Processing Speed - What It Is and How to Support It
Pacing in schools is fast. Teachers feel pressure to cover all of the grade-level standards and students with processing deficits struggle to keep up. Processing speed is the time that lapses between when information is received and when a response is given. According to the coauthors of Bright Kids Who Can't Keep Up, “processing speed does interact with other areas of cognitive functioning by negatively impacting the ability to quickly come up with an answer, retrieve information from long-term memory, and remember what you're supposed to be doing at a given time" (Braaten and Willoughby, 2014, p.4). Processing speed can be impacted across three main areas, including visual, verbal, and written.
Processing speed doesn’t mean students can’t understand, they just need more time. When the pacing of a class moves so quickly that students aren’t able to keep up, they aren’t given the opportunity to understand. When considering processing speed, there are 3 approaches teachers can take to supporting students in the classroom.
Determine the greater cognitive load (verbal vs. visual vs. written) and support the others. For example, if a lesson includes a large amount of verbal information to process, provide simplified visual supports; consider using icons that represent the key points.
Summarize key points and takeaways. At the end of a learning opportunity, summarize (verbally and visually) the main ideas for the day. These should be easily be boiled down to 3 or fewer.
Check for understanding. Checking for understanding is more than a question, it’s a conversation. Provide opportunities for students to ask questions and have students repeat the key points in their own words.
More than Extended Time
Oftentimes, special education plans and 504s are written for students with processing deficits to include “extended time”. Unfortunately, extended time may not be what the student needs. When providing accommodations in the classroom, we must first begin with the outcome of the assignment.
Pacing- If it is important for students to stay on pace with their peers, then reducing the workload is more important than providing extended time. Providing extended time may place the student further behind their peers and this can be overwhelming for students.
Performance- If the outcome of the assignment or assessment is to determine the student’s ability to show their understanding of a complex task then extended time might be just what the student needs. Just make sure to check-in on student progress and provide additional supports as needed.
Having a slow processing speed is not a disability; however, it can be the root cause of other lagging skills. Slow processing speed often occurs in students with reading deficits, executive functioning challenges, ADHD, and anxiety. Slow processing is also common in our twice-exceptional students. As educators, we must not sacrifice student learning in order to cover the standards.