Cognitive Skills Training: What’s That About?

Cognitive skills training strengthens the mental processes that help our brains take in, organize, store, retrieve, and apply information. Such processes include skills like attention, visual and auditory processing. We use our cognitive skills all at the same time. Strengthening these skills helps the brain make them work better together so they are more effective. Cognitive training, like physical training, involves “reps” of varied activities, often on a computer in a video-game format. This kind of brain training can benefit just about everyone, and may be particularly helpful for gifted children and children with learning differences such as ADHD.

Like physical training, a regular regimen of cognitive skills training offers the best results. A typical schedule for cognitive skills training exercises is 3-5 times a week for 45-60 minutes at a time. There should be noticeable changes within a number of weeks.

Some educators or parents, when hearing about cognitive skills and cognitive skills training, assume that these types of programs are only for struggling learners or to remediate a deficit of some kind. But the truth of the matter is, we all have cognitive strengths and weaknesses. The most successful adults have learned to compensate for weaker skills. Cognitive strength training can help make us more successful, too. It may come as a surprise, however, to learn that bright children, too, can benefit from cognitive skills training.

Working Memory Scores

One parent explained how cognitive skills training helped her child qualify for a gifted program. “Our child just missed the IQ cutoff for a gifted program because his working memory subtest score was too low. He did cognitive skills training, and when he was retested a year later, his working memory score went up by 12 points, which helped him to make the cutoff for the program! Even more importantly, the experience has given him a powerful personal experience of perseverance paying off in the end.”

Working memory is the ability to hold information in our minds while we do something with it. It is one of three cognitive skills (learning skills) that are called executive functions. It is one of a number of skills that are typically evaluated for admission to a gifted program. Many children have qualified for gifted programs thanks to cognitive skills training.

The term “gifted,” like most labels applied to children (or adults), is a catchall of complexity. Usually, giftedness implies a very specific and extraordinary talent. And that talent may lie in music, sports, writing, language learning, vocabulary, math – really in any domain in which we can recognize unusually accomplished performance. The truth is that every child has strengths that they deserve to develop, and many children have extraordinary strengths that aren’t recognized in a traditional educational setting. So the question becomes, how to help identify and develop a child’s unique capacities.

Supporting Gifted Children

Parents and teachers often worry about two things when considering how best to support their gifted students:

  1. How to help them continue to develop their unique talents, and
  2. How to help them integrate that talent with other skills needed to enhance that talent and ensure balance, addressing the attention and other behavioral issues which sometimes come with exceptional ability.

Qualifying for Gifted Programs in Schools

Many school districts use cognitive tests, sometimes in combination with academic performance, to determine eligibility for a gifted program.

Cognitive tests frequently used to qualify students for gifted programs include the Wechsler, the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test), the Woodcock-Johnson, the NNAT (Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test), or MindPrint. It is important to understand that such tests measure “developed cognitive ability,” and not the potential of a child to develop those cognitive abilities. In fact, just about any individual can develop his or her cognitive skills beyond where they currently are.

Brain jumping rope illustrates cognitive skills training

What Is Cognitive Skills Training?

Cognitive training has some things in common with physical training. Both are intended to develop greater strength, stamina, coordination and flexibility. Physical training focuses on physical abilities, like muscle strength, response time, endurance and cardiovascular capacity. Cognitive training focuses on the cognitive processes our brains use to take in, store, retrieve, organize, apply and reason with information. Cognitive skills training is also sometimes called “brain training.”

Most people are familiar with physical exercise and training, but cognitive exercise or cognitive training is generally not as well understood.

Skills Addressed by Cognitive Skills Training

Some cognitive training programs focus narrowly on one or a few cognitive skills; others are broader. Narrower programs, such as programs that train only working memory, assume that exercising one particular skill at a time is more focused and effective. However, cognitive skills don’t work in isolation, so training a broader set of skills is important to ensure that they all work well together.

