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Improving Working Memory and Processing Speed

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: My 6 year old son took the WISC-IV and scored the following: VCI 140, PRI 135, WMI 99, PSI 97 with a FSIQ of 127 and GAI of 146. He qualified for the gifted program at school and is going to take the Stanford Binet next week to see if he qualifies for the highly gifted program.

My question is: since he is testing as both gifted (Verbal Comprehension & Perceptual Reasoning) and learning disabled (Working Memory & Processing Speed), how concerned should I be and what can I do to correct his areas of deficiency? The psychologist recommended additional testing and counselling. This is extremely expensive. Certainly, if that is the best option, then we will find a way to afford it. But are there things I can do at home to strengthen these areas (i.e. games or drills)? Or should I take a wait-and-see approach until it begins to affect his school performance? I've searched online but just can't seem to figure out what all of this MEANS. Thank you!

A: The Working Memory Index (WMI) assesses the ability to hold new information in short-term memory, concentrate, and manipulate that information to produce some result or reasoning processes. It is important in higher-order thinking, learning, and achievement. It can tap concentration, planning ability, cognitive flexibility, and sequencing skill, but is sensitive to anxiety as well. It is an important component of learning and achievement, and ability to self-monitor.

The Processing Speed Index (PSI) assesses the abilities to focus attention and quickly scan, discriminate between, and sequentially order visual information. It requires persistence and planning ability, but is sensitive to motivation, difficulty working under a time pressure, and motor coordination. It is related to reading performance and development. It is related to Working Memory, in that increased processing speed can decrease the load placed on working memory, while decreased processing speed can impair the effectiveness of Working Memory. This is why in most cases when is child low on PS, s/he would most likely perform similarly on WM.

When the scores clearly indicate, I am not sure why further testing is required unless it is a diagnostic test to determine the type of learning disability. With admission into the gifted programme, I would think that the school should be able to help him with his weak areas - do find out from the school what they can do to help. Of course there are ways you can help improve his working memory and processing speed at home. This is important, as it would help his school performance.

First, you would need to understand the problems with low WM and PS. It is clearly one of the reasons that children struggle in school. AS in the case of your son, he is seen as Twice Exceptional being gifted and at the same time has a learning disability. However, it does impact children's relationships as they often define children's feelings about themselves. In school, WM and PS impact alertness, learning, expression, social adjustment, academic identity, emotional comfort, etc. At home, WM and PS impact homework, chores, relationships, recreation (sports and games), self-concept, and so on.

To help with first you would need to determine the source of problems to tailor interventions to the your son's needs. Let us look at his PS concerns. Is it because he is not “activated”? This can be due to emotional factors (E.g., When working on a task, he says that it is too much). For this, you would simply need to provide encouragement, support, help on how to get started on a task and so on. If it is related to cognitive factors (E.g., When working on a task, he says that he does not even know where to begin), you would need to develop a plan, break it down, use graphic organisers, etc. If there are focus/attention problems (for children with attentional concerns), you would need to find ways to reduce the distractions, provide white noise, prompt him when he drifts, provide incentives for completion of work, and so on. If there are working memory problems provide him templates, word banks, encourage questions, and provide gentle reminders. If there are activity interferences, you would need to provide him opportunities for movement, fidget objects, gum chewing/candy sucking, etc. Other methods are such as increasing time to complete tests, eliminating the unnecessary (reduce number of tasks necessary to evidence competence), monitor time spent on homework.

To help with WM concerns, there are some softwares that can assist children (Assistive Technology for students). Find out what the school has. Some of the more popular methods include teaching children to use associative cues or mnemonic device, teaching children to transform information from one modality to another (e.g., from verbal to a diagram or from visual to verbal), and teaching them to question any directions, explanations, and instructions they may not understand. Other methods include teaching students to deliver increasingly long verbal messages, how to organize information into smaller units, note taking and outlining, highlighting and summarising information using resources in the environment to recall information (notes, textbooks, pictures, etc.). You can also teach you son to practice memory skills by engaging in activities that are purposeful, practicing repetition of information, engaging in memory games and activities.

You can also use Cogmed Working Memory Training to improve his WM. This is a computer-based solution for attention problems caused by poor working memory. Cogmed's research indicates strong evidence that approximately 20 hours of computerized WM training over a 5-week period produced gains in this important executive function and in other executive functions that were not the specific focus of training. These benefits were evident immediately following training and remained evident 3 months later, even though no further training had occurred.

Some good sites on activities for both PS & WM:

Good luck!


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