How to Help a Gifted Student who has Average Processing Speed and Working Memory Skills

I love my son and I want to make sure that he has everything he needs to succeed in school and in life. Last year I had to work hard to get an IEP for him due to articulation problems. Part of the testing included the WISC IV which revealed that his Processing Speed and Working Memory are significantly lower than his other numbers. I was told by the school psychologist not to worry about the lower processing speed and working memory because they are “still average”.

My son, Josh, is now 7 years old and has entered 2nd grade. We’re seeing how the low processing speed may actually be an issue for him in school. His teacher recently started a “Mad Math Minute” program where students rapidly write down the answers to simple math problems, and my son has struggled greatly with writing the facts down in the allotted time. Verbally, however, he is completely fluent (he entered kindergarten doing these math facts).

His teacher, (who had implemented the math program), offered to talk to the school about getting a 504, which would give him extra time on tests, knowing that this could affect him later in his academic career. I thought she would be taken more seriously as a highly experienced teacher vs. me, “that mom”, but she was told the same thing that I was: “He’s still average”, and therefore probably wouldn’t qualify for a 504. These roadblocks continue to frustrate and sadden me because other students and teachers do not fully understanding Josh, my son is unable to get the support he needs in the classroom and show his full academic potential.

FSIQ: 135 (99%)
Perceptual Reasoning: 145 (99%)
Processing Speed: 103 (58%)
Verbal Comprehension: 140 (99%)
Working Memory: 107 (68%)


– Worried Mom


Josh’s working memory and processing speed are holding him back from demonstrating his potential. He is able to think much faster than he can write, so he needs extra time to allow him to demonstrate his knowledge. The fact that his low scores are average does not negate the fact that he has a significant discrepancy in his learning profile.

However, the school is correct that he is not testing below average. The question becomes whether this discrepancy is impacting his academic performance enough to qualify him as student with a learning disability. Is he performing below grade level on his math work? A full evaluation will investigate his reading, writing and math skills for both content knowledge and fluency. If his fluency scores fall below grade level he should qualify for services as a student with a specific learning disability given the large difference between his potential and achievement.


Regardless of whether he qualifies for services or not, now is the time to start interventions to help round out his skills and help him develop as a gifted student. Many gifted students have high verbal and reasoning skills with lower processing speed. I have listed interventions in my blog: The Frustration Profile.


The score I am curious about is the average Working Memory Index. Given the high verbal and reasoning skills, I would expect the working memory to be higher. Areas to investigate are auditory processing and attention; either, or both, could be impacting his working memory score on the WISC IV. Working memory is a critical skill for learning.

Here are some ideas to help Josh:


Working Memory and Processing Speed Recommendations and Accommodations:


For students with Weak Working Memory Skills
  • Organize: Help students organize the information they hear in meaningful ways, including chunking the information into shorter steps or connecting new information with previously learned information.
  • Preview: Preview new concepts with students so they know what to expect – this will decrease stress and help with attention and engagement in the classroom.


For students with Weak Executive Function/Memory Skills/Processing Speed
  • Strategize: Build strategies to help students analyze, prioritize, and execute specific steps in a given assignment.
  • Stop and Think: Encourage students to think through responses and take their time; many students with processing speed issues develop a compensatory strategy to rush through in order to finish work in time; these students would benefit from slowing down to process the information more deeply.
  • Stop and Read: Teach students to stop and read directions carefully prior to starting a task.
  • Break Down: Break down tasks and follow the order-checking work along the way.
  • Build Skills: Build memory skills by building associations to preexisting knowledge.
  • Rehearse: Rehearse new information to help encode it.
  • Visualize: Encourage students to visualize what they are going to do before they begin a task.
  • Engage: Teach students strategies to increase engagement such as use of reminders (which can be set on devices such as the iPhone) to help build attention, awareness, structure and independent work habits.
  • Self-Talk: Teach students to use self-talk to organize learning and performance strategies and to focus attention on tasks.
  • Recall: Teach students strategies to help recall information, such as PAR:
    • P= Picture it.
      A= Associate it
      R= Review it.


For students with Weak Processing Speed/ fine motor skills
  • Tests: Allow extra time for tests, usually time and a half.
  • In-class assignments: Provide extra time for students to complete in-class assignments.
  • Time Management: Train students in time management techniques to become aware of the time that tasks take.
  • Typing: Teach typing skills to enable students to type as fast as they think.
  • Computers: Allow students to use the computer for all writing tasks.



3 Responses

  1. David

    Thank you for this article. I expect we will put the information to good use. However, would you please expound a bit on your statement “areas to investigate are auditory processing and attention….” Most specifically, what steps should parents take to investigate auditory processing? See a psychologist, audiologist, or some other professional?

    My 10 year old son has WISC IV scores very similar to Josh’s (87% on working memory, 50% on processing speed). Auditory processing is of specific interest to me, as my son also has a mild cookie bite hearing loss and was diagnosed at an early age with a sensory integration disorder, a diagnosis for which he received occupational therapy. Overall, he is doing well in school, even after skipping a grade, but the organizational skills and just getting work completed and returned to the teacher are daily challenges.


    • Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

      Here is some information from KidsHealth on diagnosing an auditory processing disorder:
      If you think your child is having trouble hearing or understanding when people talk, have an audiologist (hearing specialist) exam your child. Only audiologists can diagnose auditory processing disorder.

      Audiologists look for five main problem areas in kids with APD:

      Auditory figure-ground problems: This is when a child can’t pay attention if there’s noise in the background. Noisy, loosely structured classrooms could be very frustrating.
      Auditory memory problems: This is when a child has difficulty remembering information such as directions, lists, or study materials. It can be immediate (“I can’t remember it now”) and/or delayed (“I can’t remember it when I need it for later”).
      Auditory discrimination problems: This is when a child has difficulty hearing the difference between words or sounds that are similar (COAT/BOAT or CH/SH). This can affect following directions and reading, spelling, and writing skills, among others.
      Auditory attention problems: This is when a child can’t stay focused on listening long enough to complete a task or requirement (such as listening to a lecture in school). Kids with CAPD often have trouble maintaining attention, although health, motivation, and attitude also can play a role.
      Auditory cohesion problems: This is when higher-level listening tasks are difficult. Auditory cohesion skills — drawing inferences from conversations, understanding riddles, or comprehending verbal math problems — require heightened auditory processing and language levels. They develop best when all the other skills (levels 1 through 4 above) are intact.

      Since most of the tests done to check for APD require a child to be at least 7 or 8 years old, many kids aren’t diagnosed until then or later.

  2. Frustrated Mom Profile

    Thank you to the folks at Bits of Wisdom. I came across your site years ago and it was a tremendous help in understanding my son’s “slow processing speed”. I can’t help but offer a bit of advice. When working with the school, understand that their agenda may be limited to rules and limited resources that may not make sense in your son’s particular instance. When they say your son is doing just fine because whatever metric they draw the line for helping a child is met, understand that just means whatever metric where they draw the line has been met. If you see that your son is struggling then please don’t waste time with those who are unable or unwilling to help. If you see unhealthy levels of distress then its an issue that should be addressed. I have spent way too much money on “experts” (some where helpful others were not) but I got the most help from reading (ie., books and online blogs) and networking with other moms. Good luck to you

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