Slow Processing Speed…is it due to weak motor skills, weak auditory processing skills or weak executive function skills?

Slow processing speed can be due to more than just weak motor skills. Sarah’s experience highlights some of the more complex factors that should be considered for a child with slow processing speed.

Sarah is a diligent, athletic and caring 15-year-old girl. Sarah has always done well in school, but not without support. When Sarah entered ninth grade at her new high school her study skills deteriorated and she began to have trouble completing her homework and turning it in. In spite of Sarah’s best intentions she was not able to pull up her grades and complete her work. Based on recommendations from her school Sarah was evaluated to see if any learning issues were hindering her progress. The results of the evaluation demonstrated that while Sarah has an overall cognitive potential in the average range, her Processing Speed Index was significantly below her Verbal Comprehension and Working Memory Index scores.

The findings from Sarah’s evaluation indicate that her processing speed deficit is due to her difficulty with visual discrimination, auditory processing, and weak executive functioning skills. While inattentive ADHD was not completely ruled out, the examiners felt that Sarah’s main area of challenge was in the area of executive functioning rather than ADHD. Observation of Sarah during testing demonstrated her difficulty with task initiation. Sarah’s auditory processing weakness resulted in a difficulty understanding directions. Without a complete understanding of directions Sarah often did not know what she was expected to do on the tasks presented. Sarah’s response to not fully understanding the directions given to her, was to stop and try to figure out what she was supposed to do before she began working. This delay significantly impacted the time that it took her to complete the tasks. In addition, without a full understanding of directions Sara often did not complete the tasks fully.

Sarah’s challenge with executive functioning skills was evident in her difficulty starting tasks, as well as her difficulty organizing her thoughts and language as she listened to instructions. The combination of weak auditory processing skills along with weak organization and problem solving skills made it extremely difficult for Sarah to begin a new task.

Sarah’s fine motor skills, reading skills and language skills were in the average range. Her slow processing speed affected her performance on writing and math tasks. In addition, Sarah needed extra time for reading comprehension tasks due to the complex language and organization processing required to comprehend the material.

 Recommendations to help students like Sarah

Classroom Recommendations and Accommodations

  • The following recommendations are suggested for use in the classroom:
    • Students will benefit from cueing so they know what to expect – check in with them periodically and preview what is to come.
    • 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 new concepts with students so they know what to expect – this will decrease stress and help with attention and engagement in the classroom.


Executive Function/Memory Skills

  • Build strategies to help students analyze, prioritize, and execute specific steps in a given assignment.
  • 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.
  • Teach students to stop and read directions carefully prior to starting a task.
  • Break down tasks and follow the order-checking work along the way.
  • Build memory skills by building associations to preexisting knowledge.
  • Rehearse new information to help encode it.
  • Encourage students to visualize what they are going to do before they begin a task.
  • 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.
  • Teach students to use self-talk to organize learning and performance strategies and to focus attention on tasks.
  • Teach students strategies to help recall information, such as PAR:

P= Picture it.
A= Associate it
R= Review it.


  • Teach students study and memory strategies such as:

o   “Chunking” information into more manageable units

o   Rehearse new information to help encode it

o   Use notecards to review information


Visual-Perceptual Strategies

  • Use of graphic organizers to depict information visually and increase retention of ideas.
  • Note-taking techniques that will present and summarize heard information visually.
  • Exercises to sharpen the ability to attend to visual detail and to express similarities and differences between images.


Processing Speed/ fine motor skills

  • Allow extra time for tests, usually time and a half.
  • Provide extra time for students to complete in-class assignments.
  • Train students in time management techniques to become aware of the time that tasks take.
  • Teach typing skills to enable students to type as fast as they think.
  • Allow students to use the computer for all writing tasks.


