School Performance Boosted In Poor Middle School Kids Who Undergo Cognitive Training

Middle School Students
An image of students taking a test in class. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

It’s no secret by now that kids living in poverty fail to get up to the same speed as their wealthier counterparts by the time they start pre-kindergarten. When it comes to language development alone, higher-income parents spend an average of 30 more minutes each day reading to their kids face-to-face than lower-income parents. By the time these kids turn 5, they’ll have heard 30 million fewer words, The Atlantic reported. These deficits appear not only in language development but in math as well, among other aspects of education; and they also appear in the child’s brain.

“Previous research has shown that growing up in poverty can shape the wiring and even physical dimensions of a young child’s brain, with negative effects on language, learning, and attention,” said Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino, director of the Center for BrainHealth’s Adolescent Reasoning Initiative, in a press release. In a new study, Gamino and her team have found that a targeted intervention with cognitive training can improve performance in poor middle school kids. “What this work shows is that there is hope for students in poverty to catch up with their peers not living in poverty.”

Although poor children entering pre-k and kindergarten already score 60 percent lower in cognitive tests than kids with richer parents, the researchers in the current study said that “extensive frontal lobe development and pruning occurs during adolescence,” making middle school a good point to intervene with brain training.

So, they recruited 913 7th and 8th grade students from various socioeconomic backgrounds and split them up so that 556 students underwent cognitive training and 357 served as controls. The training group underwent both pre- and post-training assessments in which they were asked to text and not only summarize it but develop personal inferences “to transform ideas into novel, generalized statements” the release said, as well as recall important facts. They then took part in 10 training sessions, each lasting 45 minutes, over the course of a month.

Gamino’s team found that the training improved poorer students’ scores by about 25 percent on tests measuring their ability to produce abstract ideas from the information. They also showed an 18 percent increase in their ability to memorize facts. “The ability to use inference to abstract meaning from incoming information… is a skill crucial to future life success, and applies to both academic and informal learning activities, such as reading a school assignment, listening and taking notes from a lecture, watching a movie or television program, or have a conversation with a friend,” Gamino said.

Source: Gamino J, Motes M, Riddle R, Lyon G, Spence J, Chapman S. Enhancing inferential abilities in adolescence: new hope for students in poverty. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2014. 

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