Have you ever moved from the living room to the kitchen to get something, only to find that when you get there you have forgotten what you wanted? Or have you ever struggled to find the words to finish your sentence, express yourself clearly or been given a list of verbal instructions that, having completed item 1, you can’t remember what items 2, 3 and 4 were? 

Being honest, we have probably all experienced these situations at some point or another. Now imagine that this was how you experienced most tasks, add to that the frustrations of others when you don’t complete the task at hand or do so in the required amount of time; the constant remarks made about how ‘slow’ and ‘lazy’ you are; and the feelings of inadequacy you experience because you find these things difficult. Imagine these things and you will start to have some understanding of what it might be like to be a child with slower processing speeds. 

We are all capable of experiencing things like that, but for the person with slower processing skills, this is the norm. This can leave them feeling constantly frustrated or anxious, just for being who they are and doing things the way they need to. And if you’re a pre-school child who can’t express their emotions well yet, then things can get even more challenging. 

What is processing speed?

Processing speed is the speed at which people are able to take in information, process it in their brain, and create a suitable response. Information can come in different forms, for example, it may be visual, (a ball coming towards you/written instructions), or auditory (a verbal instruction/alarm) or other information such as that received through other senses (touch, taste, smell, proprioception etc.) It has nothing to do with how clever or intelligent a child is, but everything to do with the speed at which they are decoding the information they receive and processing it. A simple analogy might be to imagine two people trying to interpret a coded message. If one person is given the key to the code, they would translate and decipher the message, quicker than someone who does not have the key, so their response would be faster. 

People who do have slower processing speeds can take longer than normal to do tasks or respond to requests whether they are nursery related or general life. In addition, children with slow processing speeds often find it difficult to follow multiple instructions. So if you say to them “come downstairs once you’ve finished brushing your teeth, and remember to bring your school bag and homework downstairs too”, they may struggle to remember anything past the first instruction. 

Quite often children with slower processing speeds are working really hard to try to  keep up with others but they may fall behind their peers – so it’s not that the child can’t read, but they may need a longer time to read and interpret things than other children, but the delay in speaking the words may cause adults to think that they can’t read. 

How do you recognise that a child has slow processing speed?

Just looking at children, you will find it difficult to identify if they have slower processing speeds or not. However, some of the things below may alert you, such as:

  • A child does not always respond to instructions in the way you might expect
  • They may take longer than other children to complete tasks
  • They may find it difficult to follow conversations or TV programmes
  • They may find mental maths more difficult
  • They may struggle to follow complex tasks
  • They may become easily overwhelmed if given too many instructions or too much information at once
  • They may need to read instructions several times to understand them
  • They may appear to ‘freeze’ every so often
  • All of the above may lead the child to experience anxiety and frustration and exhibit poor behaviour

In itself, slow processing speed is not considered a learning disorder but it can contribute to other difficulties such as dyslexia, ADHD or dyscalculia and it can have an impact on the child’s thinking skills and their ability to read and write too. 

Differential diagnosis

One thing that may be confused with slow processing speed is another condition called visual development delay. This can sometimes be mistaken for attention issues, anxiety and slow processing speed since visual delay can result in poor visual-related motor skills such as difficultly copying letter or numbers, or an inability to distinguish between similar shapes; or as a learning delay. And of course, in some children, multiple issues are present. 

What can you do to help?

If you are concerned that a child may have slow processing speeds or a visual delay, then it is important to pass this information on to the parents and to discuss your concerns so that an assessment can be made, and interventions started if needed. There are several things that can be done to help children and as always, the earlier the diagnosis, the better. One thing that all adults can do however, is to show understanding, empathy and patience. Getting frustrated with children who have a slow processing speed will only exacerbate the situation. Waiting for answers and allowing the child time to process the information they receive, will help. 

Remember to: 

  • Allow children time to process… and then give them even more time
  • Use repetition to reinforce learning 
  • Speak slowly and clearly 
  • Give simple and clear instructions, one at a time
  • Use visual clues where possible, e.g. a visual calendar or schedule
  • For older students, practice handwriting to gain fluency and again, be patient
  • Review information and learning regularly 
  • Eliminate timed activities which can stress children 
  • Think about where these children sit – they may benefit from being closer to the front or the teacher/nursery worker because it may help them concentrate
  • Provide additional or summary notes which children can stick into books rather than copy by hand, however, remember that writing information by hand helps students remember so there is a fine line here
  • Use word mats and practice phonics if teaching this 
  • Some older students may benefit from working with a computer or keyboard
  • Consider using a reading or smart pen
  • Be patient!

For further information, see:

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