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Blog:  The Inside Track

“If My Kid Is So Smart, Why Is He So Slow?”

The Inside Track blog post by Ellen Braaten
May 04, 2015

Ellen Braaten

As a clinical psychologist, I evaluate hundreds of kids each year. Some of the most common questions I hear from parents are about processing speed. They’re also among the most difficult to answer.

My colleague Brian Willoughby and I tackled some of those questions in our book Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up. Brian and I work in the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

The passage below shows some of the challenges—and explains what's behind them.


“I can see why everyone is so frustrated with Dennis, because I’m frustrated with him too! He can’t get anything done on time. Whether it’s his homework, putting on his shoes, or taking down a phone message, he can’t get it done!

If I didn’t know him so well, I’d think he just didn’t care, but I know he does. In fact he cares a lot. He just doesn’t know how to get motivated or get started….

His father thinks he’s lazy, his teachers think he just doesn’t care, and I’m spending my life yelling at him to get things done. How did we get into this mess?”

Some kids are naturally fast. They run, talk, draw, and do all sorts of things at a rate that seems appropriate for their age. Other kids don’t, or perhaps it would be fairer to say they can’t. These are kids who may have what are called processing speed deficits.

Information processing speed... refers to a complex process and so is defined and measured in many ways. It also can’t be understood in isolation from other areas of thinking, such as language, memory, or attention.

In general… processing speed involves one or more of the following functions: the amount of time it takes to perceive information…, process information, and/or formulate or enact a response…. Even more simply, processing speed could be defined as how long it takes to get stuff done.


One of the key points we wanted to get across in the book is that slower processing speed doesn’t mean a child is less intelligent overall. In fact, Dennis—the child above—had verbal intelligence at the 90th percentile. Yet it took him a long time to do things like take notes, finish tests and write papers.

His parents were relieved to learn his problems had an explanation. A lot of kids struggle in this area. Processing speed deficits co-occur with many learning and attention issues. And our fast-paced world has made processing speed deficits much more noticeable than in previous generations.

The first step is to identify the issue. Once Dennis’ parents did that, they could accept it and find ways to accommodate it.

That’s ultimately what the book is about—the things you can do to help your child to cope with these issues and succeed at home, at school and in the social world. That includes helping them to be happy and have a strong self-esteem.

Any opinions, views, information and other content contained in blogs on Understood.org are the sole responsibility of the writer of the blog, and do not necessarily reflect the views, values, opinions or beliefs of, and are not endorsed by, Understood.

About the Blogger

Portrait of Ellen Braaten
Ellen Braaten More Posts by the Blogger

Ellen Braaten, Ph.D., is the director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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