Cogmed in schools user story: Academy In Manayunk

Grace Ashton, Ph.D. is the Director of Psychological Services at the Academy In Manayunk – a school for children with learning disabilities in Philadelphia, PA.

As is stated on their website, Academy in Manayunk “incorporates visual and performing arts with rigorous academics to meet the individual learning styles of its students. Academy students ‘live it and learn it’ through educational immersion, research-based learning strategies, and assistive technology”.

Cogmed has been implemented successfully in the school since the spring of 2009.


Practicalities and selecting suitable users

I first learned about Cogmed through the Director of Psychological Services at a school for children with learning disabilities. I followed the research on Cogmed because of the large impact deficits in working memory have on students with language based learning disabilities.

Most of my (Cogmed) trainees are students enrolled in the school where I am Director of Psychological Services. A lot of the trainings are scheduled at school, either before, during, or directly after school. The person monitoring the children as they train is a school psychology graduate student, and the larger scale training analysis is done either by me, or by one of my Cogmed coaches who are certified school psychologists.

Students train either alone, or in groups of two, in one of the psychologist’s offices. When students train during the school day, they typically miss their specials (art, music, or gym) 5 days per week for 5 weeks. One of the most difficult situations to manage has been delayed starts or school closings due to inclement weather. Some students train at school 3-4 days per week and some train at home 1-2 days per week. An ideal situation is one where the parents can provide an adequate training environment at home in the event that there is a holiday, school closing, or illness that results in a missed training day at school. Getting sufficient computers, space, and training personnel have been challenges to overcome.

Referrals come from classroom teachers, and often from speech-language pathologists providing individual therapy to the students. All students at the school have received psychoeducational evaluations and many have also had comprehensive speech-language evaluations. I use a combination of record review, parent and teacher interview – and parent, student, and teacher rating scales (e.g., BRIEF) to screen for trainees. Occasionally, I will administer standardized tests assessing memory/working memory prior to training at parent or teacher request.


Implementation

I prefer to have elementary school age students train in the morning before lunch, and middle and high-school age students train in the afternoon. Training start dates are early through mid-summer, September through mid-October, and then late February through spring. I am very hesitant to start school trainings in January and early February because of snow-days.

We are fortunate enough to be in walking distance to sandwich, coffee, and ice cream shops. Weekly rewards typically entail the student picking a friend, and walking to Main Street with a member of the school faculty for lunch or ice cream. This is a hugely popular reward.

I require the graduate student training aide to keep daily training notes on a shared Google Doc on each student. The training aide makes note of motivation, frustration, behavior, distractions in the training environment, any technical problems, high-scores, student comments, etc. I check the training notes daily, and speak with the training aide 1-2 times per week – I also sit-in on some trainings for the first few weeks of the program, and then continue to do so as needed. I speak with the student trainees face-to-face once per week, and email or speak with parents on the phone weekly to keep them informed on how the training is going, and get input from them as well. I greatly prefer the hands-on experience of Cogmed training at school, to training students and adults at home.

We have only had one student training at school not complete Cogmed within about 6 weeks. All others have completed training without difficulty. Students see Cogmed as just one more thing they have to do at school, so completing the training is not a problem. Rewards, like lunch out with a friend or homework passes, are powerful motivators.


Results

Results have ranged from mild to significant improvements in attention, social interaction, and academic performance. That being said, some teachers and parents do not readily attribute the improvements to Cogmed. Our students have mild to severe language based learning disabilities and we provide intense research-based best practice academic intervention. Typically, improvements are attributed to the student benefiting from the entirety of the intervention programming.

A result that I have seen in most students is one that I refer to as them overcoming some “learned helplessness.” Cogmed gives them the practice in learning how to ignore internal distractions and get mentally ready for the next exercise. This gives the student the confidence and mental stamina to attempt cognitively effortful tasks. Tasks that prior to Cogmed, they might not have attempted or would attempt but quickly give up due to frustration. It is tremendously important for students with significant challenges in reading, writing, and mathematics, to have confidence in their ability to persevere through demanding situations.

We have had a few students receive updated psychoeducational or speech-language evaluations after Cogmed and all have shown moderate to significant increase in scores in areas of working memory.

The results appear to have lasted, but Cogmed is only one aspect of the intense academic intervention we provide. I have received some very positive feedback from parents, teachers, and speech-pathologists.

I also received this bulleted response from one teacher: “The student is much more focused. His ability to receive, retain, and recall has increased dramatically as has his classroom confidence. He is also much more able to initiate an assignment, class work, or a project. Historically, he had no follow through- this is also an area of great improvement for him”.

We have seen a large jump in oral reading fluency scores from a severely dyslexic student who has just completed Cogmed.