Joanne Thornton on how Cogmed changes lives for the better

Joanne Thornton, a former Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) and trained dyslexia teacher, has been a Cogmed provider for over 8 years. Through her practice in Bath, UK, Joanne uses Cogmed to help her clients better cope with the demands of school and adult life. In this interview, she shares some of her client success stories and describes why Cogmed is an intervention everyone could benefit from.

The clients who come to you to do Cogmed, what are they hoping to get out of it?

The most common target mentioned is listening: listening to instructions and remembering and retaining information. Children in schools receive many verbal instructions everyday and they often cannot retain all of the information that is being given to them, this has an impact on their ability to ask questions and access the learning. Parents will say to me: “I just want my child to get better at holding instructions, so when I ask them to do things they don’t just wander off and never come back”. Young people and adults often want to improve their ability to access the learning and information that is around them at school, work and in their sports and hobbies.

These sound like skills most people, kids and adults alike, could benefit from.

If you did Cogmed with everybody, they’d all have positive effects. There’s nothing negative that can come from having a boost in working memory and attention. I think there is interest in doing it in schools, but not everyone sees the definitive benefits for children. When you introduce a new literacy intervention, there’s this immediate understanding of: “oh, this will help reading and writing, I know what that is, and I know that’s going to be useful.” But a working memory intervention? Understanding what that is, and how it’s going to help people, is really key.

How would you describe it, in order to build that understanding?

Working memory, in a simple way, is about holding information and doing something with it. It is a bedrock of learning. If you’ve got weak working memory your ability to access information is weakened because you are not able to hold that information in mind. And that’s very frustrating for young people. To be able to access the information that’s being presented in school, you need a good (or at least average) working memory. Otherwise, that’s going to be a barrier. 

Say you’re doing an activity where you are tasked with building a tripod out of straws. The teacher gave out the instructions, verbally. If I have a low working memory, I’m going to maybe only retain one or two of those instructions. So everyone else is now making their tripod, but I’ve just got the bit about getting 10 straws. And in a busy classroom, with many children and maybe only one teaching assistant, there’s really not enough help either. So you end up being labeled as a lazy child when really your brain just isn’t retaining the instructions. And that has such an impact on a child’s confidence and self esteem.

And working memory training can help alleviate some of that?

Parents come to me with children who are struggling to achieve their full potential in school. So we do Cogmed–which is difficult–but they succeed in doing it. Their parents see them doing it, see that they are now retaining 5, 6, 7 digits worth of information, and give them positive feedback: “Wow, I can’t believe you’re doing this!” So through Cogmed, you have this really wonderful combination of not just increased working memory capacity, but increased self-confidence and self-esteem.

Recently I worked with a child who did the whole program saying ‘I can’t do this, I don’t see the point of this’, and it was quite a struggle. But - she got to the end of it, and during the last week of the training she began to realize the impact of training. The child said to me: “ Before, in school, they’d ask a question and I’d put my hand up. But by the time they’ve come to me, I can’t remember what I was going to say, or what the question was. Now, I’m putting my hand up because I actually can remember!”

How much of these positive effects do you attribute to the increase in working memory, and how much of it do you think depends on the coaching, and the process of completing this (quite challenging) program?

I think it’s the combination. There is an increase in working memory which is fantastic. Alongside that, it’s the knowledge that these children and adults have done something difficult, and they’ve succeeded. That enables them to be much more confident. 

Another child I worked with described herself as being  in the bottom math class. After doing Cogmed, she was able to explain the math they were doing to another person beside her. Something she had never been able to do before. And that is just really exciting.

When parents come to me, they’re desperate, and they’re thinking: what can I do to support my child? My child is not succeeding, and needs help. And so I think it’s the whole combination of things coming together: the training, the coaching and the realization that they can succeed in doing things.

Do you have any more stories about what your clients have experienced by doing Cogmed?

I’ve got loads! Recently I worked with a student in Spain who is studying to be a doctor. Around week four of the Cogmed training she said: “Oh I can notice the impact already”. She was able to better sustain concentration during lectures, and she was retaining more of the information. She performed better academically this year than she had the previous year, and even her tutor noticed the difference in her attention. She attributes all of this to the Cogmed training, which is great. 

Another client I worked with had suffered a stroke and was really, really struggling. What he most wanted was to be able to read for pleasure again, but he couldn’t retain the information in the books. He started the Cogmed program and around week five he said to me: “an amazing thing has happened–I am now reading a book, and I can remember the story.” It was really  moving. Some pleasure was coming back into his life.

It’s been so wonderful to talk with you and hear all of these incredible stories. Any parting words?

Cogmed really, really helps people. For the children and the people I work with - it’s having such a massive impact on their lives. To quote one of my clients, who went from really struggling in school to winning a poetry competition: “Thank God for Cogmed!”

If you are interested in getting in touch with Joanne, you can find her via email at:

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