I know my child is smart, but it takes him hours to complete even simple tasks. Just getting dressed in the morning can take triple the time of his little brother. Homework is also a huge problem. The teacher says he should be able to complete an assignment in 15 minutes, and it will often take him an hour to complete it.
It isn’t uncommon to hear a description like the above when a student has slow processing speed. But what does having a “slow processing speed” mean and how does it affect academic performance and the acquisition of skills? There are a number of reasons for slow processing, and the interventions and accommodations selected should be tailored to the student based on the source of the problem. Slow processing could be associated with ADHD, a learning disability, a language disorder, a physical problem that affects motor movement, inadequate good quality sleep, or a number of other factors.
Slow processing is not a formal learning disability; however, it can have a significant effect on academic performance. Thomas Brown (2013) reports that the “best predictors of LD in reading, math and written expression were the students’ WISC-III or IV index scores for working memory and processing speed, two important aspects of executive functioning” (pg. 136). A simple definition of a processing speed disorder is fluency in performance of cognitive tasks. The most common source for slow processing speed that is encountered at Currey Ingram is associated with executive function weaknesses, which are often seen in students with inattentive type of ADHD, some learning disabilities and/or emotional interference (i.e., anxiety, perfectionism).
For example, if the source of the problem is related to anxiety, the student will likely benefit from an adult helping the student get started while providing encouragement. If the source is related to more cognitive weaknesses associated with a learning disability, the student would likely benefit from help developing a plan, teaching a student to use Thinking Maps© (graphic organizers) or using the I-do, we-do, you-do approach. If the source is related to ADHD, inattentive type, some students benefit from a white noise machine, talking while working, or an incentive when the task is completed. If the source is related to working memory deficits, the student may benefit from using a word bank, using templates for task completion, and encouraging questions.
Some of the most common accommodations used include:
- Allowing students to have extended time on tests or other assignments that are complex or long.
- Using audio recorded books or resources such as Learning Ally.
- By providing consistency in the schedule whereby the student understands the expectations, the student can reduce his/her anxiety. If anxiety is high, the processing speed is lowered.
- Teachers can assess quality of work, rather than quantity of work.
- Automatizing routines, so that cognitive energy will not be used on routine tasks.
- Using technology to assist the student in work production.
- Placing students in small groups to help access the instruction from the teacher.
- Teachers will model all new skills slowly and allow for guided practice where the teacher is observing the student before giving the student an independent assignment.
- Some students benefit from the use of a timer to increase awareness of time constraints. Visual timers, such as the Time-Timer© is often helpful for the young student who does not have an understanding of time.
- Teachers can eliminate unnecessary writing for task completion.
- Adults can provide help to the student by getting him/her started on a task. If it is a homework assignment, parents can use the “I-do, we-do, you-do” approach (Anita Archer). In this approach, the adult does the first problem and the child watches, (I-do), then the student and adult complete the next problem together (we-do) and finally the student completes the next one alone while the adult watches (you-do).
- If the student struggles to process auditory information, the teacher can provide visual cues to eliminate or reduce verbal directions.
- Adults should avoid having the student multi-task as in listening to a lecture, read what is on the board, and take notes at the same time.
- Adults can teach students a routine for beginning a task. Once the routine is automatic, the student will be better able to get started on his/her own.
In order to assist a student with slow processing speed, re-read his/her psychoeducational assessment to determine the type of processing speed deficit he/she has. Once this is understood, select from the list above the accommodations that seem to provide the greatest support. If the student continues to struggle, contact the teacher or psychologist for additional ideas. While there does not appear to be a cure for a cognitive processing speed deficit, there are multiple accommodations and strategies students can use so that this challenge does not negatively affect learning.
(By Dr. Jane Hannah, Assistant Head of School for Academics and Programs.)