If your child takes a lot longer than other kids to respond to directions or do certain tasks, you may be concerned about slow processing speed.
Processing speed is the pace at which you take in information, make sense of it, and start to respond. This can be verbal information, like what people say. It might be visual information, like letters and numbers. Kids may also struggle with movement.
Keep in mind that slow processing speed has nothing to do with how smart kids are. And kids may take a long time with one thing but be fast with another.
Here are signs of slow processing speed in kids at different ages.
Slow processing speed in preschool
- Has trouble following directions with multiple steps
- Takes a long time to copy down their name
- Struggles to answer questions, especially when asked something over the phone
- Often stares off into space during circle time
- Takes longer than other kids the same age to figure out how to use a piece of paper and a pencil
- Can’t seem to get out the door in the morning because things take so long, like putting on a coat
Slow processing speed in grade school
- Takes a very long time to copy down notes in class
- Can’t finish homework in a reasonable amount of time
- Has trouble understanding what’s happening in busy settings (like on the playground at recess), because there are so many things happening at once
- Can’t make up their mind quickly, like deciding what to eat for breakfast or whether a friend should come over after school
- Struggles with timed tests (like minute-math quizzes), then rushes and makes careless errors
- Struggles to follow conversations and respond when friends ask questions
Slow processing speed in middle school
- Has a hard time taking notes when the teacher is speaking
- Struggles to follow fast-paced conversations in person or online, often missing sarcasm, jokes, and social cues
- Gets overwhelmed when given a lot of information at one time
- Often can’t finish tests in the set time, like tests that involve multi-step math problems
- Needs more time than seems necessary to answer questions and make decisions
- Speaks slowly and often struggles to find the right word, saying things like “that thingie” instead
- Struggles to finish projects on time
Slow processing speed in high school
- Struggles to keep up with class lectures and write down notes
- Doesn’t join in class discussions
- Misses nuances in conversations and can’t keep up when friends switch topics
- Struggles in classes that require quick understanding of visuals, like geography and biology
- Tells stories very slowly, to the point of losing track of the story while telling it
- Seems to have poor time management skills and is often late on assignments
- Struggles with long-term assignments, often losing track of important details
- Can’t keep up with social media interactions
When kids move at a slower pace in these areas, it’s easy to think they’re lazy or unmotivated. But when it comes to slow processing speed, that’s not the case. Kids who process things slowly often want to move faster. And struggling to keep up can cause a lot of anxiety.
Lots of kids who learn and think differently have challenges like these. And they can improve with support.
Find out what to do if you think your child has slow processing speed. And hear from a mom on how she came to respect her child’s processing speed in a fast-paced world.
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About the author
About the author
Alexis Clark, MA, MS is a freelance editor for Understood and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.
Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.