Great Book on Processing Speed

Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up by Ellen Braaten, Ph.D. and Brian Willoughby, Ph.D. (2014) is the first book I have found that gives both an overview of processing speed and advice to help parents and schools provide intervention. The authors have done a great job of explaining a very complex issue. Here are excerpts from the book that I think can help you gain an understanding of processing speed. I highly recommend the book.


In general processing speed involves the amount of time it takes a person to perform one or more of the following functions:

  1. Perceive information
    1. This can be to any of the senses, but is usually through visual and auditory
  2. Process information
  3. Formulate or enact a response.

* Simply put processing speed can be defined as how long it takes to get stuff done.

Kids and adults who are slower at these types of processing tasks are sometimes assumed to be lacking in intelligence, but this really isn’t the case. However, processing speed does interact with other areas of cognitive functioning by negatively impacting the ability to quickly come up with an answer, retrieve information from long-­‐term memory, and remember what you’re supposed to be doing at a given time. In other words, it’s possible that someone with slow processing speed will, as a result, be impaired in other areas of thinking and may even score lower on tests of intelligence.

How do I know if my child has a slow processing speed?

To assess processing speed deficits a formal assessment by professional is recommended. Many times students with processing speed issues will also demonstrate signs of another underlying problem, the most common being attention problems. The second largest category of children with processing speed deficits are those with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, nonverbal learning disabilities, language-­‐based learning disabilities, and autism spectrum disorders (including pervasive developmental disorder and Asperger’s syndrome). Other children may suffer more transient processing speed deficits with psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, or psychosocial stressors. A final category of children with processing issues are those who don’t fall into any of these categories but who perform poorly on time tests as compared to untimed tests. This category of children has are sometimes diagnosed with something called a “ learning disorder, not otherwise specified”. More recent terminology refers to it as a learning disability with this specific impairment in reading, writing or math fluency.

Types of processing speed

Processing speed isn’t a one-­‐dimensional concept. It’s not just how fast we see, how fast we write, or how fast we can process what we heard; it’s really a combination of all those factors. In fact processing speed deficits can be observed in visual processing, verbal processing, and motor speed. Problems in one or more of these areas can manifest in problems with academic fluency and general difficulties.


Will my child ever get any faster?


  1. Changes in processing speed are likely related to the impact of practice and experience. Research on processing speed has shown that the more time someone repeats the task, the more automatic and thus quicker the response becomes.
  1. The speed increases are also due to structural changes in the brain that happen naturally as it develops during childhood.


These two factors, experience and growth, are crucial to increasing processing speed during the childhood and adolescent years.


Processing Speed and Executive Functioning


Processing speed is considered an important executive function skill. Executive function skills allow us to successfully use our intelligence and problem-­solving abilities. These skills include abilities such as goal setting, planning, organizing, prioritizing, remembering information in working memory, monitoring our behavior, and shifting back and forth between different tasks are typically. Imagine that executive function is the car and processing speed is the engine. Having a faster engine or more powerful engine means the car can go faster, good executive function depends on the quality of the engine. More efficient engines allow the car to function at a higher level of efficacy.


Is processing speed just another term for reaction time?


The answer is no. Reaction time is part of processing speed. Processing speed also includes how quickly a child can integrate new information, retrieve information from memory, and perform certain tasks. It can be visual, verbal, motoric, or a combination of all three; and it can be content specific in reading, writing, motor, or math. Although a child with slow processing speed will often show problems across a number of areas.


Practical strategies for accommodating slow processing speed at school


  • Advocate for extra time
  • Teach time management skills
  • Keep an extra set a textbook at home
  • Take advantage of technology is a timesaver
    • Use of the computer
  • Ask for examples of completed homework for your child to review before doing a assignment
  • Make sure assignments are clearly structured and uncluttered
    • Clear beginning and end points
    • No redundancy: allow students to only do enough problems to demonstrate that they understand the concepts rather than do many practice problems after they understand.
    • Simple uncluttered visuals
  • Avoid multitasking
    • Ask for alternatives to notetaking during lectures: getting notes in advance, getting an outline, getting an auto recording


Processing speed in social relationships


There is a big association between processing speed and social skills. Regardless of any diagnosis, children with slow processing speed are at greater risk for social deficits. They have higher rates of social and language delays in early childhood. We also found that nearly half of children with slow processing speed had some problem with communication in early childhood i.e. being slow to talk. This combination of slow processing speed and language delays is a recipe for social problems at an early age. The most frequently reported problems were difficulties with social communication, social awareness, and social cognition. These problems included things such as difficulty spontaneously complementing others, problems quickly picking up on social cues from peers, and a reluctance to join group activities.


How does slow processing speed affect the child’s friendships?


  • Children with slow processing speed take longer to pick up on social cues in general, thus missing the point of the social exchange
  • Interactions can seem stilted or awkward because it takes them a long time to figure out a response
  • They lose track of what’s happening during pretend player games, causing their peers to become frustrated with them
  • They are disorganized in relating stories are reporting events, causing peers to lose interest in what they are
  • Reactions to jokes and sarcasm can be just a few seconds behind, which can make them seem a bit off to their peers
  • Slow work performance makes it difficult when working with a group and on group assignments

Provide support for organization and communication

In addition to general interventions, kids with slow processing speed often need help organizing their thoughts so they can communicate better. They frequently have difficulty expressing themselves clearly and concisely and may make comments that are poorly organized and sequenced. Their frequent problems with quick word retrieval and verbal organization cause them to talk around the subject and make it difficult for the listener to know what they’re trying to say.

Read the book to learn more about processing speed. I found the information to be thoughtful, relevant and easy to understand. The area of processing speed and how it is impacting students in the classroom needs to given more attention.

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