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Making Smart Kids Smarter
Brain training isn't just for kids with major learning disabilities
By Wendy Burt-Thomas
It's easy to skim over the articles on ADD and dyslexia when your child or teen is excelling in school. After all, programs to help 'train the brain' are to help kids with learning disabilities, right?
New studies have found that the brain's plasticity (the ability to change) is greater than originally thought. In fact, scientists now believe that, contrary to what was previously believed, even IQ can change.
"Many (scientists) used to believe that IQ was stagnant, that is, the IQ that you were born with was what you'd keep for life," says Dr. Ken Gibson, author of "Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake Up the Smart in Your Child." "We now know that things like cognitive skills training – commonly known as 'brain training' – can actually improve a person's IQ. Best of all, this can be done at any age; child, teen, adult or senior."
So how exactly does cognitive skills training work?
Generally, the child or teen is evaluated with a series of tests to find out which cognitive skills – such as memory, attention, processing speed, auditory and visual processing, comprehension, or logic and reasoning – are the weakest. A child who is incredibly strong in math, for example, could be weaker in reading due to auditory processing (also called "phonemic awareness").
Angela Knutsen's 9-year-old daughter, Holly, was a good student and incredibly strong reader for her age. But Knutsen had concerns that while Holly was in the upper level math class, she seemed to struggle with her math facts. "When I would practice math drills with her, she would know 6 + 6 = 12, but if I immediately asked 6 + 7, she wouldn't know," explains Knutsen. "After I got her tested, I could tell why: her short-term memory was weak and her processing speed was slow. She couldn't hold 6 + 6 is 12 in her head long enough to process 'therefore 6 +7 must be one more, 13.'"
In addition, Holly had struggled with low self-esteem and suffered from extreme anxiety. "She has always had trouble going into new situations," says Knutsen, who herself suffered from anxiety as a child. "She would cry every day when I took her to kindergarten, and in first and second grade she would get herself so nervous about a change in routine; if there was a field trip or an assembly the next day, she would cry several times the night before, and she would look physically sick. It broke my heart."
Knutsen began researching programs to help bright children. "There were a lot of tutors and businesses that helped kids with severe learning disabilities, but that's not what Holly needed," she explains. "I eventually stumbled across a cognitive skills training company," explains Knutsen. "The testimonials from other parents – especially those with fearful children like Holly – convinced me to give it a try. I kept hearing that increased confidence was a near-universal side effect."
Initial testing confirmed that Holly was weaker in those cognitive skills that are needed to excel in math – logic and reasoning, and memory – (though still above average compared to her peers). More specific testing unveiled weaknesses in retrieval fluency, short-term memory, and executive processing speed.
"These are all specific skills needed to excel in math," explains Gibson. "The short-term memory test, for example, measures the ability to apprehend and hold information in immediate awareness and then use it within a few seconds. Fortunately, memory – like other cognitive skills – can be strengthened."
Over the next several weeks, Holly worked with a brain trainer to strengthen her weakest cognitive skills. By the time she completed the program, Holly's math skills – and math scores – had improved. But perhaps more importantly, so had her self-esteem.
"The biggest change is non-academically," says Knutsen. "Holly is beaming. She's more confident, happy, thriving. She's doing things on her own that she never would have tried before—basketball, art classes, new babysitters. When she's running off to try something new, my husband and I often say "Who is this person and what has she done with our daughter?""
In fact, Knutsen was so pleased with her daughter's results that she recently took her 14-year-old son, Zach, in for an evaluation with the same company.
"Zach is an exceptional student, but I noticed that he frequently avoided doing homework," says Knutsen. "I decided to put him through the program too – just to see if there was some way we could to nip this avoidance in the bud early in high school."
Zach's initial Learning Skills Rating Scale indicated that while almost all of his cognitive skills were very strong for his age, there was one area that lagged behind: attention.
