Processing Speed: “Mommy My Hand Won’t Keep up with my Brain” – Slow Processing & Working Memory
This article provides helpful information about processing speed and how it affects your child in the classroom. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
Sometimes our kids amaze us by the amount of information they soak up, the complex topics they discuss, or their ability to figure out a hard math problem all by themselves. Other times it’s a battle just to put on a pair of shoes. Frequently, parents come to our center and describe their child as someone who often does poorly on tests but knows the material. Another common dilemma is when a student takes two hours to do their math homework when it takes other kids 20 minutes. As a parent, watching our kids struggle with this can be confusing and frustrating. Gifted children with slow processing speeds can appear focused on a task, but then not complete anything. Homework can drag on for hours, and slow processing speeds can even affect relationships, especially the relationship you have with your child.
Are these kids lazy? Unmotivated? Not so fast…
While there are many possible reasons for this type of breakdown, slow processing speed may be a factor with many academic and functioning issues your child may experience. What is processing speed and where does the idea come from? Processing speed is basically the pace at which a child takes in information, makes sense of it, and then utilizes it.
In Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up, Ellen Braaten, PhD, says, “In general though, 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.”
We find over and over that many intelligent kids are unable to produce the expected response times, especially during a timed exam or classroom experience. Sometimes, caregivers and educators label these kids as lazy or even apathetic, but these labels are usually incorrect. The same kids will perform just fine and many times exceed expectations when the time factor is removed. Teachers and parents must understand that slow processing speed has nothing to do with how smart a child is; it’s just how fast they take in information and how they use it.
What Happens During Processing
The human brain is complicated. When you take a look at a developing, immature brain in a child, the process at which information comes in and the calculated response to that information can vary a great deal from child to child. Information processing starts with input from your child’s sensory organs, which is when the body takes in physical stimuli from their environment (sounds, smells, sights, heat), and changes it into electrochemical signals. These signals are sent to the brain and are processed, to some degree, quickly for the brain to identify. The attention filter, called sensory gating, decides how important this information is at that moment and whether it should be kept for further use or disregarded. For the brain to process a piece of information, it must be stored and retained. This is where the notions of working memory, sensory memory and long-term memory come into play. Depending on when the child needs to use the information and how they encode the stimuli, it determines how the memory will be stored. Retrieval of information and a behavioral or a cognitive response is the final step in information processing.
Why Does Slow Processing Occur
There are a myriad of theories as to why slow processing occurs and where the breakdown or slowing occurs. The short answer is that it is complicated and we don’t have much in solid answers. The reason why it is complicated is because there is not just one region of the brain that deals with processing. The complexity of information processing includes many structures and networks within the brain, which could include one or all of these parts.
One answer to slow processing speed could be the emotional state of a child. When a child struggles with anxiety or depression, fear of failure usually creeps in. A child’s performance speed can drop if emotions interfere with the task at hand or if they are unstable.
Auditory and visual processing disorders may also play a part in slow informational processing, which affects your child’s reading, problem solving, thought processing, comprehension, handwriting and following instructions in the classroom. Children that have processing issues with their auditory and visual systems are the most common because learning occurs mostly through these channels. Any area of your child’s sensory input that is fragmented can cause processing issues, preventing your child from reaching their full academic potential. When there is a dysfunction in one of these systems, processing slows and causes the brain to only retain small amounts of information.
Another processing area of the brain that is now researched heavily is sensory processing. When a child struggles with overstimulation or understimulation of their senses, it takes energy away from their brain with the natural processing of relevant information. If the child is focused on irrelevant stimuli that bothers them (for example, background noise, tags in clothes or bright lights), processing important directions from the teacher decreases and attention issues or behavior issues manifest themselves in the classroom.
Kids with high verbal skills also tend to show slower processing skills than their peers. For example, they may say, “My hand won’t keep up with my brain.” Their verbal skills are outstanding, but when it comes to getting thoughts down on paper, the process is slow and tedious.
While there are many theories, each child is unique and should be evaluated for specific intervention that fits their specific processing needs. There are, however, some common signs you can watch for in your child to determine if they are struggling with slow processing speeds in school, at home and during other activities.
What Slow Processing Speed Looks Like
When we talk about slow processing speed in a child, we need to realize a few things. First, slow processing speed is not a learning or attention disability on its own. However, it can contribute to learning and attention issues in children with dyslexia, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorders, Autism and several other disorders. Next, slow processing in a child can also impact executive functioning skills. These are the skills that allow the child to think on their own and organize daily tasks in their life like impulse control, goal making and time management.
If your child struggles with quickly processing instructions or thoughts, it can lead to a breakdown in higher level thinking that includes the following issues with executive function:
- Not finishing tests in the allotted time
- Frequently having to take school work home to finish it
- Trouble keeping up with and understanding conversations
- Struggles with completing multi-step math problems in the allotted time
- Has difficulty listening and taking notes while the teaching is speaking
- Issues with solving simple math problems in their head quickly
- Trouble with written assignments that require complex thoughts and lots of details
- Problems with scanning something to find exactly what is needed
Does processing always matter?
In specific instances, sometimes processing speed won’t matter. A child that correctly completes an assignment or qualifies for special programs or classes, or even uses verbal skills efficiently usually doesn’t need to depend on speed in order to function in school. Other times, however, it may hinder the child’s learning ability or cause some disconnect in the classroom or in real-world situations when it comes to reading, writing and following directions.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs