The connection between slow processing speed and executive function

By Peg Rosen

The Connection Between Slow Processing Speed and Executive Function, girl in classroom

At a glance

  • Processing speed isn’t an executive skill, but it can affect executive function.

  • Slow processing speed impacts working memory, flexible thinking, organization, planning, and attention skills.

  • Mistaking slow processing speed for challenges with executive skills is common.

Processing speed isn’t an executive function. But when kids have slow processing speed, it affects how well they can use their executive skills.

The reason is simple. When it takes longer to process information, it takes longer to solve problems, respond to situations, and perform tasks.

Learn more about the link between processing speed and executive function.

How processing speed and executive function work together

We rely on executive skills every day to solve problems and get things done. Each of these skills plays a different role.

Flexible thinking lets us change direction when conditions change. Working memory lets us keep information in mind to use during a task. And self-control lets us slow down and make careful decisions.

Kids may have strong executive skills. But if they process information slowly, they aren’t able to use those skills as quickly as they need to. And that can create problems.

Here’s one example. Kids who take longer to process information often respond in ways that seem impulsive. It’s not a problem of impulsivity, though.

They just don’t have enough time to get through all the needed steps of understanding the problem, thinking about it, and using their executive skills to choose a response. They end up responding in a way that’s not thought out.

How slow processing overlaps with specific executive skills

Slow processing speed can impact all areas of executive function. Here are some examples:

Using working memory. Picture a classroom of kids who are asked to read a short story and be prepared to answer questions about it. A child who has trouble with working memory might not be able to keep the information in mind and may not be able to answer the questions.

Kids with slow processing speed (but no working memory problems) might also be unable to answer the questions. But it’s not a matter of forgetting the information. It’s because the information wasn’t processed fast enough to be remembered and used.

Shifting from task to task. Imagine that a child is busy playing when it’s time to get ready for school. The child’s parent says it’s time to put the toys away and get dressed.

A child who has trouble with flexible thinking might find it painful to switch from play mode to school mode and get very upset when asked to.

A child with slow processing speed (but not flexible thinking challenges) might seem to dawdle when it’s time to stop and get ready. But it’s not a problem with being able to switch gears. It’s a problem with being able to do it quickly.

Paying attention. The teacher is giving a lesson in fractions at the front of the room. A child who has trouble focusing might get distracted by something outside the window and miss what’s being taught.

A child with slow processing speed might also stare out the window and miss what’s being taught. But it’s not a matter of focus. The child just can’t keep up with the teacher’s pace, and zones out because of it.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s causing the challenges. Is it a matter of skill or speed or both? The only way to know for sure is through a full evaluation. Learn about classroom accommodations for slow processing speed and for executive function challenges.

Key takeaways

  • Processing speed determines how efficiently we use our executive skills.

  • Kids with slow processing speed often stop paying attention in class because they can’t keep pace with the lesson.

  • A full evaluation can determine if a child has slow processing speed, executive function challenges, or a mix of both.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Peg Rosen writes for digital and print, including

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.