Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

January 21, 2022

Processing Speed in the Classroom

By: Jessica DeLing, M.Ed

On any given day, we rely on our ability to efficiently complete simple tasks, like calculating a tip at a restaurant or listening and offering advice to a friend. Chances are, you haven’t given much thought to how long it takes you to actually do these things. Processing speed is the cognitive ability that is responsible for how quickly you are able to complete a mental task or understand and react to the information you receive throughout the day. We all process information at our own pace, but slower processing speed affects how much information an individual can take in, respond to, and use. This can present challenges within a school or work setting. While adults may have learned strategies to compensate for weak processing speed over time, many kids and teens may feel frustrated and unable to explain this difficulty.

Slow processing speed can present in a variety of ways in the classroom and can make some academic tasks more difficult than others. For example:

  • Completing tests or quizzes on time
  • Listening to the lesson and simultaneously taking notes
  • Quickly recognizing visual patterns
  • Taking longer than expected to complete an in-class or homework assignment
  • Difficulty following multi-step directions in the moment
  • Completing tasks under pressure

Poor processing speed can also impact your child’s social interactions. For example:

  • Difficulties with group work
  • Disorganized when sharing stories or information
  • Losing track of what’s happening when playing a game
  • Taking longer to pick up on social cues
  • Trouble following conversations
  • Frequently running late or poor time management

It’s important to note that poor processing speed is not related to intelligence; however, many students report feeling “less than” or “not as smart” as their peers. Educators and parents are encouraged to consider how slow processing speed can influence their child or student’s academic performance. There are three general areas to consider when thinking about a student’s processing ability.

  1. Visual Processing: This refers to how quickly a student’s eyes perceive information and relay it to the brain (i.e., reading directions or noticing a teacher’s hand gestures).
  2. Verbal Processing: These skills pertain to how quickly a student hears a stimulus and reacts to it (i.e., following oral instructions. responding when called on in class, etc.).
  3. Motor Speed: Considers a student’s fine motor agility which impacts academic fluency (i.e., completing timed worksheets)

There are many strategies that teachers can use to address slow processing speed in the classroom.

  • Check-in regularly to make sure the student understands the direction or lesson.
  • When calling on the student in class, make sure to provide enough time for them to respond to the question. In some cases, it might be helpful to provide the student with the question ahead of time.
  • Provide simple written directions when possible.
  • Consider speaking more slowly when giving oral directions.
  • Offer a reasonable limit for the amount of time spent on daily homework assignments. It may be helpful to have the student’s parents or caregivers sign off on any unfinished work.
  • Consider creating assignments based on mastery of information rather than work completed.
  • Help the student understand some of the specific challenges they may face in the classroom and brainstorm ways together to overcome those challenges.
  • If a student has found a system that works well for them, allow them to use that system for organizing information.
  • Provide support and seek opportunities to offer encouragement as the student continues to build confidence.

Many of the strategies above can be modified by parents to use at home during homework time or when the child is completing chores or other household tasks. If you suspect that your child is having difficulties related to processing speed delays, or if you want to know more about obtaining a formal accommodation plan at school, our educational specialists are available for consultation.