Helping forgetful kids

I know I am forgetting something ...
I know I am forgetting something ... Photo: Getty Images

Is your child always scrambling to find their shoes in the morning, or check if they have packed their homework as you're trying to rush out the door? It's a scenario many parents know all too well, and as it turns out, there may not only be a legitimate reason, but also a way to end the frustration. Working memory is a critical factor in being able to focus and resist distractions, so problems in this area often explain why simple tasks can so frequently go awry.

Working memory deficits are an everyday problem for many people, but are particularly common in school children. As working memory is necessary for complex thinking it can have a significant impact on the child's education, and has been proven to be a root cause of things such as learning disabilities and ADHD. So not only does it affect the morning rush, but also their behaviour in the classroom and their ability to concentrate and learn.

Often children will begin a task with the best of intentions but fail to see it through, much to their parents' frustration as well as their own. "In children the problem is often remembering what to do next, which makes them unable to finish an activity according to plan." says Clinical and Educational Psychologist, Cate Wikner. "The most obvious signs in school-aged children are difficulty in following the teacher's instructions, or great difficulty in completing homework. Mental arithmetic is often difficult and reading comprehension can be affected." she says.

In 2010, Cate started using Cogmed, an evidence based program designed to improve working memory, which she says significantly enhances learning outcomes. "In conjunction with the dedicated input of parents and our coaches, children are really able to get the best from their training and use their training more generally in school and home life. This can start a more positive upward spiral for many children."

The relatively recent groundbreaking discovery of neuroplasticity - the ability for the brain to change and make new connections, is what makes this memory training possible. "Cognitive training is a bit like training a muscle. If you do some specific and intensive training you are likely to see immediate strengthening of what you train - in this case, your working memory, being more able to focus on a task and see it through." says Sue Nam, optometrist and owner of Eyecare Kids.

Sue has started assessing children's suitability for the Cogmed program across her Sydney practices, something she says is a holistic approach in training a child's visual deficiencies, which combines neuroscience, psychology, optometry, and technology. The program has three different versions of software being for preschool, primary school, and adolescents/adults, which have age specific tasks that adjust in complexity in each level to maximise the training effects.

A far cry from simple brain training games, the program involves an initial assessment, start-up session, five weeks of training with weekly coaching calls, a wrap-up meeting and a six-month follow-up check to help. Sue explains that once focus and attention improves, you are more likely to get the most of other learning opportunities. "In research studies, long term benefits of training have included improvements on math and reading skills and an increased ability to stay on task." she says.

Founded by neuroscientists at Sweden's Karolinska Institute in 2001, the program is delivered by a professional coach who supervises each child's program, tracks the results, and offers support and motivation throughout the process. The Cogmed system is now being applied in more than 20 countries and has been used successfully since 2003, with its effects being more pronounced in those with working memory constraints.

These effects, including improvements to impulse control, complex problem solving, attention, and the ability to learn, have not only been found to be substantial, but also sustained. Cate says that eight out of ten children showed an average rate of 20% improvement in working memory, which for most children will bring them into the normal range of functioning. "In my own clinic I have found that we are averaging a 26 percent improvement, based on attention and behaviour rating scales, and a higher percentage of trainees - 90 percent, showing a benefit." she says.

Like most professionally supported programs, Cogmed can be costly and this will vary depending on factors such as the level of support provided and additional assistance after the program. To help offset this cost Eyecare Kids is offering readers of Essential Kids a free visual memory assessment (normally valued at $120), to start putting together a plan of action for you or your child's development. To claim this offer, take a copy of this article to one of the Eyecare Kids centres.

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