On today’s podcast, host Lori Boll speaks with long time SENIA friend and Executive Functioning expert, Sarah Ward. Sarah and Lori discuss Processing Speed, and how having either slow or fast processing speed can impact our everyday lives, what teachers or families may recognize in the classroom or home, and how we can best support these challenges. This is a must-listen for all of us. Enjoy!

Resources Mentioned in Today’s Podcast:


Sarah Ward, M.S., CCC/SLP has over 25 years of experience in the treatment of executive dysfunction. Sarah is an internationally recognized expert on executive function and presents seminars on the programs and strategies she has developed with her Co-Director Kristen Jacobsen. Their 360 Thinking Executive Function Program received the Innovative Promising Practices Award from the National Organization CHADD. She has presented to over 1400 public and private schools in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Transcribed by Kanako Suwa

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour. 

Lori: Hello, SENIA Happy Hour listeners, this is Lori Boll, your host, and today I speak with someone you all know and love, Sara Ward. Sara is no stranger to you all as she was a speaker at our virtual conference in 2020 and is our go-to expert on Executive Functioning. But just in case this is the first time you’re hearing from Sarah, allow me to share a few words about her.  Sarah Ward is a speech language pathologist and has over 25 years of experience in the field and in the treatment of executive dysfunction. She and her co-director Kristen Jacobson of the 360 Thinking Executive Function Program received the Innovation, Innovative Promising Practices Award from the National Organization Chad. Sarah has presented to over 1,400 public schools and private schools in the United States, Canada, and Europe. So today, Sarah and I speak about processing speed and the complexities of taking in information, organizing it in your brain, and then taking action. Who knew it was so complicated? But you know, Sarah explains it so much better than I ever could so I’m done talking and now on to the show. 

Hello Sarah and welcome back to our podcast! 

Sarah: Thank you so much! I’m so excited for the invitation to come back and really look forward to connecting today. 

Lori: Well, you know you’re well loved in the SENIA community *laughs* and everyone wants to hear more from Sarah Ward. 

Sarah: *laughs* well, let’s dive in. 

Lori: Yes, let’s. So today we’re going to be discussing processing speed, and how that relates to executive functioning. 

Sarah: One of my favourite topics, actually… 

Lori: Cool.

Sarah: Since it’s a huge problem we see for kids. 

Lori: Good, Please explain it to us so define processing speed what’s it even mean?

Sarah: So I think the processing speed can be kind of confusing because typically people think of processing speed and they think well if you have slow processing speed, you must be slow. And that’s really not the case. Processing speed is just how quickly students can react to information –  that could be things they see, things they hear, things they touch, that sensory piece, how quickly they understand in their mind and think about that information, then formulate and execute a response to that information. So it’s basically information comes in, how quickly can you think about it and then what do you do with it with your output and it’s really important to understand that information processing is absolutely not the same as intelligent as it’s possible to be extremely bright and yet process information very slowly. I’ve seen that it is also possible for students to have extremely fast processing and that actually can impact your performance in ability to execute tasks as well. And it is not correlated to physical abilities. So for example, I have students with really slow processing speed that are also incredible athletes so I can get out there on the field and they can run faster than anything you’ve ever seen.  so it’s just at the very basic level, input, how fast you do something with it, and output. 

Lori: Hmm. That’s so interesting. And so it, you’re, having difficulties with processing speed challenges, those impact most areas of executive functioning… is that so? 

Sarah: It does. It’s not always but generally yes because of course in order to execute a task, you need to be able to engage your visual working memory and processing speed can be highly correlated to visual processing. So you have to be able to take in information in your mind,  formulate your own plan of action, and rehearse what it is that you’re going to do. and then execute that plan. So we find that there are students where it can take them, for example if a teacher gives a directive in a class, a long time to process that direction, formulate their response, and then execute that direction so they can be behind when they’re sitting there and they’re are formulating a response to maybe what they’re going to write on an essay or they’re formulating a response of how they’re going to get themselves dressed, choose an outfit or to go upstairs and gather the materials they need to get out the door to soccer… all of that requires formulation of a response and therefore your executive functioning. 

Lori: Right okay doing some research for this podcast and I came across an old presentation that you had done and on one of those presentations you had a quote from Dr. Ellen Rodden? 

Sarah: Yes. She’s amazing. She’s out of Mass General Hospital and is one of the only authors of a book on processing speed I think it’s called Fast Kids, Slow Thinkers, or something like that…  that but it’s definitely a book worth reading.  

Lori: okay cool I’ll put that in the show notes.  So she says “if executive functioning is the car, processing speed is the engine. The more powerful the engine, the faster the car, and good executive functioning depends on the quality of the engine. More efficient engines allow the car to function at a higher level of efficiency”.  

