Heidi Wright-Daniels, an Arvada mom of three boys, always noticed that it took her son Cory longer to get things done — whether it was eating dinner, getting dressed or completing a task. In first grade, when Cory and his neighborhood friends were told they had to complete their homework before going out to play, “within 10 or 15 minutes, the boys were knocking at our door because they had all finished,” Wright-Daniels remembers. “The same assignment would take Cory an hour.”
Many parents experience frustration due to children like Cory—bright kids who always take longer to do things. They”ve heard “he’s just lazy,” or ‘she’s defiant.” But it might be because they were born with a slower processing speed.
In the book, Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up by Dr. Ellen Braaten and Dr. Brian Willoughby, processing speed is defined, in the simplest terms, as how long it takes to get stuff done. It is not a reflection of a child’s intelligence, but because kids with slow processing speed often take longer to come up with answers, they often score lower on tests.
“The world has gotten so fast, that even someone with average processing speed and above average intelligence might not have the ability to achieve their full potential,” says Braaten, director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
Over time, the constant struggle to keep up “impacts how they feel about themselves, their inner experience of success and failure, and their overall motivation toward school, and in some cases, life,” says Patty Martens, owner of Turning Point Assessments in Denver, a practice that administers psychoeducational tests to children and adults. So what is a parent to do? The first step is to seek answers.
In their book, Braaten and Willoughby list several paths to discovering answers about processing speed, depending on your situation.
- Be evaluated by a psychologist.
- True processing speed deficits are often an indication of another underlying problem, such as ADHD or dyslexia. A psychologist, neuropsychologist or practice like Turning Point Assessments can diagnose the root cause(s) of a child’s difficulties with an individual standardized test.
- Be evaluated through the school system.
- The school system can give your child a standardized test for free. This can be useful for developing modifications that will help your child in school, such as allowing extra time on tests. However, a school test rarely results in a diagnosis.
- Wait and see.
- Sometimes, children actually do outgrow their difficulties. “The younger your child is, the longer you can wait,” Braaten says. “Kids go through stages especially when learning things, so before you jump in to an evaluation, take a look at the kind of person you are.” After doing so, “if your child doesn’t seem to match with your normal speed, and if they are a lot different from kids their age,” there might be cause for concern.
Advocating For Your Child in School
Braaten and Martens both say that finishing homework is a very common problem for children with slow processing speed. When talking to teachers about the problem, ‘the first thing you have to have is data,” Braaten says. “You have to show them there is a need.” If you”ve chosen not to get a formal evaluation or are still waiting for an appointment, Braaten suggests creating your own data. For two weeks, record when your child sits down to do his homework and when he finishes. “Stick to the facts,” Braaten says. “Tell the teacher, ‘this is what I am dealing with at home, so how can we work together to help him?” ”
One helpful strategy that Dr. Mimi Castelo, a neuropsychologist at Swedish Medical Center, has seen is when the teacher is able to provide the student with an outline of the class lecture ahead of time. “It takes the muscle out of having to focus on multiple things at once,” she says. If the child has an Individualized Learning Plan (IEP), parents could ask that this be included, Castelo suggests.
Making Accommodations at Home
When you accept that your child has slow processing speed, you can begin to accommodate for his needs. Wright-Daniels accommodated for Cory by hiring a tutor and homeschooling him.
“We get to choose our own curriculum, and he’s no longer rushed,” she says. And while she says it’s been challenging, “he doesn’t cry at the end of the day, and he now believes that he is smart. A slowerpaced lifestylehas made a huge difference for us,” she says. Here are other accommodations parents can consider.
- Keep the home environment structured and predictable.
- Practice makes people complete tasks more quickly because the tasks become familiar. Do homework in the same location each day, always wash hands before dinner, etc. If your child is at a different home on certain days, “help your child be aware of what is going on in the (other) household, and come up with a plan while he is there,” says Braaten. “Doing so will help kids learn to advocate for themselves.”
- Change the way you talk.
- Fast-talking can create frustration for someone with slow processing speed. Slow down your rate of speech, take more breaths in between thoughts and try not to ask several questions at once. Also, break tasks into smaller components. Tell her “put on your shoes,” followed by “get your jacket” when the first task is complete, rather than saying “get ready to go.”
- Set time limits.
- If the teacher’s expectation is that homework should take 30 minutes a night, stick to this, even if your child can’t finish in that amount of time. Talk to your child’s teacher to figure out how much homework would be appropriate. The same can work for household chores. Don’t make her work longer because she happens to work slower.
- Write directions/expectations down, in addition to saying them out loud.
- “It relieves the child’s system to see it on paper,” says Castelo. For a young child, create a picture schedule as a reminder of the order that things should be done, including getting dressed, combing hair and brushing teeth. For an older student, post a home calendar that everyone can see that shows the daily schedule. He”ll develop routines and learn to move at a quicker pace.
- Be mindful of your “attention spotlight,” says Castelo.
- When speaking, put down your phone, make eye contact with your child and expect them to do the same ‘to make sure the information is getting in there,” Castelo says. When you give a direction, have her repeat it back to you.
Remember Other Factors
As you advocate and accommodate for your child, “clarify to your child about what is going on, and why you are doing it,” Castelo says. “They”ll start to internalize the strategies, and, as they get older, learn how to do it for themselves.”
Martens urges parents to remember that processing speed is just “one small part of how your child interacts with their world. Just singling it out is not going to tell you how the rest of your child’s thinking skills are utilized,” she says, noting that many children with average or lower processing speeds become very hard working students.
And while there is no quick fix to ‘speed up” a child’s processing, Braaten says that “being well fed, well rested and staying organized” will make a big difference. “The goal right now is to do things that will help make the child’s life more efficient.”
A Product To Process
“Kids with slow processing speeds are at a higher risk for anxiety, depression and have problems with social skills,” says Dr. Ellen Braaten, co-author of Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up. “There are repercussions of how they relate to others.”
One small way she thinks parents can help is by providing kids affirmation when they least expect it. Enter Symbuzzles—little cards with loving messages that parents can slip in a backpack or lunchbox, created by Colorado mom Helene Hughes. Your child can feel validated throughout the day, and the puzzle format gets them thinking.