For some students, the new school year is just starting, but for others, beginning-of-the-year testing is only a memory and the first report card is just around the corner. Perhaps your child is one of those who can hardly wait to get that report card to answer the question “How many A’s?” Or maybe they are eager because they view beginning-of-the-year grades as a baseline to work from. But report cards are often an occasion for disappointment or discouragement. The summer did not work a magic spell after all and the shiny new school year is going to be tough for some students.
Some parents and students will decide to get extra help. Some will seek a tutor. Others may decide it’s time for a therapist or learning specialist. For others, Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa may be recruited to be involved in after-school study time.
Tutors are frequently the first choice because they focus directly on curriculum and helping the student keep up with their assignments. They will typically work with the student on the next day’s assignments or help the student understand material that wasn’t clear to them in class. They also may help students with general study skills and organization, as well as preparing for an upcoming test. This can give the student a lot more confidence when they get to school for that test or for an oral presentation because the tutor has helped them organize and practice.
What tutors generally do not do is address the underlying cognitive skills involved in learning. Cognitive skills include mental processes like attention, memory, visual and auditory processing, and reasoning. In fact, each of those skills areas encompasses a variety of skills. For example, attention skills include sustained, selective, divided, and flexible attention. Memory skills extend from short-term sensory memory (thousandths of a second) to working memory (holding information in our minds while we think about it) to long-term memory. Cognitive skills are necessary ingredients in learning, and their direct role in subject matter acquisition is being recognized more broadly. A recent report from Digital Promise, for instance, summarizes the research on the vital contribution of these skills to learning to read.
Many parents and students assume that cognitive skills are pretty much fixed – that is, you have great attention skills or you don’t. Of if your working memory is limited, there isn’t much you can do about it. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Cognitive skills can be improved with the right kind of training.
Cognitive training is provided by clinicians or therapists, such as speech pathologists, vision developmental optometrists, and a variety of learning specialists. Often clinicians will use cognitive training software among other tools. BrainWare SAFARI is a software program that incorporates cognitive training techniques into an engaging video-game format. BrainWare can be also be used at home with a parent or grandparent serving as their “coach.”
In deciding whether to use a tool like BrainWare SAFARI at home or to work with a clinician, parents and students should consider how disciplined they are. To be effective, cognitive training sessions should last 30 to 60 minutes, 3 to 5 times a week, over at least 12 weeks. Some parents and students find that working with a clinician provides the structure they need to be successful.
The goal of cognitive training is to enable a student to become a capable, independent learner. While tutoring can be helpful, it typically will not address underlying learning issues. Particularly when students continue to be tutored year after year, just to get through school, that is not enabling them to learn independently.
If that first report card isn’t everything you wished, parents and students should be aware of their options. Cognitive training, with a clinician or at home, may be what opens the door for more joy in learning, less frustration with difficult school assignments, more independent learning, and eventually more satisfying test results and report cards.
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