Sarah: I love that quote. 

Lori: Yes, so  break that down for us, would you? 

Sarah: Absolutely. So  if it’s really simplistic when you think about it. So if you think about executive function as… you have a goal – I want to get dressed and get out the door, I want to write a paper, I want to prepare for and produce a podcast, whatever that may be… you have to get from where you are now in this moment in time to your goal. So the executive function is the car. It’s what allows you to get from here to there –  executive function is your ability to identify that goal, break down the steps of what it is that you’re going to do in order to achieve that goal, and how you’re going to get from point A to point B to achieve that. So it’s a car, and how do you just get from here to there. 

Now, processing speed is the engine. So if you imagine that we lift up the hood of a car, if you look inside an engine. We want to see how efficiently that car is running. So if we lift up that executive, the hood of the executive function car, it’s how efficiently is the person organizing and breaking down information in order to execute a plan. So for example, I can have the plan to be dressed and out the door on time for school. That’s my goal. Executive function allows me to get there – to be able to know that I need to get dressed and brush my teeth and put on my shoes and have my backpack and be out the door. But remember, processing speed is how quickly you take information in, do something with it, and then execute that plan. So if I look at underneath the hood of that, in the efficiency, how quickly can that student make the decision of what to wear how quickly can that student make the decision of the start of even just the brushing of the teeth proces – am I going to floss this morning, am I gonna use this toothpaste, am I gonna do it in this bathroom or in the other bathroom.. I mean, it’s all those kinds of pieces. 

And you know, there’s something that I think there’s two other things that are very helpful to me and thinking about processing speed. So one is that when we actually give tests to the kids and we measure their processing speed and we determine whether they have low or really fast processing speed, quite honestly, those IQ tests to measure processing speed are really much more like a doctor’s thermometer or a blood pressure cuff. It just tells you you have a temperature and you have to do a little more investigation to say why you have a temperature or you have high blood pressure, let’s investigate the root cause. Processing speed index is  just the same –  they simply are telling you you got slow processing and then you have to go a little, a little deeper and say well what is the contributor to that… is it that you’re having trouble breaking down visual information? Is it that you’re having trouble breaking down the auditory information? 

And the second part about it, it’s kind of confusing is the processing speed index on intelligence tests actually don’t measure your ability to process information. And it’s not like, right so, you know if I give you the intelligence test and you have a low processing speed, that is not at all indicative of how effectively you process information sitting in a lecture hall while the professor is providing you with a lecture. It doesn’t measure that. The processing test actually measures the accuracy of identifying visual information, making decisions, and acting on those decisions. Again it’s the ability to take it in, formulate a response and act. *phone rings* *ringtone stops* So point number one is, The phone interruption…  divided attention… *laughs*

Point number one  is that processing speed IQ tests don’t necessarily measure your ability to process linguistic information so that’s point number one. Now here’s the second thing, that has been incredibly helpful to me, is that  there’s been a lot of articles that talked about the fact that when we look at processing speed, is that every single thing that you and I do as a routine and a complex component. I find this belief fascinating because it’s helpful to think about it in order to support students with processing speed challenges. 

So let me give you an example. There is a routine to getting dressed every morning. You get dressed – routine is you put on undergarments, you put on pants and a shirt or a dress, whatever you will, and you add a footwear, and you may or may not add accessories. Now the complex decision is what is the context of where I’m going today or what is the weather like. So if the weather is really going to be cold then I’ll choose to wear long sleeves. If it’s raining, I’ll choose to wear boots. If I’m going somewhere today and I have an interview then I may choose to dress in more of business attire than my casual at home Zoom loungewear. 

Lori: Right, yeah.

Sarah: Which, I’m kind of fond of these days… *laughs* 

Lori: Me too. *laughs*

Sarah: You know, so let me give you another example. When children are in school, we teach them the routine components, if you will, of a textbook. So a textbook has a title, it has subtitles, it has heading, there are pop out boxes and visuals and captions and bolded words. And that just becomes a routine that we know – that’s how text books are, where we can use that organization to guide our processing and planning. The complex decision is what is this textbook topic about and what is the information I’m looking for. So if I’m reading a history textbook and I know the purpose is to determine the cause of these particular Civil War battles, then I’m going to use that core organization of titles and heading and subtitles to guide me and quickly processing where to find that information. 

