Building Executive Functioning Skills May Be The Best Intervention For Increasing Processing Speed.

executive functioning processing speed


Processing speed is becoming a stumbling block for many students. The number of students who are requesting extra time on tests has increased tremendously over the years. What does it mean to have a processing speed dysfunction?  Do executive functioning skills impact processing speed? The case studies below are examples of how processing speed issues can vary from student to student.

  • Don is a quiet shy boy who loves skateboarding and hanging out with his family. He is sweet and everyone likes him, however he has no close friends. Don does not initiate conversations or join in conversations with friends at school, which keeps him from being part of the “group”.  Don moves at his own pace and cannot be rushed. Don’s slow processing is global. He is slow moving (except on a skateboard!), slow reading and writing, slow to take in verbal information and to respond verbally to questions.  Don can now read and write at grade level, but his reading and writing fluency are slow. Don continues to have difficulty finding the right words to express his ideas and still would rather sit back and watch a group than join in. Don needs extra time to take in, process and organize his ideas before responding regardless of the type of task presented. 
  • Sara is 8 years year old and quick as quick can be to let you know her opinions. She is highly social and very verbal. Her reading and reading comprehension skills are strong. Sara struggles with slowing down when she is writing. Her handwriting skills are poor and her spelling is weak. She makes careless errors on math problems, which causes her to lose points and get low grades. When asked to write for school Sara quickly becomes upset. Homework is a stressful and prolonged activity. Sara’s fine motor skills are weak and she hates writing. Her weakness in handwriting and organizing her thoughts cause her to avoid writing and she often turns in incomplete work. Sara needs extra time to allow her to stop and think, organize her thoughts and narrow them down in to a manageable amount of information to write down. She also needs extra time to allow her to slowly and carefully write the words on paper.
  • Alex has been diagnosed with a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD). One of the main components of NLD is a lack of organizational skills. This means that Alex has a hard time putting all the pieces of information he gathers together to allow him to come to a meaningful conclusion. Breaking down instructions in order to follow them is a challenge, so Alex often just guesses at what he is supposed to do based on pictures or looking at what other are doing. Alex needs extra time to circle and highlight the important information in texts and worksheets so that he can focus on the most important part. He also needs extra time to contemplate the information and come to meaningful conclusion.

Each of these children struggle with processing speed, but the cause of their struggle is different. Weak fine motor skills and/or organizational skills are common factors in processing speed issues. While for many students the fine motor skills are a chief cause of frustration, I am beginning to consider weak executive functioning skills a key factor affecting processing speed.

Young children can work to improve their fine motor skills and therefore increase their processing speed, if that is the main cause of the processing speed deficit. However, for older children and those whose processing speed deficit is cognitively based, building executive functioning skills will be the best intervention for increasing processing speed.

I invite you to take our free executive functioning quiz and find out what skills are strong, and which are weak for you or your child.

Here is a list of Executive Functioning skills:


starting work


stopping off-task behavior


moving from one activity to another

Working Memory

remembering information for immediate use


setting goals and the steps to accomplish them

Organizing Materials

tracking items in work spaces

Time Management

allotting appropriate time for each task


judging the quality and pace of work

Emotional Control

regulating stress and distractibility

For many of the students I see with a processing speed issue, the executive functioning skills of initiate, shift, plan, time management and emotional control are difficult for them. I consider the ability to shift as the most important skill to develop. If a child gets stuck on an idea and can’t let go of it to consider a new idea, nothing can change. If a child gets frustrated and shuts down he can’t find solution to the problem, rather he becomes overwhelmed and defeated. Many students with this profile need to learn new ways to approach tasks so that they can hone in on the most important part. To help them save time and therefore speed up, these students can learn new organization skills that will help them start and finish work in a timely manner. However, they need to be flexible thinkers to do this.

For students with this profile I suggest they build flexible thinking skills first and then organization skills. You can read my blog article on building flexible thinking skills to learn more. I also created The Flexible Thinking Workbook to help students build these very important skills.

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