Slow Processing Speed: What It Is and How to Support Kids Who Have It

The following is a conversation I had with Dr. Ellen Braaten, where she explains to us exactly what slow processing speed is, describes how it shows up in kids, and gives her insights on how parents (and teachers) can best support kids for whom this is a challenge. Slow processing speed affects many differently-wired children, and can often be found co-existing with neurological differences like ADHD, giftedness, anxiety, sensory issues and more. What makes it so difficult for kids to manage and parents and teachers to understand is that there is often a marked disconnect between a child’s intellectual capability and the pace at which they execute certain tasks.

This is an edited transcription of Episode 19 of the TiLT Parenting Podcast. To listen to the full episode, click here: Episode 19: Slow Processing Speed—What It Is and How to Support Kids Who Have It.

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Debbie: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and the kind of work you do as a child psychologist?

Ellen: I started right out of undergraduate as a special education teacher for six years. Then, I went back to get a degree in psychology, and specialized in neuropsychological assessments. So my area of interest is in the crossover between school problems, real world problems, and neuropsychology, which is looking at how the brain impacts what we do in different areas of life like language, visual motor skills, and problem solving skills. Now I write for, as well as work at the Clay Center for Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Debbie: I recently shared an article from Understood on the TiLT Facebook page called “Slow Processing Speed and Anxiety: What you need to know.” This post in particular generated a lot of discussion among parents and it also raised a lot of questions. I received many comments from parents saying that was the first time they had heard of slow processing speed and that the article connected a lot of dots for them in relation to their child. And then there were others who were a bit confused about the definition.

Ellen: Processing speed is a fairly new kind of concept and it’s one of the things that I was finding as I’ve been testing kids now for twenty years. One of the things that we found is that there was this group of kids that, regardless of the diagnosis or sometimes they had no diagnosis at all, meaning they didn’t meet criteria for ADHD or reading disability or dyslexia, they tended to be struggling in school because it took them a long time to do stuff.

One of the simplest ways of defining slow processing speed is how long it takes you to get something done. And there are a lot of different aspects to that.

One of the simplest ways of defining slow processing speed is how long it takes you to get something done. And there are a lot of different aspects to that. There’s a part that has to do with us being able to process it—take it in. Then there’s the part that’s about having to come up with a response. And then there’s the output. So for any one child it could be one, two, or all of those things. There are different points where that can break down for you. Unfortunately it’s not a nice easy little concept and that’s why people are easily confused.

Debbie: I know that for many gifted children, having slow processing speed can actually drag their IQ scores down. And then I’ve heard from people that we’ve interacted with that the disconnect between their intelligence and the processing speed can create a lot of frustration and cause a lot of problems. Is that what you see?

Ellen:  Absolutely it is. And regardless of what the cognitive ability is, we like to be in sync. So it’s almost better, in some ways, to be average in everything because you’re not going to be frustrated in most things because the way you interact with it is pretty much the same. But when you’re very bright and a lot of things come easily to you and then your ability to actually execute the task is much slower, you feeling frustrated yourself. Because we don’t like that feeling of inconsistency within ourselves. The other area of frustration is that people look at you and say “You’re so smart. Why couldn’t you get that done? That was really simple!” Oftentimes when we’re talking about processing speed, we’re measuring it very simply. It’s the simple speed of being able to, for example, copy a code or do a group of math problems. It’s not measuring the depth of your thinking given unlimited time. You can have this wonderful ability to think deeply about something, but when it comes time to actually write something quickly or take notes or do a simple page of math facts, you’re struggling with that. And that’s frustrating for you. And it’s frustrating for your teachers and parents who think, “Wait a minute . . . this should be really easy for you.” The child then has frustration all around them.

But when you’re very bright and a lot of things come easily to you and then your ability to actually execute the task is much slower, you feeling frustrated yourself. Because we don’t like that feeling of inconsistency within ourselves.

Debbie: I feel like I can relate to everything that you’re saying in terms of what we’ve experienced with our child and what a lot of parents in the TiLT community are also struggling with.

As you’re talking, I’m thinking about “asynchronous development,” which I hear a lot about, and I’m also thinking of the “out-of-sync” child—those kids who are identified as having sensory issues and/or ADHD, which is something my son has. It can be confusing because being distracted easily makes things take longer, so I guess I’m curious—how do you go about determining “what’s what?”  And does it matter? Is it important that we can differentiate what’s what if the core issues are the same?