One particular test called 'Pair Cancellation' showed that Zach's executive processing speed was slower than most kids his age. The results weren't surprising, considering executive processing speed involves interference control and sustained attention – two subsets of cognitive skills that would allow Zach to be easily distracted when he was doing homework.
"Zach is looking forward to starting the training because he hears it will help with sports" says Knutsen. "He plays football and wrestles, and he knows that increasing his processing speed will make him that much better. He's a smart kid. He's a freshman in high school and already taking advanced math and science courses and honors English and honors Civics, but he knows this will make him even smarter. My friends ask, 'Why invest in a kid who's already smart?' In part, to make it easier for him, to help him do things faster. How much is his time worth? If he can do his school work faster, cut half an hour off his homework every night, will it be worth it? Absolutely! Will this help him get into a better college? Get a scholarship? Maybe. It's worth it to give him the best chance to do and become what he wants with his life."
Like Zach, 16-year-old Ross Birdsall was already a bright kid. But Ross was eager to improve his music sight reading. "At his initial testing, with just two exceptions (executive processing speed and math fluency), Ross was above age level in all his tests," says Patty Gould, Director of a LearningRx franchise in Colorado Springs. "He enrolled in our ThinkRx program, with minimal focus on reading skills and little on math. At the end of the program, Ross improved in ALL areas, and his ranges indicated that he was measuring in the areas of 19- to 24-year-olds."
Ross's parents reported improved driving skills (due to his increased ability to multi-task, thanks to strengthened divided attention) and a greater ability to memorize music. But the best proof came from Ross himself:
"I have seen so many improvements in my abilities to think and concentrate," he says, " however, the most pronounced improvement was in my music sight reading. The benefits of this program allowed me to work for long periods of time and much more effectively on my music reading ability, which is the reason I started LearningRx in the first place."
"Brain training can be especially effective in helping smart teens who are looking to be at the top of their class to get into a great college," explains Tanya Mitchell, Vice President of Research and Development for LearningRx. "Increasing cognitive skills like memory, processing speed and comprehension can be especially beneficial when taking tests like the ACTs and SAT, both of which play a huge role when applying to most colleges. We've worked with more than 10,000 students and we have yet to see anyone who doesn't have room for improvement."
Mitchell, who also trains new LearningRx franchisees across the country, remembers one particular success story from a student who went through cognitive skills training. . "She was a straight A student but really struggled on her ACT – only scoring in the 41st percentile, which meant that she couldn't attend the college she wanted to. She went through the brain training program for three months and retook her ACT. Her new score put her at the 86th percentile. Not only was she able to attend the college she wanted, but she also got a scholarship."
Unlike tutoring, which focuses on specific academic subjects, cognitive skills training seeks to improve a student's ability to learn. They are the underlying tools that enable kids to successfully focus, think, prioritize, plan, understand, visualize, remember and create useful associations, and solve problems. An experienced personalized brain trainer can evaluate weak skills down to the subset. For example, attention is made up of sub-skills such as sustained attention (staying on task), selective attention (ignoring distractions) and divided attention (handling more than one task at a time). Each of these skills and sub-skills play a specific and necessary role, and must work in concert before an individual can learn effectively.
"Good brain training programs use intense focused training to strengthen weak skills," says Gibson. "It's just like practicing the piano to improve your skill level. There are specific programs and exercises that specialize in identifying and strengthening weak cognitive skills. The key is to find a personalized brain trainer– not a tutor – who is trained and experienced to offer one-on-one help. The right person can make a significant impact on your child's life and even exceptional students have room for improvement."
Wendy Burt-Thomas is a full-time freelance writer with more than 1,000 published pieces. Her third book, "The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters" (landing articles, agents and book deals) and often writes for LearningRx, the brain-training company, with learning centers all over the United States.
You can find out more about Ms. Burt Thomas at her web site: www.wendyburt-thomas.com or by contacting her at: WendyBurt@aol.com.
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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