Does Processing Speed Vary From Task to Task?

By Ellen Braaten, PhD
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Q

My 10-year-old has slow processing speed, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem all the time. Is it possible to be slow with some tasks but not with others?

A

Not only is it possible, it’s actually quite typical. Processing speed isn’t a “one size fits all” concept. It’s not just how fast we write, or how rapidly we can come up with an answer to a question, or how quickly we’re able to get dressed for work or school.

Processing speed is really a mix of factors. One of them is the ability to process verbal information. Another is the ability to process visual information. A third factor is the ability to respond with quick motor speed.

Slow processing speed isn’t a learning and thinking difference on its own. But weakness in one or more of the areas can create problems with learning and with everyday activities. It can also impact a child’s learning and thinking differences.

It’s rare for kids with slow processing speed to be slow in all areas of processing, however. Typically, they have areas where they’re slow, and ones where they’re not. They may even be faster than other kids in some of their processing abilities.

Imagine this scenario. A child has a language-based learning difference. The teacher explains a science concept in class. The child understands the concept, but can’t explain it back to the teacher as fast as her peers. She also can’t answer multiple-choice questions as fast as they can.

But that doesn’t mean she’s slow at everything. In fact, she’s a star on the basketball court because she has fast visual-motor skills and is well coordinated.

Another child has dysgraphia. Slow motor speed impacts her ability to get her thoughts on paper. It also affects her ability to take effective notes in class. But she’s very quick at understanding and responding to spoken language.

Kids with slow processing speed can be inconsistent in other ways, too. They might be fast at one task and slow at another—even though the tasks may appear to be similar. One reason might be that the information is being conveyed in different ways.

It’s important to understand your child’s inconsistencies. Knowing where her processing speed issues lie can help you anticipate problems. It can also help you find strategies and supports that might help.

If you’re not sure what’s causing her issues, consider getting a full evaluation, either at school or privately. Observe your child and take notes to share with her teacher. And learn more about classroom accommodations that can help with slow processing speed.

About the Author

About the Author

Ellen Braaten, PhD 

is the director of LEAP and codirector of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, both at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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