Sometimes our kids dazzle us by understanding complex ideas, solving difficult puzzles, and even figuring out how to read on their own. Other times they seem slow as molasses or utterly stuck. You might even wonder, “Are they lazy? Unmotivated?”
Not so fast…
As a parent, witnessing slow processing speed in action can be bewildering, even frustrating. Gifted children with slow processing speed can appear focused but not seem to get much done. Homework can drag on for hours. Grades might be lower than even the most reasonable expectations. Slow processing speed can even affect social relationships.
If you’ve had IQ testing done, you may have noticed a certain index score was not like the others. Chances are the lowest score was PSI, the Processing Speed Index. When we see a big gap between index scores, we call it a discrepancy.
Consider this: Most, but not all, individuals with IQ scores in the gifted range (above 130) show a pattern of discrepancy. You might be surprised to learn that a difference of 15 points – which is a full standard deviation in IQ-speak – between reasoning ability, such as the Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI), Perceptual Reasoning Index (PRI), and General Abilities Index (GAI) and processing speed (PSI) scores is actually typical.
What is processing speed, and where does it come from?
The Full Scale IQ score (FSIQ) – considered by some as The Number – is actually made up of different groups of mental abilities related to how people solve problems. For individuals with uneven profiles, the FSIQ may not provide a good, single summary of that person’s overall ability. As a psychologist, I am generally more interested in the different index scores for understanding intellectual strengths and weaknesses.
Processing speed is a component of cognitive efficiency and is measured using simple timed tasks. Unlike other subtests, these tasks don’t increase in difficulty. They don’t require the ability to read, do math, or even remember information they’ve learned at another time. Instead processing speed subtests call for students to sustain effort over a couple minutes in order to complete basic tasks, like looking for a picture that does not belong.
A child with stellar problem-solving ability but low processing speed may be less stellar in their skills for executing basic tasks. For example, you may see problems with:
- Transcribing a lecture into written notes
- Matching visual information
- Scanning information and being able to quickly pick out what they want to know
- Fine motor skills, such as handwriting
- Staying alert
- Maintaining attention for a long period of time
- Slow reading and/or writing
- Poor math fluency (e.g., times tables, “minute math”)
- Difficulty with timed tasks
Does it matter?
Some people have argued that, for gifted kids, processing speed “doesn’t matter,” particularly when it comes to qualifying for special programs. I would say, “It depends.” There are certainly situations when processing speed does matter. Looking broadly at the relationship between testing and real-world functioning will help you determine if it matters for your child.
For instance, you might see a disconnect in the classroom. A child might shine when they work on harder math problems, yet they can’t keep pace with the timed basic multiplication tests, even though they get all the answers right. This would be a case where the processing speed discrepancy doesn’t necessarily matter.
Is there a problem?
Like we saw in the example above, a low processing speed score by itself doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of a learning disorder (LD). But, because we know many individuals with LDs also have low processing speed, it’s important to rule it out. Though opinions differ, a processing speed more than 23 points lower definitely means: Take a closer look. Yes, 23 points seems like an arbitrary number, but it’s the statistical cut-off point where we tend to see a negative impact between index score discrepancies.
For example, children with low PSI scores and dyslexia will often know all their letters and sounds. They can even read words in isolation without a problem – but give them a paragraph to read aloud and they can’t comprehend what they’ve read. These kids spend so much energy reading each word that they lose track of all the words they read from the beginning of the paragraph.
Additionally, what many folks don’t realize is that emotional stress can also affect processing speed. Perhaps not surprisingly, depressed individuals often do poorly on tests of cognitive efficiency.
If you’re concerned about low processing speed and how it might be affecting your child, a comprehensive assessment can often identify processes that underlie possible inefficiencies. Having a deeper understanding of their profile can provide valuable information for accommodations, interventions, and support. And overall, this can help make for less stress, as well as happier and more engaged learning experiences.
Already have a completed psycho-educational evaluation but need help with understanding what all the numbers mean and how you can translate it into a workable educational plan? Schedule a telephone or skype consultation today and have your questions answered.
Have you dealt with slow processing speed with your student?
How did you discover if it was a problem or just a “quirk” of their learning style?