So even… for example we talked a lot about this with written expressions. If I’m going to write something, so many times in schools, we teach kids patterns of organized thoughts like contrast comparison, cause and effect, descriptive, persuasive organizational patterns… you know that’s not just one and fluffy stuff to teach in school, it said that core organizational pattern becomes the routine so that I can then make the complex decision of how am I going to convey my argument, whatever the essay prompt is. You know, why why do we think we should wear uniforms in school or not, you know. I didn’t have to choose oh okay here’s the routine organization of information and now let me add my complex ideas on top of that. 

So truly everything that we do has a routine and even you know a shower has a routine of you’re going to wash your hair and your face and your body and the whole thing. The complex decision is how much time do I have, where am I going today, what are the set of circumstances if I don’t have very much time and I need to just quickly hop in the shower I may choose not to shampoo and wash my hair because I can go with the messy bun to join the Zoom loungewear… *laughs*  do you see where I’m going with this? 

Lori: I do! Yes. *laughs* So I’m kind of picturing it in my head as a bunch of kind of puzzle pieces and then it’s kind of a matter of how fast you can put that puzzle together and then go from there.  That’s how I’m seeing it.

Sarah: Right, because  yeah if the teacher says to you, okay class it’s time for whatever, math, you need your math manipulatives and your whiteboard and your dry erase marker… well again, kids with really good information processing speed already locked the routine of the classroom in mind. They know its core organizational structure, they know where everything is and so the minute the teacher gives them that, they don’t have to say… hold up, okay, where are the math manipulatives… okay, where are the whiteboards… okay so if manipulatives were over there, and then what are the math manipulatives, there are circle ones and cube ones and I’ll grab the circles… there’s the material zone, I’m going to go get that… and so again it’s not an inability, it’s just that it takes a little longer. 

And I have a really favorite example in my mind of how to describe this difference between routine and complex and processing speed. So I use this all the time for my teletherapy sessions with students and typically when I am lecturing and presenting… once in a while someone has the audacity to send a Google Meet… 

Lori: I know I understand that trauma! 

Sarah: It’s traumatic! And again, the thing about it is, I’m not, you know, I don’t have low intelligence, I don’t have low inability, but the routine of Google Meet is not routine to me. It’s not like it’s not automatic. I know that there’s a chat box, I know there’s a place to share my screen, I know there’s an option to change my background, but it’s not automatic for me so it takes me a bit to observe that information, formulate a response, take it in, and respond. And so I am slower at my… sort of efficiency with which I can present so that’s a really good example. It’s not an inability, it’s not a lack of intellect, it’s merely that you gotta kinda pull that cord of familiarity out. And truly I think the other thing that’s just so important to understand is if you think about that example of using Google Meet, at the end of my meeting, I’m exhausted because I’m doing twice the work. I’m not only presenting but I’m also having to navigate the software in the whole program. Plus our children’s hearts… Kids with slow processing speed, they are working twice as hard as everybody else and they come home exhausted. I mean just totally spent. It is a lot of work and so many of my students, they really can’t do two things at the same time and this impacts them at school significantly. 

So to give you an example, they really can’t eat a snack and socialize at the same time –  they will either socialize or they will eat their snack because they just can’t, it’s too much processing to sort of navigate that. So we have a lot of kids where parents will say he’s coming home hangry because he just… didn’t, he couldn’t even… he had to give that up. Or another good example if students are in my office and they need to pack up at the end of the day, or they’re in the classroom, that transition between the time class is ending and the next classes starting is a really fantastic social moment for kids, it’s where they get to connect and socialize and catch up and plan as they walk down the hall. My students, they can either pack their bags or they can socialize but they can’t do both. So what I find is, if you talk to them while they pack their bag, they come to a grinding halt and they stop packing, and you socialize. And everyone leaves the classroom and you can sort of see them go “oh no” and they then put materials in their bag, again, that routine, of a packed bag may not be routine for them. See, for you and I, if you’re driving, do you ever notice when you’re driving and you’re like “oh I need chapstick” and you reach over and you can drive and get chapstick at the same time? IT’s because you just know organisationally, the front pocket always has chapstick, the middle pocket always has my phone and keys and the back pocket has my money and wallet. You just can visualize and do that.

Again, it’s not that they don’t know it, it’s just not routine to pull it up. So for that reason, one of the very best ways to improve processing speed is really build strong schemas for routines. Give kids just stock visuals of you know a photograph, what does, what are the features of being dressed… you have a top, bottom, of your foot wear, a backpack, accessories… have that photograph so that you can just say to them okay it’s going to be freezing cold today, how will this look different? I’ll need a hat, I’ll need mittens, for footwear I’ll need boots. Show them those core features of how textbooks are organised, introduce them to those patterns of organised thoughts. Call the routine out, even for things like, you know, being prepared for soccer or setting the table. Any opportunities you have to give the routine so if the core routine of setting the table is a placemat and a plate and a utensil, remind that. And then you talk about, well, tonight, we’re having soup. How would it be the same or different instead of just saying “oh we’re having soup tonight, set the table”. You know it sounds different but you gotta start with the core and scaffold the novelty on top of it. 

