If My Child is So Smart, Why Is He/She…….

This is a question Metro Learning Solutions hears often; parents tell me that they know their child is smart, the child’s teacher reports that he is smart, but for some reason:

  • He struggles to complete homework
  • He can’t get started on homework,
  • He struggles with day to day, routine tasks (brushing teeth, what to have for breakfast, eg)
  • Stares off into space and appears to not be paying attention
  • He often seem confused or absent-minded
  • He does things more slowly than peers
  • He starts off strong (with a longer task, project that lasts several weeks, a semester class), but then appears to lose drive
  • He forgets information just explained or told to him
  • He has trouble with task completion (either school work or chores at home)
  • He rushes through is work, making careless mistakes
  • He has a harder time socially than his peers
3d image of a synapses

Many of these symptoms mimic ADHD, but there may be another reason not linked to ADHD.  And that is slow processing speed.    Slow processing speed may be comorbid with other issues, such as dyslexia or learning disability (this is true in about 70% of cases), but that is not always the case.  In some instances, it is the sole culprit of learning struggles; in almost all cases, improving processing speed will improve academic efficiency and learning. 

What is processing speed?  Basically, it’s the pace at which a person gets something done.  It is a task that is measurable through testing.  It is a measure of the amount of time someone takes in information, figures out what how they need to address it, and respond in some way.

Processing speed is one of the cadre of skills that make up something we call Executive Function.  Executive Function skills are the individual skills the brain engages at the proper time when faced with a specific task.  It governs things like setting goals, planning ahead , organizing, prioritizing, monitoring behavior.   There are many others, but we chiefly focus on memory, visual processing, auditory processing, logic and reasoning and processing speed.  These are almost always used together, with the brain seamlessly engaging the skill necessary at the fastest possible speed.  When these skills are strong and executive function is strong, when the wheels are all greased and moving as they should, everything works great.  However, when one of them is weak, the interlocking cogs get mired up and the brain encounters a glitch that often causes problems.

Processing Speed is the motor of the mind, that important skill that allows the brain to adapt based on what the task is.  If it’s not an efficient motor, other areas suffer.  Because it is such an over-arching brain skills, there is a movement to address processing speed as independent of executive function because when it is slow, the resulting impact on brain efficiency and learning is greater and often quite a bit greater.

Types of Processing Speed: 

  • Visual processing:  The eyes take in information and relay it to the brain.  A weakness here may show up as
    • Ignoring important details,
    • Difficulty proofreading work
    • Leaving out phrases or words in writing
    • Difficulty recognizing the visual cues in social situations
    • Staring off into space
    • Car, bike, skateboard accidents because of slow response to visual stimuli
  • Verbal Processing:  This is how quickly ear hear information and relay it to the brain.  Symptoms with a weakness in this area may include difficulties with
    •  more complex problem solving
    •  listening comprehension (in academic, home and social situations). 
    • Following verbal instructions
    • Participating in class discussions
    • May respond more slowly in conversations
    • Staying engaged during social activities.
  • Motor processing (motor speed):  In this instance, the brain sends a message to the body telling it what to do.  If this area is weak, you may notice poor handwriting, difficulties copying a series of numbers, reading a paragraph.  If an individual is weak in this form of processing, you may notice
    • They seem tired, even after an adequate amount of sleep
    • They may seem “lazy” or “unmotivated”
    • Them moving more slowly when doing many tasks/chores
    • A reluctance to start tasks/chores
    • They need additional time to complete a task/chore
    • Them having difficulty with the physical aspect of writing

What does slow processing speed look like in academic areas? 

  • They may read more slowly than peers
  •  may struggle to read aloud fluently,
  •  may have a hard time (or may refuse to) taking notes
  • May have trouble expressing their ideas in written work
  • May be slow to recall basic information like sight words, basic math facts, math equations, dates in history, etc.
  • May have inconsistent academic performance – may do well with one type of assessment but struggle with another form even when the tested information is the same
  • May be distracted during academic tasks.

If you suspect slow processing speed in your child, what are your options?  Basically, you have three choices:

  • Get a formal assessment either
    • Through your child’s school or
    • Outside the school system
  • Wait and see if things get better or worse
  • Do nothing (although if you are reading this article, you are probably looking for a solution)

There are pros and cons to each choice.  Getting an evaluation outside the school give you the options of sharing the information with the school.  Some parents don’t want to share this information.  An evaluation of this sort can be costly and there is typically a long waiting time, obviously a con.  (Metro Learning Solutions administers a similar test that will give you results for about a sixth the cost of a professional)

If you have a younger child, or you are just beginning to see some issues sporadically, you might choose to wait and see but that doesn’t mean you should take a complacent stance.  Be vigilant, evaluate their performance both in the classroom and at home, communicate with the teacher.  You may want to arrange for an evaluation, just in case you want to pursue that several months down the road. 

What can you do as a parent at home?

