Skip to main content

Understanding Slow Processing Speed in Children

Veronica has two kids and co-founded a youth-driven arts festival.

Does Your Child Take a Long Time to Do Things?

Do you have a child who seems to be smart at most things (or everything), yet they cannot get things done on time—even the simplest things? Does your child take forever to do easy, routine tasks, no matter how many times you tell them they need to focus? Or maybe your school-age child consistently brings home school work she couldn’t finish in class and her teachers complain that she takes longer to complete tasks than the other kids in her class.

About Slow Processing Speed

The good news about slow processing speed (SPS) is that in itself, it is not an official learning disability and it can be addressed and improved (Butnik, 2013). Like most things, its improvement is based on whether or not it is detected and properly addressed. This brings about the other side of the coin—more often than not, if this is not addressed appropriately, it may build up into other issues (i.e. problems at school, low self-esteem in the child.)

Word of CAUTION!

First of all, it is important to understand that each child is different, with their own development and learning speeds. Seeing problems where they do not exist or exaggerating existing problems in your child may put them at higher risk of developing low self-esteem and feeling discouraged in life and in school. You may undermine what would otherwise be their normal development.

You should trust your instincts as a parent when you find something strange with your child, or something that you can’t quite come to terms with. However, you should always do a self-check on these parental instincts.

Is there a chance you may be exaggerating? Does your child always do a particular behaviour or just once in a while? Has anyone ever told you anything about your child that may support your suspicions? It is always important to double-check our instincts and make sure we are not harming our children with our anxieties and suspicions.

Signs Your child May Have Slow Processing Speed

That being said, symptoms for slow processing speed are usually persistent and do come to the attention of parents, caregivers and teachers. The problem is that sometimes they are misattributed for more severe problems or, on the other hand, are simply dismissed as a mere lack of focus in a child who needs to learn to pay attention – yes, us parents are usually guilty of this one!

Now, the common signs are as follows:

  • The child takes a long time to complete small, routine tasks. E.g., getting coats and boots on, or doing homework/school work;
  • The child takes a long time to explain something simple. E.g., they go around trying to say something that would only take a couple of words to say;
  • The child seems to repeat the same thing over and over, trying to complete a short verbal explanation. E.g. in the example above, your child may go back to the beginning repeatedly, or repeat parts of the sentence as if trying to catch the next word.
  • The child tends to forget the instructions for a particular task.

Keep in mind that, at some point in their development, all children present with some or even all of these traits. It becomes problematic only when these behaviours are persistent over time, including during stages in which these behaviours are no longer normal for a child.

For example, you should not be worried if your 3-year-old takes long to get ready, in telling you something, forgets directions, or even repeats words trying to complete a sentence; but you should start getting suspicious when this becomes more consistent and goes well into their 6/7th birthdays, especially if more than one sign is present.

The school-age period is the time when parents and teachers begin to notice peculiar things about their children—a strange tick or habit, something odd with speech or writing, among other things.

This is the time our children begin to be compared with their peers (in terms of performance, social skills and academics) and be measured against some form of a checklist by their teachers. Thus, it is normal for unusual habits, learning disabilities or other issues to surface as they begin grade school.

Slow Processing Speed Can Be Associated With Other Problems

In many cases, SPS presents alone but sometimes it is the case that SPS is a trait of a learning disability or another problem (e.g., ADHD, emotional problems, head injuries, etc.). When alone, it is easier to improve but it is also easier to be dismissed.

I would say that slow processing speed is usually only recognized when there are some other concerns, namely a learning disability. I would be willing to bet that it is quite common, but in absence of something more serious tends to go unrecognized.

Some other conditions that can present with SPS or be associated with it are:

  • ADHD;
  • Reading disorders such as dyslexia;
  • Dysgraphia (problems in grapho-motor skills);
  • Problems in cognitive functioning.

Sometimes SPS can be a result of anxiety and self-doubt (Butnik, 2013). Anxiety and self-doubt involve an emotional component, specifically emotional regulation. The child’s inability to manage frustration and anxiety, for example, affects their processing speed usually resulting in them taking much longer to complete a task.

