Why Do Some Children Take Longer to Process Things?
Takeaway: Some children are slower to get things done because their brains are wired differently. This ‘slow processing speed’ can be frustrating, but with the right help, your child can learn to adapt and thrive.
We live in a world that values speed. And the quicker you can get something done, the better.
This love for speed is reinforced everywhere — movies have quick-cuts to add momentum, YouTube videos can be played twice as fast (to save time), and books with the latest ‘hacks’ to streamline your life. This lifestyle primes us to value speed over everything else. And it spills over into how we raise our children. We’ve all seen kids that are quick at getting things done — they take in everything their teachers say, process that information, and express themselves eloquently. You might also notice them being able to get a lot done, switching between tasks easily. Then there are other children who can do all the same things but just need more time. And unfortunately, in a world that values speed, they get penalised for it.
So what’s it like for a child who needs time to get things done? Let’s look at a day in her life.
In the morning, she’s got to get dressed and ready for school. And there are choices to be made. For example, what cereal should she have? Her brother takes all of two seconds to decide, but it’s an agonising choice for her. And the delay in choosing almost makes her miss the bus to school. In class, she’s quizzed by her teacher but freezes up in front of everyone. She knows the answer but her mind has gone blank. Then, during PE, they’re learning a new game but the teacher talks too fast for her to follow. She tries to learn as she plays but loses points for her team — which makes her feel worse. And even at home, things don’t slow down. She’s trying her best to finish her homework so she can spend time on the computer, but it’s taking ages! She should have been done in an hour, but has spent almost two hours at her desk.
All children take time to process things. Some just take longer than others.
What psychologists call ‘processing speed’ is really how long it takes a child to get things done. She needs to perceive what’s happening (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, etc.), process that information, and respond to it. The slower she does this, the more frustrating it is for her herself and the people around her. But being slow isn’t her fault. Her brain just works differently. It has to string together many different kinds of mental processes, and some of those processes are a bit slow. This brain difference can evolve on its own, but we often see it in children with ADHD, dyslexia, and anxiety issues.
So, what are the signs of slow processing speed?
Here are some things to look out for: You might notice that your child has problems following instructions, or that she takes ages when writing things down. She might have problems finishing tasks like doing her homework and getting ready to go out. Or she might forget things very quickly. She might also have trouble with conversations. So, if people are talking too fast or responding to each other quickly (as children often do), she’ll struggle to follow along. And obviously this will make her feel left out.
The key here is that having a slow processing speed doesn’t mean that a child is any less intelligent. But she might feel that she is.
Many bright children have slow processing speeds, so it’s not about intelligence. But because they take longer to do things, teachers and classmates might get impatient and label them as ‘lazy’ or ‘difficult.’ And instead of being supported, they get punished. Imagine how demoralising it is for a child whose talents are overlooked because she’s a bit slower than usual. It can make her feel inadequate, anxious, and depressed. And this makes her freeze up even more — which starts a vicious cycle. Things get more complicated if she also has other differences like dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, or developmental language disorder — especially if those differences haven’t yet been diagnosed.
So what’s happening in the brain of a child with slow processing speed?
There’s a lot that goes into regulating processing speed. But as a starting point, we can look at the role of executive functions. Here are some of the different elements involved:
- Organising, prioritising, and starting tasks. Some children have problems getting started. They might take longer than usual to gather study material, find it hard to plan out their schedule, etc. And because of their other challenges (listed below), they might be anxious and reluctant to start studying.
- Even if starting a task isn’t a problem, they could struggle to stay focussed. They might get restless, lose interest, find something new to do, or end up daydreaming.
- Mental stamina. Some children valiantly try to stick with a task but tire easily. They can get the work done but it takes a huge effort.
- Managing frustration and emotions. Many tasks are plain stressful, and some children find it hard to manage the stress and negative emotions involved. They might procrastinate, bargain, or throw a tantrum.
- To complete a task, children have to remember what’s just happened (using short term memory) and use that information to get things done. So they’ll struggle if this process breaks down. For example, a child might read a paragraph repeatedly but keep forgetting what she’s just read. Or you might tell her to fetch you something but she comes back empty-handed because she’s forgotten your instructions.
- Self-regulation. Even if children struggle with the steps discussed above, they can learn to reign themselves in. But that becomes tough if the ‘self-regulation’ component of their executive functions is affected. So, a restless child might have to get up and move around while working. Or even if she manages to stay at her desk, she’ll continuously be fidgeting.
What can you do to help?
Here are some of the steps you can take:
- Get your child evaluated. Once the Educational Psychologist has confirmed that there are processing-speed issues, she’ll be able to help devise recommendations to help support your child.
- Update her teachers so they can make modifications like giving her more time for tests, shortening the length of her assignments, or using multisensory instruction techniques to keep her engaged.
- Make changes at home. You can work on becoming more patient and helping your child celebrate her successes. Remember, she’s not slow on purpose, so there’s no point getting annoyed with her for taking so long on her homework. She’s probably frustrated enough for the both of you. Instead, try and focus on the positives and encourage her. So, instead of saying, ‘It’s been 2 hours already and you’ve finished just 3 pages?”, you could try, “Wow! You’ve finished 3 pages??!!! Need help with the others?” And when she forgets your instructions or loses focus, you can try to gently repeat yourself and bring her back on track.
- Get other kinds of help. If your child has problems with her motor skills (e.g., struggles to feed or dress herself), an occupational therapist can help. Similarly, if she has any speech or language delays, a speech and language therapist can step in to help.
The biggest gift you can give your child is love and confidence.
We live in a world that values speed, but so many things around us were built by deep, slow thinkers. This holds true with art, literature, science, mathematics, and more. It’s important to keep reminding your child about this, even as she learns to fit into a faster-than-ideal world. A psychologist or practitioner can help sort out the practicalities of adapting to this world. But as a loving parent, you can give your child the biggest gift possible — the confidence to try!
Are you concerned about your child’s processing speed? Consider consulting a specialist.
The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
You might also be interested in some of our other posts.
- Can Children Practice Mindfulness? And Does It Work?
- Do Girls Experience Autism Differently?
- Why Autism Can Affect Your Child’s Sleeping Habits
- ‘Executive Functions’: The Tiny Manager in Your Child’s Head
- Why Dysgraphia Is About More than Just Messy Handwriting
- What is Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA)
- Selective Mutism
- How Lego Therapy Uses ‘Play Time’ to Improve Your Child’s Social Skills
- Your Child as a Neurodiverse Learner
- Autism Evaluation – What Should It Look Like?