Ellen: I do think it’s important to differentiate, because you want to know where it’s breaking down for your child. So for instance, in terms of being able to determine what kind of treatments are most helpful, getting a thorough evaluation that looks at all of these areas of functioning can be extremely helpful. Rarely is a child struggling in all areas of processing speed. And it also cuts across disorders. As you mentioned, we do find that a significant number of kids with ADHD have slow processing speed, but not all of them do. We know that a fair number of kids with anxiety or reading disabilities have problems with slower processing speed, but it’s not consistent across the board. Slow processing speed is one of those traits that tends to run across symptoms and depending on whether it’s there or not, you may want to change your approach for the child.

Of course, I’m biased because this is what I do for a living, but I feel strongly that getting a thorough evaluation, especially when you’re really confused as a parent, can be so helpful. It can give you a chance to see the big picture and take a step back. It’s a chance to realize, “All right, I knew this was going to be hard but now we can fix this and move on.”

Debbie: Is there a specific age range where these issues tend to become more evident?

Ellen: I find this becomes a bigger problem when kids get into school. You know if you have a pokey three or five year old who’s kind of slow to get ready and get going on things, there’s a lot of leeway at that age. It’s really when the academic skills become really important. Generally, I find this starts to become a problem some time between second and fifth grade. For some kids who are really bright, they can kind of get by and people assume they’re just not very motivated or that they don’t work hard enough. But that’s rarely ever the case. Fourth graders are typically motivated to do well. They like to please people. So if you or your child is finding out that they’re not doing well, there’s usually a pretty good reason. I would say early elementary school time is a good time to look into that.

For some kids who are really bright, they can kind of get by and people assume they’re just not very motivated or that they don’t work hard enough.

Some of these kids will already have been diagnosed with ADHD or with a learning disability and the processing speed is just a layer to that. For example if you have a child with ADHD, you find great ways to treat the ADHD with medication or things in the environment that you’re changing, but somehow life doesn’t get that much easier. Sometimes it’s the processing speed that is the thing that really makes life more difficult.

Debbie: I remember when Asher was in a traditional classroom setting and timed math came up, you know—how many math problems can you finish an X amount of time. He’s really good at math, but put time pressure on him and all bets are off . . . it did not go well!

So what do you do then? We have a lot of listeners whose children have high functioning autism and other things going on like anxiety. So you can treat those things but you may not necessarily be addressing this speed processing issue. So how do you go about that?

Ellen: I want to reiterate what you just said. If there is another diagnosis, you want to make sure you’re doing everything you can to treat that underlying issue. I say this because any time you can make life more efficient for your child, that is the key. To make life efficient and more seamless so that the processing issues don’t cause as many issues. So let’s say you’ve done that. There are few things I think are helpful. One is simply getting more information about what’s going on. Sometimes just getting a diagnosis can be so therapeutic for parents. I’ve had parents say, “Okay, so I can’t really expect him to be that fast at this” and I would say, “That’s right, that’s just something that you just need to be aware of and know.”

From there, parents can feel like, I can live with that. Then the other things that we talk about in our book, Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up, is what we call the Three A’s of Processing Speed. So we want to Accept the problem, which I’ve already talked about. We want to Accommodate it. Then we want to Advocate for them.

Eventually, help your child to understand this is who he is and there’s no shame in being a slower deeper thinker. In fact it’s kind of what a lot of us strive for in life.

Acceptance is that part about getting a thorough evaluation. You want to document the problem and you need to, in some ways, accept it. It sounds like you have realized that for your son, timed math tests are not the end all be all and he’s just never going to be the first one done with the one-minute multiplication tables. Then you can all let that go—in some ways that can be so freeing.

Then we want to make sure that we’re accommodating a child. The number one thing you can do is to give them extra time. Extra time for everything, but particularly extra time on tests or extra time for being able to get notes done in class. Any sort of accommodations that they can put into place for school to make life more efficient and to give them adequate time to do what it is that they need to get done is key.

I also think there’s a piece here too about advocating. It starts with the parents to be able to say “This is my child’s profile in today’s world.” And that’s a big piece of this, too! Forty years ago this wasn’t an issue. You could be sort of the last one done and it wasn’t such a big deal. Now we have so many things to juggle, it’s much harder to get everything done, even for people who don’t have slower processing speed. Being able to advocate for your child means being able to educate your family and your child’s teachers. Getting the teachers on board can be extremely helpful. Eventually, help your child to understand this is who he is and there’s no shame in being a slower deeper thinker. In fact it’s kind of what a lot of us strive for in life.

As adults, we take workshops on how to slow down. They already do that very naturally. We have a lot to learn from kids who are naturally paced like this. I think being able to accept and understanding who you are as a parent. We also need to look at our own parenting style. The best kind of parenting style for kids with this slower pace is to be flexible. And truly, that’s always the best in any parenting situation. I think sometimes that’s why I think this topic resonates, because everybody’s sort of feeling frazzled. All parents are feeling like, I can’t get my child to get everything done that he’s supposed to get done, regardless of what their cognitive profile is like.But I think being able to be flexible and instinctively know, Okay, I need to slow down because I need to match my child’s pace or This time I’m going to push him a little bit and we’re going to have to figure out how to get that done. it’s so beneficial to be able to be flexible and to know that you need to slow down to match your child right here at this time. So not every day is going to be the same, but at the same time, you want to keep things as consistent as you can because consistency breeds efficiency.

