This article was written by Santie Smit (Director of NILD SA) with information from Steven M. Burnik, Ph,D.

In recent times the effect of slow processing speed on learning has become more evident.  Even though SPS is not a formal learning difficulty, it has frustrated students, teachers and parents for a very long time.  Parents must cope with the fact that their child doesn’t finish class work in school, and it takes hours for them to complete homework.  SPS has an impact on all areas of living, not only at school, and therefore it is important to understand its role in a child’s daily functioning.

Signs of SPS at home can also be seen outside of homework. It takes children struggling with SPS longer to get ready for school and they are still looking for their books when everybody else is in the car already.  They run out of time when taking down homework, often leaving out the most important information, and unfinished school work is frequently assigned as homework.  This can lead to problems at home and at school.

There are many reasons for SPS.  A physical illness or injury, i.e. low thyroid, epilepsy or traumatic brain injury.  Other physical problems such as lack of adequate sleep or reactions to medications can also lead to slow processing.  SPS can be part of ADHD or learning difficulties, and can cause emotional distress to all involved.

SPS with ADHD can lead to sluggish thinking, daydreaming and staring into space. They may feel mentally foggy, underactive, slow moving and lethargic.  Their work is slow and error prone and there is under arousal in the brain in focus, planning and poor executive functions.

Executive functions can work together in various combinations.


Activation – organising, prioritising and activating work

They don’t know how to start a task and have problems organising time or materials.  This leads to reluctance, uncertainty, lack of confidence and anxiety.

Focus – focusing, sustaining and shifting attention to tasks

The are distracted, daydream and pay attention to other, more interesting stimuli.

Effort – regulating alertness, sustaining effort and processing speed

They maintain slow work pace and cannot maintain sustained mental effort (poor mental stamina).  Work tires their brains.

Emotion – managing frustration and modulating emotions

They find it difficult to regulate their feelings and experience melt downs when they reach frustration level. They refuse to work, become argumentative and throw tantrums.

Memory – utilizing working memory and accessing recall

They have poor working memory and cannot hold onto information for long enough to use it.  They must reread material as they easily forget what they have read.  They stop working in class because they have forgotten the instructions.

Action – monitoring and self-regulating action

They have trouble sitting still, fidget with objects, and stand or walk around when working.

Their struggle in the area of SPS is aggravated by other issues, like a poor sense of time.  Time seems to go more slowly when doing boring work and seems to fly when they are having fun.  When planning tasks, they underestimate how long it will take; and when they play, they are unaware of how much time has passed.  Poor executive functions combined with poor time sense can cause them to take hours to complete their homework and can cause major stress.

SPS can be addressed at 3 different levels:

School-based strategies

The student can be assessed by a psychologist to establish their eligibility for concessions or an Individual Education Programme could be developed as this would prevent SPS from interfering with a student’s success.  Teachers should be more aware of how SPS impacts a student’s performance when marking their work.

Let’s look at some examples of interventions:

Activation •       Is engrossed in another activity
•       Is confused about what to do
•       Has missed the instructions
•       Is anxious about failing
Emotional factors

(i.e. “it’s too much…”)

·       Encourage
·       Support
·       Provide help getting started
Cognitive factors

(i.e. “I don’t even know where to begin.”)

·       Develop a plan
·       Break task down in manageable chunks
·       Use graphic organizers
Focus/attention •       Reduce distractions
•       Provide white noise
•       Recognize on-task behaviour
•       Prompt the student when drifting
•       Provide incentives for completion of work
Working memory •       Repeat instructions
•       Encourage questions
•       Give gentle reminders
•       Provide templates of completed work, written instructions, word banks, etc.
Handwriting •       Dysgraphia
•       Give advance copies of notes
•       Access to word processing and/or speech-to-text software
•       Share copies of notes from another student



  • Extra time to complete tasks, tests and exams
  • Prompting student to increase time awareness
  • Eliminating extra tasks, i.e. transcribing math problems from textbook to work sheet
  • Eliminating timed tests
  • Reduce number of tasks required to demonstrate competence (5 math problems instead of 25)
  • Monitoring time spent on homework and adjusting assignments where necessary

Home-based strategies

Parents need to understand the impact of SPS on a child’s daily living and make plans to reduce its impact.  They should work with the teachers to establish how much time a child should spend on homework and avoid homework battles.  Also, avoid personalising, punishing and reacting emotionally.  Remember that SPS is not purposeful and it can improve.

Provide more structure by using schedules, timers, clocks, alarms and incentives.  Monitor and address your child’s sleeping problems.  Encourage a healthy style of living with sound nutrition and frequent, vigorous exercise.

Children with ADHD may benefit from medication.  It will not directly increase their processing speed, but it can help with activation and focus, which will increase their work pace.

Child-based strategies

Remind your child that everyone is unique and has strengths and weaknesses.  Just because you are working slower it does not mean you are not smart.  Use timers and alarms as reminders, i.e. use a timer to remind yourself when to get out of the shower.  Do a time study – how long does it take you to complete routine tasks and plan your day around that.  Reward them if they complete a task in the allotted time.

In conclusion the following is important to remember.  Unrecognised and unaddressed SPS will make your child feel discouraged ad demoralised.  When you understand SPS you reduce its impact on your child and it helps him/her to shine.  Ensure to educate everyone involved in your child’s life about his/her SPS.  Provide unwavering support and encouragement to your child.  The best gift you can give your child is to keep his/her self-esteem intact and loving them unconditionally.