Organization of language

  • Students may have excellent ideas but have difficulty organizing their thoughts. Building pre-writing will help them express their ideas more clearly.
  • Review of writing formats (Narrative, Expository, Descriptive, Compare/Contrast, Persuasive) would facilitate and structure written expression.
  • Reinforce the writing process for students in a systematic manner (Brainstorming or clustering, writing, editing). The Inspiration Program is a creative computer tool that helps students brainstorm and organize their ideas before writing.
  • Build students expressive lanuage skills by:

o   Building language categorization skills

o   Building rapid naming skills

o   Teaching them how to organize new information as they learn it to create associations they can use later to recall the information

o   Building flexible thinking skills


Increase reading comprehension

o   The SQ3R approach is recommended as an approach to studying information from text books

o   Teach students to preview reading material prior to class to ensure they are able to follow along during class time

o   Teach students to take notes at the end of each chapter of books they read. This will not only aid comprehension but assist in studying or finding information quickly when writing an essay

o   Pull out keywords and main ideas while reading to help put what students are learning into context


Hopefully Sarah’s academic achievement will improve as she builds strategies to help her overcome her areas of challenge. Building Sarah’s ability, and helping her develop strategies, to understand directions is the first step to helping her start tasks. Teaching Sarah how to break down and organize the steps to complete tasks will allow her to finish the tasks she starts. As Sarah develops these skills, it is hoped that she will be able to complete tasks in a timely manner, thereby increasing her processing speed.



6 Responses

  1. Amy


    And thanks for your wonderful website!

    My son is 7 years old and struggling with his reading. He has spoken well from a young age and is coordinated at sports. He concentrates well and has no behavioural issues.

    His teacher suggested we have an academic evaluation of him and it found the following:
    – Word literacy cluster 90 percentile
    – Processing cluster 24 percentile
    – Phonological cluster 20 percentile
    – Working memory 90 percentile
    – Writing speed 5 percentile

    We are working on improving his phonological skills, but wondered if you could provide some direction on how to improve his processing speed, given he is 7?

    Also, I am wondering if you think he is going to continue to struggle with his schoolwork, based on his profile above?

    What would you be working on first?

    Thanks for your time.


  2. Sean

    I know that this may be out of date, but I had a question. I’m a School Psychologist Intern in a medium sized (7500 students total), low SES district. I have a student who shows Average comprehension skills across Reading, Writing, and Mathematics using the WJ-IV, but this students’ fluency scores on all 3 areas are in the Low range. Because this students’ processing speed isn’t affecting their ability to retain information, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for interventions that could be used to help them succeed, especially with Reading fluency. I’d like to tailor something specific to the student. This student has previously been allowed extra time to complete tests and assignments, but there hasn’t been sharp enough growth over the previous years. Any ideas?

    • Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

      There are many reasons processing speed maybe slow, so I will have to guess what the cause is for this student. Since the fluency is slow across the board, including reading which does not include fine motor skills, we can assume that the origin of the issue is either visual or cognitive. You state that the students retention is good which leads me to assume that cognitive skills are average. That leaves visual processing as an issue of difficulty. I would suggest that this student may have tracking issues and perhaps visual closure issues which are making it difficult to process visual information in timely manner. Extra time is a good accommodation but it will not help alleviate the problem.

      Here is a great article that can give you more insight into visual processing: Vision and Reading

  3. NEHA

    Hello, I m new fan of your blog.My son 6 yro old has lots of issues related to memory, processing, lack of interest in work, and he is speech delayed too. He was diagnosed with PDDNOS at age 4. He has been through a heart surgery too. Due to which i didn’t put a lot of pressure on him of learning for approx a year but then things came up in kindergarten. He did got B grade but with half support class,i am just too worried now as he is in 1st grade regular. His receptive is fine but seems he gets confuse in that too sometimes. When he talks he jumbles up the words and sentences doesnt come out right. Reading is same like a K level not moving above it ,still sounding phonics in 3 letter familiar words even. Numbers confusion. Forgets most of the daily routine stuff, like what he did whole day ? some odd answers. He knows but don’t know what to answer. I am confused can Short attention can make so much bigger issues? If been told to repeat he can’t talk in same speed.We went to Neurologist, he said, he has AD for sure but didn’t prescribed any meds, just asked to through as many challenges on him as possible. In our town there is not much scope. I have found a cognitive training place don’t knw will it work ? What is the real issue ? where to start from ? What can i do at home and in collaboration with my SLP. I need to act as early as possible as i see him socially declined due to all this.

    Need ur help and guidance.Will appreciate.
    Thanks Neha

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