What is Processing Speed in Childhood?
‘Processing speed’ means mental quickness.
It is the ability to do simple tasks efficiently or within a time limit.
Processing speed is defined as
“An ability to rapidly scan and react to simple tasks” ~ Horn, 1987 
Processing speed is the ability to work quickly and solve problems within a time limit. These tasks are neither deep nor analytical. Instead, processing speed is a measure of mental efficiency. Everyone processes information at a slightly different pace. When one person’s pace is much slower than another person’s, that can cause stress and anxiety in daily life or a feeling of never catching up, never getting things done.
Sometimes motor speed can play into processing speed, with some people thinking very quickly but writing or typing more slowly based on motor performance.
Some children, teenagers, or adults take longer to complete a task than others. When we think about the time allotted for tasks academically, for example, the average student’s performance is considered. Thus, some who process information more slowly may never get something done on time despite implementing time management.
The most common complaints for slow processors include having adequate time to take notes, complete homework assignments, learn new information in a lecture or class, and take tests. With these complaints, a child’s academic performance is often impacted. They may be able to do the work, not having a learning disorder but rather having trouble with academic fluency or processing speed.
Symptoms of Processing Speed Issues in Children
- Works slowly: you may hear your child’s teacher say, “He has great ideas but just doesn’t get them on paper,” or “He doesn’t show us what he knows,” or “She has trouble getting her work turned in,” or “She is not doing her best.”
- Inconsistent work quality: Some inconsistencies in your child’s work tend to be present. Kids with these issues tend to be able to do something great one day and then really struggle the next (when something is timed)
- Refuses or avoids tasks: your child may feel overwhelmed because they take so long, your child may feel overwhelmed.
- Homework is a struggle: Your child may sit for a long time at his desk and have very little to show for it. Executive functions, processing speed, and attention challenges may go together. This struggle is common for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
- Hard time getting ready for school: You may feel frustrated that your child seems to take forever getting dressed, doing routine chores, or getting through the morning routine.
- Struggles with organizational skills and scholarly: Your child may be tardy to class, strolling slowly to his locker, and forgetting what binder to bring to math. You may feel like the parent who owns most of the items in the ‘lost and found.’ This challenge with executive functions often goes hand in hand with slow processing speed.
- Last to finish: your child may be the last one to complete the ‘fun run’ at school or finish the obstacle course on field day.
- Falling behind with assignments: you may hear your child say it is hard to keep up with the teacher’s lesson, and they are not getting much on paper during writing time, despite good ideas.
- Struggles with timed drills: math drills or timed tests of quickness are a struggle for your child, while math skills seem solid without the time constraints.
Causes of Processing Speed Issues in Children
Clinically, these problems are referred to as deficits in cognitive processing. In psychology, this issue of ‘mental quickness’ is called Processing Speed.
Potential Causes of Processing Speed Challenges
Fluency: Processing speed is also known as ‘fluency’ in the academic domain. Reading fluency is the ability to read quickly and smoothly. Math fluency is the ability to solve problems quickly and accurately. Academic fluency and processing speed are terms that can be used interchangeably.
Any speed drill requires processing speed. In athletics, processing speed is needed to react quickly as the game changes, adjust one’s strategy, and move swiftly in a new direction.
Working Memory: A similar problem related to ‘working memory’ occurs when a child has trouble processing and holding information in their mind, often forgetting the last part of instructions.
Cognitive Proficiency: The combination of processing speed and working memory is captured under a term called ‘The CPI” or “Cognitive Proficiency Index.” This aspect of a learning style can be assessed using an IQ test like the WISC, WAIS, or WPPSI. Several tests assess cognitive proficiency, and a clinical psychologist, neuropsychologist, or school psychologist can administer these tests.
This CPI index addresses how an individual’s brain works, or functions, not their factual knowledge or ability. Challenges in CPI are like a car engine with all the right parts that just doesn’t run well. CPI can be assessed compared to GAI, or General Ability which relates to factual knowledge and ability.
