Giving a child a better mind – Program aids memory skills

Publication: The Chicago Tribune
Published: May 22nd, 2007
By: Terri Yablonsky Stat

A home-based computer program is helping children with attention deficits sharpen their working memory, thereby improving problem-solving skills and academic performance.

Working memory is the ability to store information in the brain for a short time, typically a few seconds. In daily life, working memory helps people remember instructions, solve problems, control impulses and focus attention.

Cogmed Working Memory Training, developed by Swedish brain researcher Dr. Torkel Klingberg, features video game software on an engaging robot interface. The research-validated program has been successful in Europe, and now is being offered in the United States.

Computer exercises
With Cogmed, children train for 30 to 45 minutes a day, five days a week over five weeks. A personal coach, usually the parent, sits alongside to provide encouragement. The coach creates a reward system for the child, whether it’s watching a video, going to McDonald’s or spending time alone with a parent.

The computer exercises involve recalling number and letter patterns. For example, on the robot’s chest may be a grid of 25 red lights. The lights blink in a certain order. The child has to replicate the order, with the number of lights blinking increasing over time.

“It pushes them but doesn’t frustrate them,” said Alan Graham, a Park Ridge psychologist who is licensed to offer the training. “Cogmed made us do the training, and it’s work.”

More than 1,400 children and adults have completed the training in Europe, with 80 percent achieving significant improvement in attention, impulse control, problem-solving skills and academic performance.

The program may not apply to everyone with attention deficit, according to Graham, because not all people with ADD have a deficit in working memory. Schools or psychologists can determine whether children are candidates for Cogmed.

Before and after the training, the child’s parents and teacher complete a questionnaire about the child’s symptoms. “We encourage teacher involvement,” Graham said.

Becky Shulman, 8, a Northbrook 3rd grader, completed the training in November 2006. Her mother, Debby, worked closely with Becky’s teacher, principal and school social worker. “When I told them I was thinking of doing this, they pulled together a pupil service team to discuss how they could make Becky’s schoolday as accommodating and supportive as they could.”

Results have been impressive, according to her mother.
“The way Becky remembers how things should be done has translated into math and spelling,” Debby said. “Becky has also developed a tremendous sense of patience when taking a test. She takes her time. She doesn’t allow anybody to intimidate her if others are done first.”

Because Becky’s processing has become much clearer, her bedroom is neater too, Debby added. “She remembers where she puts things. She now has an innate sense of organization.”

Becky will start a three-week refresher course included in Cogmed’s $1,500 fee. In the fall, Cogmed will launch a program just for adults. Adults currently use the existing program but have a different series of exercises.

Cogmed founder Klingberg, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, is credited with the scientific discovery that working memory can be trained.

Reaching potential
“Training working memory can enable people with attention deficits to perform at their real potential,” Klingberg said. “School-based studies reveal dramatic improvements in reading comprehension and mathematical problem solving. Improvements in controlling attention enable children to improve how they plan and organize their behavior.”

The other provider in the Chicago area is Heritage Professional Associates in Hinsdale, Wheaton and Chicago.

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