How Fast is Smart?

executive functionIf you ask most children how they know who the smartest kids in the class are, they will often respond that they are the ones who raise their hands the quickest and turn in their tests the fastest. Assumption: Speed equals Intelligence.

Executive Function and Why It’s Important

Before I address the implications of this assumption, let’s look at one of the Executive Function skills known as Processing Speed. Processing Speed is how quickly one can carry out simple or automatic cognitive and motor tasks. We rely on our ability to process verbally, visually, and physically in order to reason and perform tasks all day long. Our processing speed is affected by our knowledge base and experience. But it is also impacted by the amount of stress, pressure, or anxiety we are experiencing at the moment. Lack of proper sleep and nutrition can also have a negative impact.

People who have ADHD often have a below-normal Processing Speed when measured by the tests we generally rely upon. This can have a tremendous impact on learning and behaving. But more than that, it can have a tremendous impact on self-esteem. Children and adults may feel less competent, self-conscious, and even helpless. They, and those around them, are often aware that they are not responding to the world as quickly as others, making them and others incorrectly assume that they are less intelligent and less capable.

Please – let’s help kids break the association between Speed and Intelligence!

The reality is that kids get messages from the world around them. It is up to us to help them balance those messages by what we do and say. Below are some suggestions for teachers and parents to help those who may take a little longer not feel “less than”.

  • Don’t assume that the child is being lazy or is unmotivated because they seem to take longer to get started or respond to what has been asked.
  • Recognize that stress, pressure, or anxiety can impact the speed that they process and respond, so help address those concerns.
  • Accept that it may take longer for them to get ready, get organized, perform chores, or just respond to requests. Anticipate this and allow for the extra time they may need. Help them learn to become more accurate judges of how long they really need. (Using a Time Timer® can help them “see” the passage of time”)
  • In class, when possible allow for “lag time”. For example, “In one minute I am going to ask who the first President was” and let them know that no one is to raise their hands until you say they can.
  • Emphasize accuracy over speed and don’t allow anyone to turn in papers until everyone will together.
  • Provide visual support when possible so students can process at their own pace. Providing a set of class notes can allow a student to focus on just listening.
  • Encourage the use of assistive technology to ease the pressure to process (dictation, audiobooks where spoken speed can be adjusted).

Help kids understand that having a slower processing speed is not always detrimental. After all, taking more time to truly consider information can help one to think more deeply and consider implications and options more thoroughly than one who quickly responds before careful thought. Tolerance, empathy, and support can go a long way in helping them feel valued, competent, and intelligent!

2 thoughts on “How Fast is Smart?”

  1. Wonderful article! In my private practice, I hear regularly how it’s not fair that the other kids get done with their tests so much faster. I try to help my students understand that in reality they will probably score higher due to taking their time and checking their work. I wonder when speed became associated with doing well? Working carefully is so much smarter… *sigh*

  2. This is a very useful article, thanks so much for providing it! Unfortunately, I think we won’t be able to help kids break the association between speed and intelligence until we get adults (especially the various professionals) to let go of it. My son struggles with a very low processing speed but is several years above his expected grade level, so I would say that he’s “smart”. However, when he was IQ tested his full-scale IQ was determined to be average because his processing speed (PSI) was so very low. IQ tests like that one (the WISC) are used as the gateway to many programs for bright kids such as school Gifted & Talented classes, summer programs, etc. When bright kids are turned away from these programs because their processing speed drags down their full-scale IQ, it’s hard to convince them that there’s no relationship between intelligence and speed. 🙁


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