Processing speed isn’t an executive function (EF) like working memory, self-control or flexible thinking are. But when kids have slow processing speed, it affects how well they can use those executive skills.
Here’s why. The longer it takes to process information, the longer it takes to solve problems, respond to situations and perform tasks. Slow processing speed isn’t a problem with executive function. It causes problems with executive function.
How Processing Speed and Executive Function Work Together
To better understand the link, it can help to think in terms of a car. Processing speed and executive function are in different locations in the car. And they play different roles in its operation.
Executive skills are like the tools for controlling the car.
Flexible thinking, which lets kids shift gears and change how they’re thinking, is the wheel. It lets you steer the car to where you want to go and react to things on the road.
Working memory, the ability to hold on to new information and keep it at-the-ready so it can be used, is the dashboard. It’s the information you must keep in mind—like how fast you’re going or how much gas you have—so you can get to where you’re going.
Self-control is the brakes. It holds you back, so you can make careful decisions and drive responsibly.
As for processing speed, it’s the motor under the hood. It powers the car and determines how fast and efficiently you can use your executive functioning skills.
With slow processing speed, the motor is perfectly solid and does the job. But it tops out at, say, 60 mph instead of 80 mph. And that makes executive function slow down, too.
So, your executive skills are mechanically fine. You just can’t use them as quickly as you need to.
Here’s a practical example. Kids need to use executive skills to respond quickly and reflectively. Most can quickly size up the situation and think through their response.
But kids with slow processing speed often respond reactively, or impulsively. They can’t get through all the needed steps of understanding the problem, thinking about it, and using their executive skills before they respond. They end up responding in a way that’s impulsive and not thought out.
They don’t lack the skills to respond reflectively. They lack the speed to use those skills effectively.
How Slow Processing Overlaps With Specific Executive Skills
Slow processing speed can impact all areas of executive function. Here are some examples of where slow processing speed crosses over into certain thinking skills:
Using working memory. Let’s say there’s a classroom of students who are asked to read a short story and be prepared to answer questions about it.
A child with working memory issues might not be able to keep the information in mind. Answering the questions is impossible.
Now take a child with slow processing speed but no working memory problems. That child might also be unable to answer the questions. But that’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 with flexible thinking issues might find it intolerable to switch from play mode to school mode and get very upset when asked to.
A child with slow processing issues 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 doing it quickly.
Paying attention. The teacher is giving a lesson in fractions at the front of the room. A child with attention issues 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. It’s not a matter of being distracted, however. The student just can’t keep up with the teacher’s pace, and zones out because of it.
Starting, planning and organizing tasks. The coach asks the team to clean out and organize their lockers. When they’re done, they need to go tackle the equipment room.
A child with poor organization and planning skills won’t know where to begin or how to attack the mess. A child with slow processing speed can figure out a plan—eventually. In the meantime, there’s no organizing or planning going on.
In both cases, the kids remain in the locker area, struggling, while the others move on to the equipment room.
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 to have your child evaluated. If you’re concerned your child might have slow processing speed, or you’re worried your child might have executive functioning issues, there are steps you can take.