Brain Processing speed is a way of describing how the brain receives, understands, and responds to information. Not everyone thinks at the same pace. And while speed has nothing to do with how smart a child is, kids who struggle with slow processing speed may struggle to follow lessons and complete tasks at school.

Most parents ask,” What does this mean for my child? Why is this important?”

According to Melissa Mullin, Ph.D., there is now an overload of information given out. Definitions and diagnoses are easy to find, the hard part is figuring out how this affects the everyday life of your child and what you can do to help. The thing about brain processing speed is that there are two kinds. To understand how it is affecting your child you need to know what is going on with your child.

One type of processing speed is visual processing speed, this is the most common kind referred to. Visual processing speed is how fast your child can look at and process information on a task that does not take any more thinking than noticing the differences or sameness in the objects shown. This type of processing speed issue may be helped by vision therapy or larger print. Extra time on tests is important so the child has time to correctly “see” the information and not make careless errors due to misreading the information. When children also have difficulty with fine motor skills (writing) this becomes a visual-motor integration weakness.

Another type of processing speed is cognitive processing speed. This is how long it takes a child to process (take in information, think about it, and then answer). This type of child also needs extra time on tests, not “see” the information but to “think” about the answer.

While both brain processing speed types need extra time on tests to enable them to perform at their potential, the reason behind the extra time is very different. This means if you are trying to help build the area of weakness, understanding the cause helps determine the best intervention.

Processing Speed is one of the measures of cognitive efficiency or cognitive proficiency. It involves the ability to automatically and fluently perform relatively easy or over-learned cognitive tasks, especially when high mental efficiency is required. That is, for simple tasks requiring attention and focused concentration. It relates to the ability to process information automatically and therefore speedily, without intentional thinking through.

A student with processing speed needs has difficulty in performing simple cognitive tasks fluently and automatically, especially when mental efficiency in focusing concentration is required.

Students with processing speed needs may take more time to:

  • recognize simple visual patterns and in visual scanning tasks
  • take tests that require simple decision making
  • perform basic arithmetic calculations and in manipulating numbers, since these operations are not automatic for them
  • perform reasoning tasks under time pressure
  • make decisions that require an understanding of the material presented
  • read silently for comprehension
  • copy words or sentences correctly or to formulate and write passages

Slow processing speed is related to literacy development and math skills. It can cause a child to fall behind their peers, become frustrated, and form negative associations with learning. Often these experiences make kids think they aren’t good at school, causing low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. But this downward spiral can be avoided if the symptoms are recognized early on. When students are provided with targeted strategy training and teachers adjust tasks appropriately, it gives kids with slow brain processing speed the best chance of reaching their full potential.

Recognizing Signs of Slow Brain Processing Speed

Every child is unique and no two individuals with slow processing speed will have exactly the same set of symptoms. Nonetheless, those with slow processing often do poorly on timed exams and assignments. These kids may struggle to follow class discussions and generally don’t complete assignments at the same pace as other students.

They may have trouble processing directions and tend to experience difficulty getting started on tasks, both verbal and written. Kids with slow processing have a harder time getting things into working memory. Long-term memory is also impacted, as something needs to be understood for it to be transferred for long-term storage.

They can lack focus and have trouble tuning out distractions. Children with slow processing sometimes struggle with executive functions, such as goal setting. Poor planning skills may lead to a lack of self-efficacy, or the ability to break a task down into manageable steps.

Adults with undiagnosed processing issues may not have been successful at school or achieved all of their career goals. These individuals might struggle to express themselves in fast-moving conversations. This is because they are so busy working out what has been said that they don’t have the opportunity to respond. Reading and writing can prove particularly troublesome for young adults. This is especially the case as literature and essays become longer and more complex in higher grades. Sometimes slow processing is seen in individuals who have other learning difficulties such as dyslexiadyspraxiaADHDADD, and dysgraphia.

Brain Processing Speed and Reading

Part of early reading skills is learning to decode a word by sounding it out. Putting sounds to letters requires a lot of cognitive energy and is not an efficient way of reading. Eventually, our brains learn to recognize groups of letters and identify a word by sight.

