most recently co-authored Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up, a book for parents that addresses slow processing speed in children.

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