Coping With Slow Processing Speed At Home And At School


Posted in: Grade School, Hot Topics, You & Your Family

Topics: Learning + Attention Issues

This post is one in a multi-part series from Dr. Braaten entitled Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up. The other posts in the series are:


“Processing speed” is a concept that describes how long it takes someone to perceive information, process that information and formulate or enact a response. In my last blog post on the topic, I noted that there is no simple way to increase someone’s speed of processing, but that accepting, accommodating and advocating are some general ways to cope with processing speed in a variety of settings. In this blog, I’d like to give parents some specific suggestions on how to cope with slow processing speed at home and at school.

At home, processing speed deficits can make nearly any situation more difficult, as one child can slow down the entire family. In addition, research has shown that when children are not well-matched to their environment, they can show behavior problems and other difficulties as they grow up. This idea is sometimes referred to as “goodness of fit”—that is, how well a child’s personality matches—or fits with—his or her family’s. Although slow processing speed is only one variable in goodness of fit between parent and child, it is an important one, and one that becomes increasingly more important over time.  It’s critical, therefore, for parents to know their own speed of processing so they can better understand how they are matched to their children.

Recognizing the ways slow processing speed impacts day-to-day life at home is a critical first step in helping a child overcome these weaknesses. If you have a child with this profile, minimizing family stressors is the most important thing you can do for him or her. In fact, dozens of studies have shown that minimizing stress is the most important thing a parent can do for any child. More specifically, there are some practical strategies for accommodating slow processing speed at home:

  • Keep things at the same time, same day, same place. Establish a clear routine and schedule to increase speed at home; the more automatic or routine something is, the more likely it is to be completed efficiently.
  • Change the way you talk at home. Modify the rate, tone and complexity of the way you talk to your children. This doesn’t mean talking “down” to your child, but instead being aware (especially if you’re a parent with fast processing speed) of giving too much information too fast.
  • Watch the clock. Increase your child’s awareness of time, and assist in time management.
  • Remember that actions (and visuals) speak louder than words. Use both verbal and visual channels to help your child process information faster.

As hard as it is to cope with slow processing at home, for some kids, it’s even harder to cope in the classroom. Classrooms run at a certain pace, and when you’re slow to keep up, you’re going to feel behind. Think about the typical public school classroom: one teacher with an underfunded classroom of 25 to 30 students, many of whom have unique learning styles. It’s tough for any child, and particularly tough for those who have trouble keeping up with the pace of a typical class. In the book Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up, my co-author and I note the importance of figuring out how a child attempts to deal with his or her slow processing speed. We find that most of the kids we see with slow processing speed fit into one or more of the following categories:

  • The chill kids who tend to take on the persona of the “slow one,” and wear it as a badge of honor—to a fault. They know they’re not as fast as their friends and they don’t really care.  They’ll say things such as, “Those kids who do everything on time are just noobs.” When these kids have a teacher who understands them, they’ll have a good year. When they have a teacher who values speed and views “chilling” as another way of being lazy, they’re apt to have a bad year.
  • The anxious kids tend to be nervous all the time. Their already-weak processing speed causes them to be anxious, and their anxiety slows them down even further. If they have a teacher who understands anxiety and doesn’t put a premium on speed, they tend to do well. But, a teacher who values quickness and perfection is typically a bad match for this type of child.
  • The lost kids are those who are never at the right place at the right time. In high school, they show up in the wrong homeroom on the wrong day, while in elementary school you might find them getting lost on the way from the bathroom back to the classroom. A teacher who has the time to find the “diamond in the rough” is a perfect match for this type of child. A teacher who is overwhelmed by the demands of the job may promote these kids to the next grade level without ever knowing their depth of thought or capabilities.

It may be clear from reading this list that the teacher is possibly the most important variable for these kids. I have found that to be the case, with certain demonstrated characteristics being particularly helpful. This includes teachers who are empathetic, have a good sense of humor and are thoughtful about workload (which includes a de-emphasis on busywork). Good school characteristics, on the other hand, include an environment open to parent-teacher collaboration, an environment that conveys a positive emphasis on individual differences, a school that is neat, clean and uncluttered—both physically and visually, time for recess and flexible groupings of students.

Managing a child with slow processing speed at home and at school is challenging for all involved.  Approaching the school as a collaborator helps set the stage for your child to take advantage of the opportunities the learning environment provides. A child’s performance at school then sets the stage for the way he or she will cope with challenges in life. Finding the right balance of accommodating the challenges versus accepting them is tough, but it can be done.

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Ellen Braaten, PhD

Ellen Braaten, PhD

Ellen Braaten, PhD, is executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at  Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and former co-director for the MGH Clay Cente...

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