  • Get cognitive development for your child.  Metro Learning Solutions and LearningRx are very well verse in how to measure, then elicit growth in this pesky, hard to change skill.
  • Accept your child’s limitations and share that with them:  they may do well verbally, but struggle getting their ideas down on paper.  Make sure they understand and value this difference to mitigate his feelings of inadequacy in the classroom.
  • You may want to seek accommodations in the classroom:  Ask for extra time for your child to complete work, take tests, etc, ask for a different assessment tool if needed.  Ask your child’s teacher to help you understand and streamline homework (do they need to do ALL the math problems, when a sampling may take them a reasonable amount of time?  Could they dictate their written answers, maybe writing out the answers to only one of two of the short answer questions?  Could the teacher provide notes or an outline instead of requiring them to take notes?  Could the teacher provide a a visually finished product and the steps to complete along the way, spelled out.)
    • Be sure to involve your child’s teacher if homework is taking a great deal longer than peers.  They are children and need to have time to play, interact with family and friends, get exercise and wind down from the day.  Homework should not be an additional stressor for these kids; they’ve had a hard enough time during the school day!
  • Advocate for your child:  Explain to those who interact with your child what slow processing speed is and the ramifications of it.  Help your child advocate for himself;  encourage him to understand his limitations, or what causes difficulty, and let him know it’s okay to ask for help in another way.  After all, that is a life skill that successful adults use all the time – we understand our strengths and weaknesses and we advocate for ourselves when necessary.

What Can Teachers do to Help?  Good teachers for your child would be those who are willing to listen and learn about slow processing speed (and other learning differences), are able to anticipate and vary the tempo of their lessons when necessary, are willing to vary the homework load (focusing on learning rather then busy work), and someone who is able to balance your child’s needs with instruction. 

School or classroom settings that are helpful include an area that is neat, clean, uncluttered, has a routine for most activities (complete papers go in the same place, the school day follows the same flow).  Regularly schedule recess and/or breaks are crucial for these kids.  Guard against recess time being taken away from your child – some schools/teachers may do this to give your child the extra time they need for work completion, but this is not recommended. 

Flexible groupings of students can be helpful, maximizing a student’s ability to add their strengths to the group and mitigate their feeling of isolation. 

What can be done at home?   Get an evaluation so you are informed about what you are dealing with.  If it is slow processing speed, and you don’t want to pursue cognitive development training for this area, just be aware that things will take your child longer to complete.  Minimize stress as much as possible, because stressful situations tend to slow everything down anyway.  Involve them is solutions to particularly high stress times:  have a checklist on their door for steps to follow to get ready for the day, a checklist by the back door listing all the things they need to have with them when they leave, for example.  Make sure your child knows and anyone else in your family understands that slow processing speed is not a measure of intelligence, but how they respond to things.  Compare slow processing to similar things – not everybody is a good singer, or dancer, but they all are valued for trying, the shortest person in the room (I’m 4’11”, so I can use that example!) is probably not going to be a great basketball player, but they can still participate, eg. 

These kids typically have some specific problem areas.  These tend to be in the concept of time (not telling time, although that is one also), but the passage of time.  To help develop time as a concept, generate as many short activities as your can think of.  When I taught 1st grade, I had a whole jar full and when we had a couple of minutes, we’d pull two out and talk about them and time them.  Generate ideas like:  make your bed, put your shoes away, tie your shoes, walk to the mailbox, call Grandma, write three of your spelling words, sing the alphabet song.  Choose two of them, ask them which would take longer, then time each one. 

While you are developing the concept of time, explicitly explain the calendar to them, noting important appointments, etc. 

Then end goal of all this is time management – they need to have the tools developed so that they can successfully navigate their day.  Analog clocks are helpful, as are stopwatches, calendars, and routines (and checklists!)

Although we all have our limits, and sometimes things get away from us, yelling, shouting and screaming is NOT helpful.  These kids are already feeling stressed just by trying to keep up during the school day, and stress just adds to the issues they are facing.  Keep the atmosphere as quiet and calm as possible and stick to routines as much as possible.   As your child is able, talk with them about how they best work (right after school, play first, then work?  Work after supper?  And by the way, if you don’t like their answer, give them a change to prove that it works before you insist they try another way.)  Using their ideas is always best, if possible, provided they are reasonable. 

Don’t refer to your child as “lazy” or “unmotivated.”  Although this is a concern that many parents share, I explain that their child is more likely “demotivated.”  I haven’t meant a child that wasn’t excited to start school but as things are difficult for them day after day, after day, they find ways to cope.  Many times they would rather be viewed as someone who “chooses” not to complete work rather than someone who is “unable” to do the work.  Almost always, there is another reason for the behavior:  slower processing speed, depression, insattention, anxiety, lack of self-confidence.  Kids who process information slowly aren’t being lazy, they are experiencing a slow down in a biological process.   

Is home schooling a good option?  That depends on you, the parent, your relationship with your child, and your schedule.  The problems will still be there, so don’t expect them to be different.  If you only have to focus on one child, your, as an instructor, can be more flexible, so that is a plus.  If you don’t choose to seek cognitive development to help speed up your child’s processing ability, then your goal should be to help them successfully navigate the learning environment in the most positive way possible.  They will eventually find an environment that suits them.  Look at all the dreamers, inventors, etc., that have been successful as adults, but struggled in a formal learning environment.  

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