The best kind of parenting style for kids with this slower pace is to be flexible.

Debbie: I like what you said about Accepting. It’s that idea of reality versus our expectations in parenting—this is where so much of the struggle comes for us. So just that piece alone can change everything. When you just accept that your child needs maybe ten minutes to put on their shoes or whatever it is to get out the door, not only does that shift help you as a parent, but the children don’t feel the stress or the energy that we’re putting out there.

I’ve had a few educators on the show and we’ve talked about different ways to ask for things in a school setting. As far as diagnosis goes, what do families need to know in order to successfully ask for and get accommodations?

Ellen: What I generally recommend is to find something in the profile where processing speed is causing real-time, real-life difficulties. So for example, you want to get an evaluation that kind of digs deep into how processing speed affects academics.

Debbie: I know for that in some schools, if a child is 2e or academically gifted but they also have other things going on such as processing issues, it can be harder to get accommodations if they’re still doing “okay” academically. But it sounds like the more information you have about your child and can provide to the school, coupled with being an advocate, that will put you in the best position to support your child in school . . .

If you get an evaluation, you want to make sure that they look at academic skills and how their processing difference impacts academic skills. It almost always does.

Ellen: Yes. If you get an evaluation, you want to make sure that they look at academic skills and how their processing difference impacts academic skills. It almost always does and almost always you can find some kind of documentation.

Debbie: Can you tell us a little bit more about your book Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up?

Ellen: I wanted to give a voice to the parents who had been dealing with this and didn’t have a way of describing it. I think over the years of evaluating kids, I noticed that with kids who don’t seem to live up to their potential, processing speed tended to be the weakest spot being given any attention. So I wanted to identify what the problem was and understand it better. In the book, I tried to present what we know about brain research to inform what’s happening with these kids. And then we wanted to talk about how to help your child in daily life.

For instance, how does processing speed apply to social relationships? To the classroom? To your daily life? What are the emotional costs of processing speed? As part of that we looked at our own clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital to understand what these kids look like. For example, what kind of other issues do they have? It was very interesting for us to find out that our clinical hunch was correct in that a lot of these kids have problems with social skills. Not all of them by any means but, you know, social skills happen in real time. So if you’re slow to sort of process what’s going on, sometimes social situations can bypass you.

So we wanted to look at all of those areas and give a little bit of information about each one of them, and present some strategies and things to think about that can be helpful for parents.

Debbie: That’s so interesting—I hadn’t thought about the impact of processing speed on social situations. But that makes total sense.

On your publisher’s website, I saw there’s a downloadable processing speed checklist for parents. Can you explain what this is and how parents could use this to find out more about their child?

Ellen: So there are few questionnaires in there that that you can use to gauge, first of all, your child’s processing speed. So you can look at verbal versus visual versus motor versus academic to get a sense of where the problems are. We also have a checklist in there that gives people the opportunity to gauge their own processing speed so they can understand the match between themselves and their child. And then also because social relationships are so significant, we’ve got a questionnaire in there about what to look for at different ages.

Lastly, there’s another questionnaire about something we haven’t covered in this conversation, and that is the emotional cost of slow processing speed. A lot of times, kids wind up getting sort of down, anxious, or depressed because it takes a toll if it’s something that’s untreated and unacknowledged. There’s a cost to one’s self-esteem.

There are also a number of different questionnaires on the Guilford Press website that readers can download to get a little heads up on what’s going on for their child as well as for themselves.

Debbie: Just to touch upon what you said about the emotional cost to the child. A big thing we believe in here at TiLT is having no shame—in being open and transparent with what’s going on both within your own community and world, but also with your child. Because often when our children understand what’s going on, it not only can take that anxiety away, but they can feel empowered and understand their gifts and what’s going on with them as well.

Ellen: I think it’s what we all strive for. We all strive to understand ourselves better. There isn’t any shame and, in fact, it’s something to embrace. If you can teach children at an early age that, Maybe it’s going to take me longer to get done with this, then they can be honest and open with their teachers or their employers and figure out a way. It’s not an excuse, it’s a way of saying, This is who I am and here’s what I’m capable of. It can be very empowering.

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Want to get learn more? Here are links to the resources mentioned in the article:


About Ellen: Ellen Braaten, PhD is associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Mass General, and an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. She received her MA in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado, and her PhD in psychology from Colorado State University.

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