Lori: Right now these are all great strategies. And I think what I’m hearing i… even so one of my questions was going to be what strategies can teachers and family members use but for students who are struggling in this area but I think that all of these strategies are good for every student in the classroom. And that’s pretty powerful, when teachers can understand that when they’re teaching, maybe to, the students with higher needs in that area, they’re really benefiting every student in their classroom. 

Sarah: So true because to be honest with you some of the kids that I find that have the most significant struggle with executive function planning are not only my kids with slow processing speed, but the opposite of my kids with fast processing speed.  So kids was really fast processing speed what happens is they are processing information so quickly there are often 2 or 3 steps ahead of you. You’re talking about something, they’ve gone quick and they’ve got the information and they’ve moved on and what happens is that often results in extensive mind-wandering so their minds are wandering so quickly to other things and other topics and information. It was triggered by the ideas of what you talked about, but there’s tension often hard for them to re-engage to where they were and what it was that they need to do. 

So for example, you give them the directive of get your math manipulatives and your whiteboard, and all of a sudden they hear math and they think of fractions which made them think of pie day and they thought about the pie that they were going to bake and they are often running, and sometimes you will see these kids literally standing still and they’re just thinking. *laughs* And then they don’t really engage. And so I find it the exact same thing. Even routines for those kids are really helpful because it anchors that distractibility in where they need to go and what they need to do. And I find that to be incredibly powerful and useful to our students. 

Lori: Definitely. So you’ve alluded to this, you’ve actually answered this several times, but just to narrow it down to our listeners… how can we as educators or family members recognise if a child may be having difficulties in this area?

Sarah: Uh, yeah, so again, it is on a little bit of a trickier side because processing speed can be a culprit of many other sorts of things. Like I said, that being said… kids with slow processing speed, let me go for what it’s more like… they have a harder time integrating and including information. So this may be the student that in math, hears something and learns it but by the time they get home, they haven’t sort of put together what it is that they need to do. They need a lot of spiralling back of content so it may take them.. They may hear all those facts in a lecture and it may take them significantly longer to integrate all of that and go “oh, right, we were talking about the… reasons and the problems of why the colonists struggled establish communities along the coast” or I mean… they’re hearing all of that, it just takes them much longer and integrate the core purpose of the content that is. So they’re ability to acquire new material can be tougher. We also see that slow processing can present as kids who sit down to do homework and they truly take twice as long as their peers. 

And it’s very frustrating for the student and it’s very frustrating for the parent. So as they’re sitting down to do the math or the reading, it’s not that they’re distracted, per se… it’s just taking them… if that reading assignment was supposed to take your average students 20 minutes, they may spend 40 minutes on it. And it’s not because they’re distracted or they’re rolling around on the floor or playing with the dog or all these things. They’re truly working through it, it’s just taking longer. So that’s a good sign. If you’re seeing those things happen a lot, that can be hard. Absolutely following instructions and transitioning between tasks is hard. Some of my students with processing speed, the parents will say, they’ll complain, we’re headed out the door, running out the door, grab your sweatshirt… don’t forget that gift card because we’re going to stop by Target… these kids will go “you’re telling me too many things!” and I mean.. They’ll literally say “I can’t do all of that”. So following directions and multistep directions is tough. 

Routines can take forever, and it is just sometimes, it can present as being physically slower, but it’s not that they’re physically slow, it’s just they’re taking a long time to process. So many parents would say, “oh my goodness, it’s taking us. Our routine. He goes in the bathroom for 45 minutes and I don’t even know what’s going on. It’s taking him forever to get out of the bathroom. It’s taking him forever to eat breakfast.” And you think, “we have got to go” and you can’t sort of just move them along. And I guess the other thing I would say is making decisions and reasoning under time demands can be very challenging. It just takes longer to think about, make a decision, and reason. 

Lori: Well, you’ve given us a lot to chew on today, Sarah. Thank you so much. And I think we’re out of time – we may have even gone over time… but it’s just such important information for all of us. So thank you, thank you for your time! 

Sarah: You’re welcome. You know, I would just like to say, you know, the good news is you can fix it, not always solve the problem and there’s so many compensatory things and if there’s one little tip is, really highlight the core organisation and routine of tasks and scaffold the new on top of it and that really improves things. 

Lori: Perfect. Thank you so much, Sarah. Have a great day.

Sarah: Thank you. Have a good one. 

Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcast. Until next time, cheers.