How to Help Your Child Deal With Slow Processing Speed

If your child has a learning disability or other problems, it important to address the main problem in priority. It is actually a very good idea to have your child assessed by a clinical child psychologist or another accredited person from the school board. A professional assessment can avoid misdiagnosis and provide the appropriate routes to address your child’s issues.

However, there are a few things you can do at home to help your child deal with slow processing speed:

  • For each task, break it down into smaller easy-to-grasp steps;
  • Provide your child with clear and short directions to follow;
  • Set out times for completing tasks, using timers, schedules, clocks – this will be challenging but with patience and practice your child can learn to manage their time better.
  • Reduce distractions around your child – if your child is drawing, turn off radios, TV or computers and put away other toys that are not being used by your child.
  • Give gentle reminders of time or of next steps;

All of these require patience and practice, but over time children can learn to deal with it on their own.

Things You Should NOT Do

  • Do not take it personal – it is not your fault or their fault;
  • Do not overwhelm your child with too many things to do at once;
  • Do not react emotionally or blame the child;
  • Do not punish the child for taking too long – they don’t do it on purpose.
  • Do not overtly compare the child to other children in the attempt to get them to do things faster – this will hurt their self-confidence instead.
  • Do not assume the child just needs to pay attention and that’s all, thus ignoring the signs.

"Every child is gifted. They just unwrap their packages at different times."

— Unknown

Give Them Support and Understanding

Unfortunately slow processing speed can easily go unnoticed in a child, causing her/him anxiety and feeling like they are not as smart as others, or even dumb in nature. Their confidence can be chattered and eventually it shows in school performance and even at home. Many of these children are very bright and would excel in many areas, but often their anxiety and low self-confidence (as consequence of SPS) can get in the way of that. Even if SPS is recognized, parents and teachers can fail the child by getting impatient, increasing the child’s anxiety, which in turn slows them down even more.

It is important to support your child and let them know that having slow processing speed does not, in any way, mean they are not smart. By feeling supported, and with the appropriate techniques, these children can thrive and have a chance at a bright future.

Children with slow processing speed are not dumb! On the contrary, many actually have great critical thinking, are dedicated and are quite smart in many areas. Any decline in performance in any area, usually comes from not addressing their processing speed, or from the frustration that comes with SPS – presented by the child, parents and teachers.

A good support system, one full of understanding and patience, help children feel confident about themselves, making it easier for them to take on any obstacles they encounter.

© 2015 Veronica Almeida


Zahara on June 07, 2020:

Very interesting

Veronica Almeida (author) from TORONTO on April 08, 2019:

Hi Abuzar,

You can use some of the suggestions in the article: clear your child's environment of distractions when they are completing a task. Give them direct, short and clear instructions on what they need to do, break big tasks down into small steps and you can also use a clock/time and make a fun game out of it - this relieves some anxiety and stress they may have about completing tasks and they're motivated to do things on time.

Remember, this is not a diagnosis, but more a way the brain processes information when it comes to doing things fast/on time. Thus, a Psychologist would only be able to give you activity suggestions to help your child. There is no "cure" because it's not an illness of any kind.

Best of luck!

Abuzar on April 08, 2019:

Really helpful article, as my 9 years old son has this condition, but what should i do when there is not any expert (children Psychologist) in Afghanistan to help us?

Veronica Almeida (author) from TORONTO on September 26, 2018:

Hi Mary, processing speed is - basically - how long it takes for someone to process information. Anxiety and trauma can certainly affect this, which is why you shouldn't punish a child for taking longer to complete a task.

Usually, slow processing speed is more of something that comes with the child which often times can improve, rather than something that appears. That being said, brain trauma, anxiety, and other issues can affect cognitive processes, processing speed included.

I hope this helps!

Veronica Almeida (author) from TORONTO on September 26, 2018:

Hi Patsy, thanks!

Mary on August 19, 2018:

can very bright children who are never challenged in school - never actually engage in learning - simply zone out -never really exercising their skills - develop slow processing speed?

If overly punished can such pupils develop emotional and psychological blocks to learning and if yes how does this affect processing speed?

Patsy on August 15, 2018:

An interesting read. Thanks