Often, bright students, even gifted kids, have difficulty seeing or hearing, manipulating, and responding to all the information coming into their brains. This difficulty is clinically referred to as a problem with cognitive proficiency or cognitive processing.
What to Do about Processing Speed Issues in Childhood
If you suspect your child has slow processing speed, it would first be important to consult with a School Psychologist or Clinical Psychologist and have an IQ test to confirm.
School psychologists typically only administer IQ tests as part of an assessment for special education services. If your child is not being considered for school-based services, it may be necessary to consult a clinical psychologist instead.
Processing speed has been improved in some cases.
For example, if a person is depressed and participates in treatment, their processing speed is highly likely to improve.
Individuals with autism tend to have ‘catch up intellectual development,’ which means that their IQ scores, and often processing speed, tend to improve over time with adequate treatment .
Even though treatment can help, some of the skills tested on an IQ test, and processing speed is certainly one of them, are thought to be somewhat innate; intervention can limitedly improve or alter these traits for most people.
If your child has slow processing speed, you can employ some helpful strategies.
First, remind your child of the adage from the tortoise and the hare, ‘slow and steady wins the race’ . The hare starts the race strong in the classic fable but is caught napping on the job. The tortoise keeps going and never gives up, eventually winning the race.
Second, know that many high achievers work slower than others. Often, in a family where one child finds that school comes easy, and another child who may have to struggle and work hard to keep up, the one who struggles but never stops will eventually find more success.
Focus on attitude and effort. Regardless of your child’s intellectual ability, hard work will win the race in the end.
Third, Another way to improve processing speed is to provide lots of priming and practice . Remind your child to rehearse materials in advance. Prepare for success.
Practice will increase speed, eventually improving your child’s processing rate, at least for that task.
For example, a child with slow processing speed will likely struggle on math fact drills, such as the ‘mad minute’ multiplication drill. However, practicing math facts with flashcards or computerized practice (ixl.com or multiplication baseball) will eventually improve the child’s speed on such tasks.
When to Seek Help for Processing Speed Issues
If your child’s skills are very low in processing speed, a consultation with the school may help.
A 504 plan or IEP may be necessary. The 504 and the IEP can provide accommodations such as ‘extra prompting and process time’ and ‘extended time on tests and assignments.’ This way, your child has extra time to show what they know. Less grading and emphasis are placed on time, and more is placed on mastery of knowledge. This difference can significantly impact a child who processes information more slowly.
Accommodations: More practice with grade-level sight words will increase reading fluency if your child’s reading is slow. The school can offer extended time for reading assignments as well.
Further Resources on Processing Speed Issues
Resources for Processing Speed Issues
- Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a mental health context; to test IQ, including processing speed
- School Psychologist: to help with learning problems, to test IQ, including processing speed, and to consider for 504 or IEP. (Generally, only in the context of an IEP evaluation – parents cannot necessarily request an IQ test from the school psychologist)
- Occupational Therapist (OT): to help with slower speed on tasks due to motor skills or sensory problems
- Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP): to assess issues with receptive or expressive language
Similar Conditions to Processing Speed Issues
- Verbal Comprehension: children who struggle with processing speed may also have difficulties with verbal skills or the understanding of spoken language
- Auditory Processing: children who struggle with processing speed may also have trouble with discerning sounds and processing verbal information
- Spatial Reasoning: children who struggle with processing speed may also have difficulties assessing how objects fit together, solving puzzles, or reading a map
- Intelligence: children who struggle with processing speed may also have difficulties with overall intellectual functioning
Book Resources on Processing Speed in Childhood
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Stevens, Janet (1985). The tortoise and the hare: An Aesop fable.
Mather, Nancy & Goldstein, Sam (2015). Learning disabilities and challenging behaviors: Using the building blocks model to guide intervention and classroom management, third edition.Sattler, Jerome (2014). Foundations of behavioral, social, and clinical assessment of children. (p.141)
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