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Response Speed Delay: Helping Children Get Beyond Their Problem

By Joan Smith, Ed.D., for
"Huh?" : The all important communicator that asks for a repeat of information ~ Huh? If you know a youth or adult who constantly responds to your comment with "Huh?", you may know someone with a response speed delay.

Psychologists and learning specialists have been able to measure the actual speed of processing between a stimulus and a response for the last twenty years. We have assessments which can measure how quickly one can respond after seeing a target or after hearing information. This information, in my view, is critical to effectively understanding and planning for resolution of a learning disability.

Response time delays create many problems in learning. They are most serious in reading disabilities, social situations, and anything requiring retrieval of information. They are often seen as an attention disorder of inattention.

When a child is learning to read he has to look at a sequence of letters and recognize it as a meaningful word. If he has a response delay the timing for responding with the correct word is stretched out to the point that they lose interest and meaning or are distracted by something else in the room. If he is trying to use a sound-out approach to reading, he will have difficulty experiencing closure and making sense of the word. A teacher or parent observing this performance will often conclude that he has an attention issue.

My most distressing observation of an instructor attempting to teach a child with a response delay to sound out a word was with Jenny. Jenny looked at the first letter in C A T and was working very hard on retrieving the "c" sound. After ten seconds of watching Jenny try to recall the sound, her instructor said "it's the same sound as in can". Jenny looked up blankly at the instructor, obviously attempting to incorporate this new information in her search and starting her timeline for retrieval again. When she did not respond the instructor provided the sound for her "k"... it says "k". Jenny looked up at the instructor and repeated "k" and the instructor smiled, obviously pleased that she was helping Jenny.

Jenny returned to the word to figure out the vowel sound. You could see her sorting through options and working on retrieving the sound for the letter a. This time the instructor waited five seconds before she could not resist giving Jenny the sound. By the time that Jenny was looking at the t, the instructor just gave it immediately. Then the instructor sounded all three letters together and the word. Jenny repeated it.

The problem with this sequence was that Jenny was taught several lessons:

  1. If you wait long enough you will be given the answer without working,
  2. Jenny's efforts were not good enough. (Maximum stressor)

In fact, Jenny could retrieve the sounds for the word, and needed to retrieve them herself. The instructor's prompts actually interrupted her efforts and reset her time in responding clock.

It was obvious that the instructor had no understanding of Jenny's response delay. If she had, she would have started the session by reviewing several sounds that would be expected that day, and then asked for Jenny to work on the word, and tell her when she could read it.

Jenny might have responded with "cut" or "cot" and then the instructor would have reviewed several vowel sounds with her and asked her to check her word again to identify which symbol was confusing and let her know when she was ready.

The benefit this sequence would have offered for Jenny could have been that Jenny would learn:

  1. She was safe working with the instructor and was not in danger of failing because the information was available to her. (Reduced stress)
  2. She was capable of working this out herself and it was obvious her instructor communicated that expectation to her.
  3. She could succeed in recognizing the word and used strategies to figure it out.

In social situations, there is considerable dialogue occurring, quick speaking, and rapid understanding of jokes, rules, or stories. With a delay in processing, the child has difficulty in participating, getting the joke, understanding the rules, etc. They often socially isolate themselves because they are teased about making mistakes or misunderstanding. Or they become known for being silly or clowning around which masks their confusion.

One fourth grade girl I adored had difficulty in accessing number combinations. One day we were practicing combinations by tossing the beanbag back and forth making combinations of ten. I tossed her the beanbag and said "six" . She caught it and said "blue, purple, red, green"..and shortly after "four". I probably had my mouth hanging open while I was trying to figure out what the colors had to do with the number, because she said..."what?, I just needed to hold my place while I found the number ." An interesting delaying tactic for her delay in retrieval!

For the youth taking a test, for which they have studied and really understand the information, accessing the information in a specific period of time can be a difficult task. A delay in processing makes it more difficult to retrieve information and express it. And the pressure of being in a testing situation adds stress complicating the problem.

When delay in response time is treated as an attention disorder there is the likelihood that the delay will actually become worse. The stimulant medications often have a reverse effect of slowing processing rather than speeding it up.

Listen for the "Huh?" and seek sources to resolve this important learning challenge.

Joan M. Smith, Ed.D. of Training Programs for Parents and Teachers To Remediate Learning Disabilities, ADD, Dyslexia and Reading Problems. You can reach Dr. Smith by contacting her at: or by phone at:(831) 484-0994. .

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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