Supporting children with processing issues

Preschooler boy reading book for elementary school

SEN Specialist Jacqui Strubel offers some guidance on helping children deal with processing issues.

As a SENCO, I have noticed that while a lot of resources go to more well-known issues such as dyslexia and autism, the same cannot be said of the less “popular” special educational needs, such as dyscalculia, dysgraphia and particularly, processing issues. In this article I hope to shed some light on what slow processing looks like and how you can help children get the resources they need.

Slow processing is a below average pace of absorbing and responding to information. It often co-exists with other needs such as ADHD or dyslexia and is often not discovered in isolation, as traits can be misdiagnosed, often as dyslexia. The child may then be given different work based on a need for dyslexia, which won’t address or support the main need.

What are the needs of a child with Slow Processing?

As with all learning difficulties, each child is different. Some children only have a couple of the signs of slow processing, while others will be severely impaired. Children will often have difficulty concentrating, which will affect memory and may give the impression that the child is not listening. Anxiety and stress often follow. Planning is often compromised, as difficulty accessing the memory will cause problems when there is a need to remember rules, sequences, or formulas.

The auditory system may be functioning perfectly, but children with processing issues often have trouble understanding what they hear. This may be due to a number of factors relating to speech such as talking speed or vocabulary.

Children with processing issues often struggle with reading. This may be due to a specific reading difficulties like dyslexia, but this is not always the case. If a text is long and laborious, it may be difficult to maintain concentration without visuals or different styles to maintain interest. Concentration issues, memory problems and reading difficulties can all contribute to poor self-esteem, as the individual may feel that they are not as intelligent as their peers.

How can we support children with slow processing?

Clarifying instructions & improving listening skills.

To improve listening skills a number of processes can be introduced which will provide a foundation for listening in any scenario. Once these skills are practised enough, they will become a natural way of listening to understand, ensuring that children can more easily retain information that they are given.

Before effective listening begins:

Do I understand what is being asked of me? If not, what can I do? Ask for help? What can I do to remind myself what needs to be done? Use pictures, doodles, or notes. What can the teacher do to ensure I understand? Children can ask for a re-cap from the teacher to ensure understanding & clarify any confusion.

During a task involving listening:

What can I do to ensure I remember what is being said? Children should be able to answer to “What?” “Why?” “How?” style questions, enabling greater understanding. Draw relevant doodles or notes to support understanding. What can I do to ensure I understand what is being said? Write down “tricky words”, so I can find out their meaning later. Think about questions that I can ask to find out more.

After a listening task:

Was everything clear to me? If not, what do I need to do? Ask for help? How will I remember what is said? Notes, pictures, or doodles can help understanding.

Managing expectations

Expectations need to be managed for both the child and the adults involved to facilitate clear communication. For example, if a class comprehension exercise has been set for completion within the lesson the following options will be helpful and supportive to the child: Supply a choice of two different levels of work which is still focused on learning the same elements as other work being done in the class. Within the work, provide elements that will help the child focus. Use images that are visually stimulating or use content that reflects the child’s interests. Once the skills in the task have been mastered and the child is confident in their abilities, the level of difficulty can be increased.

Remove time constraints and pressure for completion. Out of ten questions, ask the child how many questions they feel they are able to complete. This will demonstrate that they are being listened to and reduce pressure and subsequent anxiety on them to complete the task. Focus on understanding rather than speed. Remaining questions can always be completed for homework, if they are essential.

Improving reading skills

Even when reading skills are at an average level, understanding of what is being read is often very poor in children with processing issues. To ensure what is being read is also understood, a number of processes may be introduced. The following instructions will help a struggling child practise their reading comprehension.

Look at the Title:

What is this telling me? (Story, new ideas, history, instructions, memories, etc)

How do I feel about it? (Familiar, strange, unknown, unsure, interested, bored)

What is the style? (Fiction/Non-fiction)

Reading the passage:

Read first to try to understand what is going on.(Setting, characters, plot, facts). Cover up remaining sentences, if they are too distracting to look at all at once.

Read a second time to make notes on a passage about what isn’t clear and/or underline “tricky words”. Read more times, if needed.

Many students often struggle to “make notes” about their reading. It is often an assumed skill, which few will admit to not knowing how to do. I have found what often helps is to have children answer the following questions; What? Why? When? Where? How? Who? If they cannot answer some of these questions, there may be a need for further clarification.

Figure out tricky words

Write the “tricky word” out & try to work out its meaning. Look at the rest of the sentence to try to gauge meaning. See if there are any clues within the word or look up the meaning. Write a sentence including the tricky word.

Ask questions:

What questions can I ask about the passage that it doesn’t tell me already?

What could the answers be? For example; why is the character sad? Maybe he is missing a loved one?

Summarize the passage:

Draw in 3-4 boxes a summary of the passage, with some words if it helps understanding. This helps secure what has been read and can be useful as a reference point for the future.

Strategies to help poor working memory

Strengthening poor working memory is essential when following instructions and knowing what to write down. Often the child will be able to answer questions verbally but will also often struggle to articulate what they want to say and frequently have difficulties writing down what’s in their head.

  • Give clear instructions, no more than two at a time.
  • Visual timetables are often useful
  • Short tasks with regular checking in to help ensure that the child understands their task.
  • Allow for practise and repetition, enabling information to be embedded.
  • Link learning to relevant areas for the child, like visuals or topics of interest
  • Visual records of learning aid memory and ease of reference.
  • Use reference cards with definitions to enable regular recapping of facts in a user-friendly format.

General advice for teachers

It is always helpful to supply an example to support learning, assume nothing! However, examples of what is expected from an assignment or task should be used to support teaching and not replace it. Examples also give the opportunity for questions, which are vital for both teacher and child to assess understanding. It will be helpful to teach in a multi-sensory style, as this increases concentration and engagement.

Breaking up your teaching style will keep the student engaged. Focus on them recording their learning by varying the evidence collected and not only them writing on paper. Using a laptop is always received well for recording evidence of learning, producing Power point presentations and interactive quizzes.

Finally, it is incredibly important to ensure that each and every child gets an opportunity to learn. This will open up a world of opportunities to them. If a child does not learn the way we are teaching, then it is imperative that we adapt the way we are teaching to the needs of the child.

Jacqui Strubel

Jacqui Strubel is a SEN Specialist, currently working online, supporting schools and parents with SEN pupils. Bringing skills gained training at Place2Be and Arts4Life to support children socially and emotionally through art and play.


  1. This information is very informative as I have been tell my child’s school about his comprehension and social skills issues ever since they wrote to me in his first year of high school to tell me he needs support. I find that when I was speaking to the SEN, they were very dismissive and tried to convince me it might be something else. My child did not adapt well when he first started as he could not understand what was expected of him and his interpretation was often a mile off from the teachers or his peers. As a result, he was always in trouble for his reactions to things and was punished nearly every day even when he was not the perpetrator. The school would often say it was not about who first acted but about my son’s reaction. He was assessed by the School Education Psychologist and to-date, no support has been put in place for him.

  2. During the pandemic and home school I’ve really picked up on my sons struggles. He’s hated school since year 1 and has had little support, more around behaviour plans and what I felt like him being singled out. Feeling like we are failing as parents and that his acting up or going against the grain and maybe has an awkward personality. Socially he’s great one on one but has issues with some children and seems to attract bad attention from other kids.
    I noticed that he wasn’t engaged with work, couldn’t seem to follow direction whilst home school. Oh his returned discussed with school and finally found a teacher that can recognise some struggles he’s having, they have been carrying out some assessments and I am waiting for a meeting to discuss more but I am aware it’s around his processing skills and I’m acutely away of his social struggles. This is the only thing that I’ve really found around this subject and I would be interested to understand more whilst we wait for some kind of support/plan/diagnosis or whatever the next steps may be. Everything I see seems to be Autism or ADHD related which I don’t feel is necessarily relevant.

    • It may be worth checking out information on the FASD spectrum or frontal lobe damage – if there’s a realistic chance that may have occurred during childbirth or as a young kid, the former is far more common (even more so than Autism). Both these conditions can cause great difficulties that are sadly often poorly understood, sometimes leading to the child being labelled as lazy or not trying – when they’re often putting double the effort of their peers just to stay afloat, which can impact mental health greatly if they go through school and life without proper understanding.


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