Only the unfamiliar words need to be decoded and reading becomes faster and automatized, so we can focus on meaning. For kids with slow processing, reading is often mentally taxing as they must juggle the decoding process while holding multiple pieces of information in short-term memory in order to understand the meaning of a text.

Learning to recognize the highest frequency vocabulary words in English is key for developing strong literacy skills in children with slow processing speed.

10 Tips for Helping a Child with Processing Difficulties

1. Allow time, time, and more time.

Kids with slow processing speed are not lazy, they just process at a slower pace. This means they need more time to understand lessons, take quizzes, and complete work outside of school. Everything from reading a book to following their parents’ instructions can take longer. That’s why it’s important they be given as much time as they need.

2. Repeat Instructions and Task Directions.

Directions are particularly difficult to process as they require understanding and holding multiple pieces of information in working memory, long enough for them to be acted upon. Not only is repetition key, but, when possible, involves multiple senses to help the child understand what is required. That means reading directions aloud, showing charts and diagrams, and even finishing examples of work.

3. Provide Outlines and Summaries of Lessons.

Dealing with too many details at once can cause cognitive overload for a child with a slow brain processing speed. Teachers can help by providing summaries that highlight the main ideas and gist of a lesson and allow students to understand the big picture, before tackling the more detailed points.

4. Encourage Overlearning.

Some children may feel silly reading the same thing over and over again but this kind of overlearning may be exactly what it takes for a child with slow processing speed to understand a set of directions. The same goes for repeating a lesson until it can be understood. Computers are great tools in this respect, as an activity can be taken as many times as the child needs to master the material. This is particularly helpful when it comes to learning spelling and sight words.

5. Get them to work it out on Paper.

Trying to juggle multiple pieces of information in their head can greatly overwhelm the child with slow processing speed. It can cause him or her to quickly become frustrated with a task. Luckily, many problem-solving activities at school, particularly where math skills are concerned, lend themselves to working on paper.

6. One Question at a Time.

When students are completing a worksheet or taking an exam that presents multiple questions on the same page, cover up all but the question being worked on. The child might do this with his or her hand or a blank piece of paper that can be moved along as they work. This will make it easier to focus on the information that is being requested and to start a task that can seem overwhelming at first glance.

7. Shorten Assignments.

These children may make more mistakes simply because their brains are already strained by having to process the task at hand. Concentrating and reducing their workload can allow them to invest more time in providing quality work. After all, there’s only so much time in the day and kids with slow processing tend to run out of it quickly!

8. Give Grades for Knowledge vs. Performance.

A child with a slow brain processing speed may not be able to complete the same amount of work as his or her peers. For example, it will take him/her longer to compose open answer items and mental stamina can give way to frustration if (s)he is expected to generate complex responses. That’s why it’s important to evaluate her/him based on what (s)he has learned vs. how much (s)he can do.

9. Allow Assignments to be Completed on a Computer.

Many similarities have been observed between dysgraphia, which causes difficulty in handwriting, and slow processing. Kids may struggle with understanding the way a letter is written and the necessary spacing. This can slow a child down given the number of tasks they are required to handwrite in elementary school. Using a computer and learning to type automatizes the writing process so ideas are translated into words via muscle memory in the hands. This reduces the potential distraction caused by the physical act of forming letters. It also gives kids access to spell-checkers.

10. Minimize Background Noise at School


As with children who have ADD and ADHD, it may help to place a child with a slow brain processing speed close to the front of the classroom so they can concentrate their attention and focus on what is being said. Visual noise in the form of busy bulletin boards should also be avoided if possible.

Above all, provide plenty of encouragement and support. It may sound like a given but these kids need patience, understanding, and time to be successful!

How Technology Can Help

Computers can provide much-needed shortcuts for a child who is already exhausted from having to process a task, get started brainstorming ideas, and then organize those ideas into written form.

Technology also opens up the possibility of learning through repetition. A computer won’t get frustrated in the same way a teacher will if task instructions or explanations need to be repeated multiple times. A keyboard or touchscreen also makes it possible to avoid handwriting work.

Beyond these benefits, the process of learning how to touch-type gives individuals with slow processing an opportunity to learn at their own pace, without feeling bad or embarrassed if they need more time.