Learning My Kid Has Slow Processing Speed Helped Our Family

One mom's experience taught her how important it is to understand your child's processing speed to minimize stress at home and school.

An image of a girl looking up at her mom.
Photo: Getty Images.

I'm someone who sets out to complete everything I do as fast as possible like I'm running an imaginary race. So it feels like a cruel twist of fate that my 10-year-old daughter languishes over the simplest tasks. Heading out the door each morning is a battle of wills I often lose. We end up late to where we're going, and I'm left stressed and angry.

While this type of family conflict can cause distress, it has helped me to realize that our struggles are actually due to mismatches in processing speed , which is the speed at which it takes a person to get something done.

If you hurry, and your child moves like a sloth lounging in the sun, it's hard to keep from screaming. If you both dawdle, you'll end up late to appointments and practices. Or if one child is fast and another slow, the fast kid can resent waiting around for the other.

Knowing the rate at which you and your family members process information, experience time, and make decisions can be the key to minimizing stressors within and outside the home.

Understanding Your Family Dynamic

"Processing speed involves the amount of time it takes to perceive information, process it, and respond," writes Ellen Braaten, Ph.D., director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, in her book, Bright Kids Who Can't Keep Up.

Families can have members with different processing speeds, but the most common mismatch is a parent with a fast processing speed and a child with a slow processing speed. For instance, I witnessed one mom reach out in a Facebook group for children with slow processing speed expressing her frustration that her child takes forever to complete homework.

The mom is doing better now that her child's therapist described how exhausting her daughter's life is as she works harder than others to pay attention and act. The therapist asked her to have extra patience because what's easy for her is hard for her daughter.

The other common combination is a parent and a child who both have slow processing speeds. Dr. Braaten notes that while it sounds like a good match, the two can end up frustrated with each other because they're always tardy. Kids who move slower need structure, routine, and extra support. Without it, they can flounder and act out against their parents or teachers.

If you're wondering about your family dynamic, consider completing Dr. Braaten's checklist to measure your processing speed and those in your family.

Dealing With Potential Learning Issues

While processing speed mismatches start at home, they're often exacerbated at school.

"Teachers aren't taught to look for processing speed differences and may make false assumptions like the child isn't smart," says Scott Ardoin, Ph.D., professor and department head of the department of educational psychology at the University of Georgia.

While you can have slow processing speed without having a learning disability like dyslexia, attention issue like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or mental health condition like anxiety, they often go hand-in-hand. Experts estimate about 60% of people with slow processing speed also have ADHD and upwards of 30% will have dyslexia.

It's difficult to confirm a statistic for kids with anxiety because it's hard to separate whether their slow speed creates anxiety or anxiety causes them to respond slower. "Regardless, it's critical to remove all time pressure and stay calm when their speed is frustrating," says Dr. Braaten.

Kids with ADHD and slow processing speed struggle because less information gets in (due to their inattentiveness), and they need time to process and respond. "The key to helping these kids is exposing them to what they need to learn multiple times in multi-sensory ways," adds Dr. Braaten.

If your child also has dyslexia, they'll need more special education services for longer. For example, Dr. Bratten says a kid with dyslexia who doesn't have slow processing speed may need 30 minutes of tutoring twice a week, while a kid with slow processing speed and dyslexia will likely need 30 minutes four times a week.

How Parents Can Help

My daughter's processing speed falls well below average. Before I knew this, I thought she turned a deaf ear to my constant pleas to move faster or complete a series of steps. I punished her with time-outs and no electronics, but nothing improved.

Once I learned she couldn't help her slow pace, I stopped blaming her for taking longer than everyone else. I wake her up 30 minutes earlier than her brother to get ready for school. Now, when we're going out to eat, I go over the menu on the way there, so she has time to think about what she'll order. I set timers to let her know when to switch tasks.

Here are other things parents can do to help their kids deal with slow processing speed.

Let kids know what to expect

Kids learn to move faster when they know what to expect. Dr. Braaten suggests using a home-based calendar showing the schedule for the day. Go over it in the morning and give them plenty of time to transition from one task to the next.

There are also apps specifically designed for kids with slow processing speed to help them increase their skills or plan out their day. We use a whiteboard with a daily to-do list that my daughter loves to check off as she gets things done. If your child is too young to read, you can use pictures to show what you want them to accomplish.

Be specific

Try changing your language from broad instructions like "go clean your room" to more specific verbiage. For example, I start with, "Let's go to your room so that you can make your bed." Next, I'll have her pick up her toys. Last, she'll put her dirty clothes away. It sounds tedious, but with practice, I don't have to go step-by-step anymore.

Speak with their teachers

You can also enlist your child's school for help. Dr. Ardoin advises meeting with your child's teacher at the beginning of each school year. Let them know how your child learns best. Don't assume that because your child has an individualized education plan (IEP) or qualifies for accommodations, the new teacher will read the plan or understand your child's unique learning profile.

"In school, all children need the chance to respond to teachers' questions, to learn from wrong answers, and earn praise for correct ones," explains Dr. Ardoin. "But getting called on in class is stressful when it takes your brain longer to form a response."

A great tip is to ask the teacher to give your child a heads-up when they plan to call on them. "The teacher can say something like, 'I'm going to ask you about the main character of the story we're reading later today, so make sure you pay attention,'" says Dr. Braaten. "Advance notice keeps these kids from panicking when they're called on and helps build their confidence."

Seek outside help if needed

Consider getting help if you find yourself or your child struggling. For example, you can outsource if you're unable to structure your family's schedule because you're identical to your slow-moving child. Dr. Braaten also describes a family who found an executive functioning tutor for their daughter to help her stay organized and complete tasks on time.

Play off each family member's strengths

My husband's processing speed is slower than mine, so he's far more patient at helping our children with homework. My son's speed is quick, so we reward him for keeping his sister on task with things like brushing teeth and getting ready for bed.

If you also have a child who moves much faster than others in the family, you'll need to find ways to recognize and harness their speed. Put them in charge of learning how to use new technology and explaining it to others. In Dr. Braatan's book, one family had their fast son help his father organize family photos on the home computer. He loved working with his dad on these types of projects, and it allowed time for his mom to do homework with his sister.

Focus on the positives

Kids with fast processing speed can keep up with the world's ever-demanding pace and often seek out competitive environments. While they're rewarded for their quick wit, the beauty of individuals with slower processing speed is they tend to live in the moment. They'll gravitate to activities that value slower thinking.

My daughter is teaching me life isn't a race I need to win. With a new set of practices, I'm learning to slow down, and she's moving a little faster.

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