Brain Training Programs and Kids

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The advertisements show up on TV and the internet. These ads claim that by doing brain training exercises people can improve their ability to multi-task, pay better attention, and be able to learn and remember more. These types of improvements sound like they would be perfect for students.

The area of brain fitness training is expanding at a rapid rate. Companies such as Lumosity, Cogmed, Posit Science, and others have spent a lot of money on advertising the virtues of their various brain training programs. Several of these programs are targeted to be used with children and adolescents.

The idea that children can improve in so many areas playing a computer program is an intriguing one for parents. This is particularly true for parents who have children with language disorders, attention problems, learning disorders, and executive function problems.

Many of the advertisements about brain training are vague about how children would be trained. In most cases, brain training utilizes computerized activities to strengthen general or specific cognitive skills. Many of the programs target areas such as being able to remember information better over time, processing information more quickly, multitasking effectively, and improving attention.

The computerized activities take a variety of forms. For example, an activity may focus on improving children’s abilities to be able to remember large amounts of information over time. The activity starts with children trying to memorize the order that various lights may appear on a screen. The activity starts out easy and then adjusts its difficulty level based on children’s previous performance.

The goal of these activities is to continually challenge children and push them to improve while not making it so difficult that they get frustrated. There are usually several different types of activities that make up a brain training program. Children who enroll in brain training programs are required to spend a set period of time each day engaging in the computerized activities over a period of a few weeks.

The notion behind all of these brain training activities is that by building basic brain functions, children will be able to use them for a variety of real world tasks such as reading and math. The question is whether these programs actually work. The whole area of brain fitness training is a classic example of promising initial research being quickly turned into a consumer product and hyped before it is ready.

The initial research results do indicate that brain training activities can improve functioning on the trained tasks. The issue is that these activities do not generalize to a wider set of skills. In other words, the effects of brain training are likely to be subtle, if at all, in a real world setting where children are using their skills to problem solve, read, and do math.

At this point, parents are better off skipping brain training programs and focusing their efforts on the areas their children are struggling in. This means if a child is having difficulty reading, focus on improving reading specifically and not an underlying basic brain function.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on January 15, 2016.

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