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Attention problems Mathematics Writing Reading ADHD Sensory/Motor Problems

Slow Processing Speed: An Overlooked Problem in Children


July 30, 2017

An hour before school let out for the summer, Megan’s fourth grade teacher announced: “It’s almost time for our ice cream party! But to earn it, you must pass one small task: a three-minute timed math test.” Everyone groaned. The teacher laughed. “Don’t worry – I made it quick and simple! Everyone will pass, I guarantee it! Then, it’s party time!” The class cheered. The teacher handed out the math sheets. “Ready, Set, Go!” Pencils hit the paper, and when the time was up, the students passed their papers forward. Quickly, the teacher scanned the tests. As predicted, each student had finished with a perfect score – everybody except Megan. She had only completed three-fourths of the page, and had made two careless errors on top of that. The teacher frowned. “Megan, this was easy-peasy! Why didn’t you finish? And what’s with these mistakes? You should know better by now!” Megan felt her face reddening. “I just – just couldn’t think fast enough I guess,” she muttered. All eyes were now on her. A few snickers came from the back of the room. The teacher shook her head. “Well, a deal’s a deal. Gather your things and wait out in the hall until the bell rings.”

Megan, my cousin’s daughter, is one of the sweetest, brightest, most creative kids I know. She also struggles with slow processing speed (along with Inattentive ADHD), and was diagnosed by the school psychologist shortly before the last day of school. Sadly, the teacher hadn’t yet gotten the memo.

Unfortunately, Megan’s case is not unique. Many children struggle with a variety of attention and learning challenges, which often go undetected. Subsequently, adults often blame children for being lazy or unmotivated, and use punitive approaches, rather than problem-solving approaches, which rarely help. In fact, punitive approaches can make things worse. As Robert W. Hill, PhD, states his book Healing Young Brains: “Chronic …punishment just drives the brain deeper into a slow brainwave state” (pg. 76). So what’s the solution? Everyone in a child’s “village” should become more familiar with various learning challenges – what they are, what to look for, how to assess, and how to manage - so we they work together to use positive, problem-solving strategies, thus increasing the child’s chances for success and well-being. In my previous article, I focused on auditory processing disorders. In this piece, I will zoom in on slow processing speed, or SPS.

Slow processing speed (sometimes referred to as “sluggish cognitive tempo”) involves difficulty efficiently and rapidly taking in information and acting on that information appropriately. Although we don’t yet have all the answers, it is clear that SPS is mostly brain-based, and not just due to laziness. SPS overlaps with many other learning challenges, such as ADHD, language learning disorders, and difficulties with working memory. To give you a feel for SPS, try this exercise: Say the first word of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Then say the first word to “Row Row Row Your Boat.” Keep going back and forth, saying the second word to Twinkle, then the second word to Row, and so forth. Keep going! After one minute, stop. Feeling a little mentally “sluggish”? Good! Now you know how SPS feels and can begin to empathize! A child can also show slow processing speed in motor and visual areas as well. Often, we see a combination. Although symptoms of SPS are numerous, here are five basic signs to look for:

  • Problems recalling and following verbal directions
  • Taking a long time to write things down
  • Trouble getting things done (e.g. getting dressed, doing homework)
  • Information learned is quickly lost
  • Difficulty keeping up with conversations; gets lost easily in social interactions

For a more comprehensive checklist, and for more general information, check out this great resource: Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up by Ellen Braaten, PhD. and Brian Willoughby, PhD. (available on If you have concerns, here’s my suggested game plan:

  1. Schedule an evaluation with a licensed psychologist or neuropsychologist. You may speak with your child’s school, or ask your pediatrician for a referral. Ask if he/she tests specifically for processing speed (most psychological evaluations include this piece).
  2. After the evaluation, discuss the results and any recommendations, including those related to processing speed.
  3. If your child is found to have a slow processing style, contact your child’s school to discuss options for accommodation (e.g., extended time for tests, shortening assignments, visual cues, etc.)
  4. Research computer programs designed to improve processing speed, such as CogMed (, Captain’s Log (, or Interactive Metronome ( Read the research and ask questions. If you think you may want to try one of these programs, check the company’s website to locate a provider in your community.
  5. If your child struggles with motor-based activities in daily living (e.g., eating meals or getting dressed), consider consulting an occupational therapist.
  6. If your child has been diagnosed with slow processing speed, and there is also a history of language or speech delays, consider a full evaluation by a certified, licensed speech-language pathologist. They can identify more specific problems in the language area which may be affecting your child’s ability in the verbal processing area, and can offer additional ways to help.
  7. Last but not least— educate and advocate!!! Don’t be afraid to speak up for your child and for all children struggling with SPS! One of the most helpful strategies you can employ is the consistent use of positive language (e.g., “Only three more problems – you’re working so hard!”) instead of negative language (e.g., “Quit dawdling!” “You are slow as molasses. What’s wrong with you?”) Recalling Megan’s experience still makes me cringe. I envision a day when no child is punished for slow processing speed. Let’s work together to make that day a reality!


Carol Kauffman, MA/CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist with over forty years of experience. Her mission is to expand service delivery models through closer collaboration among all those interested in helping children with attention, learning, and emotional challenges. You can reach her at:

Attention problems Mathematics Writing Reading ADHD Sensory/Motor Problems

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