Slow Processing Speed in Teens with ADHD

Everyone’s brain processes information at a different rate. There are a variety of factors that may contribute to why some teens take longer to understand concepts and complete tasks. This doesn’t mean that they are not capable of grasping this information, but rather they may process it at their own pace. Slow processing speed can happen independently, but often co-occurs with ADHD, anxiety, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and learning disorders. Understanding the source of your child’s processing issues is critical in helping them learn strategies to manage them. 

What is Slow Processing Speed?

Slow processing speed is caused by neurological differences, where the brain takes longer to do things. This means that a child struggles with keeping up with the pace of classroom learning, is last to finish tests, or has problems with following directions.

Some students may not begin a task due to problems organizing time or materials, or due to reluctance, uncertainty, lack of confidence, or anxiety. Other children may take more time to complete tasks because of problems maintaining focus. Whatever the source of slow processing speed, it is important to be understanding and patient with teens who are struggling.

Some signs of slow processing speed include:

  • Slow work pace
  • Easily overwhelmed by instructions and assignments
  • Problems with time management
  • Limited working memory
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts and getting them down on paper
  • Challenges with handwriting due to poor fine motor coordination

Slow processing speed can apply to any kind of new information, not just academic material. For example, your teen may consistently be late to school or activities as it takes them longer to get ready. Or, it may take a while for them to respond to prompts to clean their room or turn off the TV. This is not a sign of defiance and is usually not a sign of hearing issues, but it may take them longer to receive and understand messages from others. Similarly, in conversations with others, they may put a lot of energy in trying to remember what other people are saying, but by the time it is their turn to talk, they may forget what they wanted to say or miss the last part of what someone else told them as they were preparing to respond.

How is Slow Processing Speed Associated with ADHD?

When we think of teens with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, we tend to focus on the “hyperactive” piece rather than considering that ADHD encompasses a wide range of executive functioning. Hyperactivity is only one subtype with ADHD. Children with the predominantly inattentive subtype of ADHD are more likely to daydream, stare off, and appear spacey. Their brain activity shows patterns of under-arousal in the portion of their brain associated with focus and planning, which contributes to slower processing speed.

It is common for teens with ADHD to take somewhat longer to complete assignments, especially when an assignment is cognitive challenging. This is not a reflection of their intelligence or academic potential, but rather the speed at which they process and respond to information. 

Deconstructing a diagnosis of ADHD to focus on specific symptoms can help professionals and parents understand specific areas where a child is struggling. Thinking of processing speed as a separate neurodevelopmental issue is a more effective way of finding appropriate tools to either improve processing speed or accommodate for slow processing.

Classroom Strategies to Help Teens with Slow Processing Speeds

Small class sizes at New Focus Academy help teens with learning disorders build independence and relationship skills. Learning isn’t just about math, English, and the other usual subjects–it’s also about practical skills that will aid our students in their daily lives. We recognize that listening to classroom lectures just won’t work for most of our students. They perform better in a more hands-on, experiential setting.

Some strategies that we recommend for teens with slower processing speeds include: 


  • Breaking down written assignments into smaller, more manageable segments. If a student is handed one worksheet at a time, they are less likely to get overwhelmed than being given a packet of their assignments for the week or even a thick textbook for the course. This also helps them with time management and keeping track of guidelines. When assignments are presented one at a time, teachers have more space to check in with each student to monitor their comprehension and pause to help the class get on track.
  • Taking regular “brain breaks” to avoid burnout. It is unrealistic to expect teenagers to stay focused for large chunks of time, as they are easily restless. We encourage students to take regular energy breaks while working on assignments, allowing them to get up and move around before getting back to work. Sensory toys are available in classrooms to assist with focus and self-regulation. 
  • Allowing the use of educational technology in the classroom. At New Focus Academy, we have a “technology success” program that encourages appropriate use of technology as a tool for learning and communication. Some students find it easier to type notes and write papers online compared to on paper, as they have more tools for editing and organization. We try to accommodate for students’ learning styles wherever possible.
  • Offering additional tutoring outside of a classroom setting. The structure of a classroom can feel overwhelming for some students, even with small class sizes. Outside of school hours, we offer additional study halls so students can work on assignments at their own pace. These study halls are monitored by staff to ensure that students are keeping track of assignments and have help available if they need it. Students can work with our teachers, Special Education coordinators, and Speech & Language therapist outside of the classroom for additional support.

New Focus Academy Can Help 

New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder, other neurodevelopmental disorders, and learning disorders such as ADHD. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence.Our academic program teaches Utah’s Common Core Curriculum with a focus on Essential Elements, such as life skills, functional math and language arts skills, community based living skills, and social-emotional skills.  The skills they learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction, organization, and improve their self-management. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits. 

For more information, call 844-313-6749. We can help your family today!

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