Training on a broader set of skills relies on the principle that the brain is a highly integrated organ and that skills must not only be strong but also work together. Recent research from Northern Ireland University, Galway (Holleran and Donohoe), for example, concludes that, “Efficient connection pathways across the entire brain provide a neural network that supports general cognitive function.”

When people think about cognitive skills, mental processes like attention (focus) or memory often come to mind. However, each general category of cognitive skills may have a number of different individual skills within it. So, for example, attention skills include sustained attention, selective attention, flexible attention and divided attention.

Categories of skills that are often trained in cognitive training programs include:

  • Attention
  • Visual Processing
  • Auditory Processing
  • Sensory Integration
  • Memory
  • Executive Functions (Working Memory, Inhibitory Control and Cognitive Flexibility)
  • Higher-Order Executive Functions (Logic and Reasoning)

Cognitive Training for Children

When parents seek out cognitive training opportunities for their children, it is often because their child has weaknesses in one or more cognitive skills. Cognitive skills are the foundation for learning, so difficulties in school (reading, math or other curriculum) or issues with everyday activities (like being organized or following instructions) often are caused by less well-developed cognitive skills. For some children, these cognitive weaknesses are associated with a diagnosis, such as ADHD, a specific learning disability, or autism. However, it is important to remember that we all have cognitive strengths and weaknesses, regardless of whether there is a specific diagnosis.

Students with learning disabilities who have gone through comprehensive, integrated cognitive skills training have improved their cognitive skills to the level of typically developing (neurotypical) students. And students with strong cognitive skills have improved their skills as well, sometimes – as in the example above – qualifying for a gifted program.

Cognitive training can strengthen and integrate cognitive skills, even for students who are doing well in school or for those who are gifted.

Gifted Children and Anxiety

One of the issues many kids who are considered gifted (even if only by their parents) experience is anxiety. There are a couple of reasons that this is so common.

  1. The first is that children with exceptional strengths are not equally strong across cognitive capacities. In fact, no one is. But uneven learning skills can present more difficulties than less strong but more even skills. Uneven cognitive skills make learning situations unpredictable, especially because most students (and their parents) don’t know what their strengths and weaknesses are. Some learning situations are easy, while others are much harder. If your child has ever had someone say to them, “You’re so smart. How come you’re not getting this,” (or the equivalent), they may have come to doubt their own abilities.
  2. The second is that children with exceptional strengths may never have had to struggle in school. Everything has been easy for them. When they finally bump up against a challenge, they may melt or shut down or run. Some rise to the challenge, for sure. But if everything has been easy, it can lead to them questioning their abilities.

One parent talked about the difficulty of getting her son to perform in spite of giftedness: “My son actually looks great on paper, but he struggles with anxiety and perfectionism. It is always a battle to get him to do schoolwork, although once he gets going, he gets As.”

This is where cognitive training for gifted students comes into play.

Criteria for Effective Cognitive Training

Here is a checklist of what to look for in a cognitive skills training program.

  • How comprehensive is the training program (breadth of skills)?
  • Where does the program come from and how was it developed?
  • Does the program work to integrate skills so they will work together?
  • Is the program designed to be engaging and motivating?
  • Has the program been shown to have measurable results in peer-reviewed published research and in real-life studies?
  • Does the program assess your skills and demonstrate improvements on an independent measure of cognitive skills?
  • Has the program demonstrated that improvements in cognitive skills transfer to academics, workplace tasks, and everyday life?
  • What kind of support will you have to ensure results?

A cognitive skills training program can be a great way to help optimize a child’s gifts as well as to strengthen the skills that may be standing in the way of them being able to demonstrate their unique gifts. In doing so, this training can enhance future considerations of college, acceptance into professional programs, and highly technical and high-paying jobs. Students striving for academic success who have not yet developed the cognitive capacity for that success are prone to anxiety and low-self-esteem. And that can impact the entire family. Building cognitive capacity allows students to become more capable, confident learners, to experience greater emotional well-being and to enjoy the pride that comes with their accomplishments.

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About Betsy Hill

Betsy Hillis President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.

About Roger Stark

Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning CompanyOver the past decade, he championed efforts to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari.