'The 10-Second Child in a One-Second World' - Slower Processing Pace and 4 Ways to Support It
When I work with parents, one theme that frequently emerges is related to the give-and-take of everyday communication. Often, there’s frustration, and it’s typically expressed like this:
“She never responds when I call her name. It’s not until I’ve raised my voice and threatened consequences that she responds. It’s frustrating and disrespectful.”
“No matter what I ask him, his answer is always, ‘I don’t know…’ It’s maddening, because he does know and just isn’t telling me.”
“I’m not exaggerating when I say I have to repeat myself a hundred times to get her to do what she’s supposed to do. I know she can do it, and don’t get why she’s so passive-aggressive about it.”
“Any time I try to talk to him about what happened, he shuts down and refuses to talk. It happens even when I’m calm! I just don’t get it...”
When a child behaves in ways that clash with a parent’s beliefs about how they should act, there is an understandable emotional response within the parent that results in more tension, escalation, and disconnection. It can leave the child feeling frustrated that they are always “in trouble,” and leave parents wondering if their situation will ever improve.
The path to understanding, and to fewer challenging behaviors, is to take a step away from the behavior itself and get curious about how that challenging behavior is connected to the child’s brain-differences. There are always patterns to the challenging behaviors, connected back to the child’s unique brain function. But often it isn’t until we practice non-judgmental observation, followed by intentional reflection, that the patterns begin to emerge and pieces start to come together.
When the pieces come together, we then have the information needed to help our unique child settle and experience fewer challenging behaviors.
Accommodations do not have to be complicated — give more listen time, create space for more think time, write it down to help with processing, and give your child permission upfront to take the time they need.
When I’m working with a parent to help them make sense of and identify these patterns, there are several cognitive skill categories we begin to examine more closely, attempting to link an observed difficulty with any of those skills to the child’s challenging behaviors. One of these categories is processing pace, and specifically, a child’s ability to process verbal information — a common lagging cognitive skill for many individuals with brain-differences.
How to recognize when your child experiences slower processing pace
“Ten-Second Child in a One-Second World”
Diane Malbin, creator of the neurobehavioral model, describes individuals with brain-based differences as “10-second individuals in a one-second world.” I’d like to invite you to pause for a moment, and count out ten full seconds. When you do this, you find it is a surprisingly long amount of time, and rarely do we as parents provide our child with this additional, several-second buffer that they require to hear what we’ve said, and then to respond accordingly. In a classroom setting, this might look like the teacher asking questions about the lesson to multiple students, with a steady flow of ideas and conversations happening between multiple people. When the child with slower processing pace is called upon, they freeze or shut down because they have not been able to keep up with the conversation until that point. They might appear to be disinterested, or simply refusing to participate, when in reality it is a processing pace challenge.
So how do you accommodate the child in this particular situation?
When you don’t know where to begin, give more time. Count slowly to ten before assuming your child is defiantly choosing to not listen and respond. See what happens. In the classroom example, the teacher can give the student a heads-up in advance of the question that will be asked (ideally in written form), so the student has the time needed to formulate an answer and is ready when called on.
Giving Permission to Process
At an early age, kids with brain-based differences have learned that when adults ask them a question, they are expected to provide an immediate response, or else they will be seen as ignoring that adult or be seen as disrespectful. How does this scenario change if the adult recognizes that this child experiences slower processing pace? It means the child needs permission to take more listening time (ten-second-child-in-a-one-second-world) and more “think” time. They may not have the skills to “think on their feet,” formulate their thoughts, and respond in the few seconds typically provided.
How can you accommodate your child in these situations?
If your child constantly answers “What?” or “I don’t know?” give them permission upfront to take additional time to think. It might sound something like this: “I wanted to see what you feel like having for dinner tonight. I’ll text you some ideas and maybe we can talk about what you think a bit later, sound good?” Or, it could sound like: “I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what your teacher shared about how school went today. I wrote down a few things she mentioned. Maybe you can look it over and we can talk about it in a bit?” Or maybe it looks like this: “I want your opinion on something, but don’t want you to answer me right away. Maybe take some time to think about it and we can talk later tonight?”
Accommodations do not have to be complicated — give more listen time, create space for more think time, write it down for them to help with processing, and give them permission upfront to take the time they need. Again, see what happens.
Re-think Talking as Our Main Approach
In a society where everyone is assumed to have what is considered “neurotypical” cognitive skills, we often launch into interactions with others through conversation. We explain the “why” behind our thoughts, actions and rules with words. We attempt to resolve disagreements or conflicts through words. As parents, we often demand our child’s attention and acknowledgement of our authority through words: “You’re not leaving until we talk about what happened…” or “Sit down…I want you to tell me exactly why you decided that was a good idea…”
What if, instead, we reconsidered the default to spoken words and explored other options?
Accommodating by Using Fewer Words
What if a child isn’t able to process verbal communication in the way society expects? What do we then need to do differently? Recognizing that fully participating in back and forth conversations is likely quite challenging for the child is the first step. Understanding that they may only be hearing every third word of what we are saying (especially if it is already a stressful situation or conversation) is the next step. And then slowing down our rate of speech should follow. Writing points down (with words or pictures) to help a child process visually is also an effective accommodation to incorporate into our relationship and communication.
One thing I often say to parents is that a good starting point is to assume that any individual with brain-based differences will find talking to be agitating. Talking is agitating. If you find yourself speaking quite a bit, and notice the agitation rising in your child, stop talking. Take a step back to regulate yourself and calm your nervous system, and then re-engage with your child in a way that uses fewer words at a slower cadence.
Believe me when I say, this is one case in which less truly is more.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.