school-age child

Cognitive problems common in young people with MS

A study involving 187 children and adolescents with multiple sclerosis, plus 44 who experienced their first neurologic episode (clinically isolated syndrome) indicative of MS, has found that 35% of those with MS and 18% of those with clinically isolated syndrome were cognitively impaired. Cognitive assessment was done using a battery of 11 tests. The most common areas of impairment were fine motor coordination, visual-motor integration, and speeded information processing.

03/2013

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Math skill in 1st grade linked to jobs, wages

A study involving 180 13-year-olds who had been assessed every year since kindergarten has found that their understanding of the number system in first grade predicted functional numeracy more than six years later, but skill at using counting procedures to solve arithmetic problems did not. Researchers controlled for intelligence,

03/2013

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Math anxiety starts before school, impacts math achievement

"The general consensus is that math anxiety doesn't affect children much before fourth grade.” New research contests that.

Study 1: found many first grade students do experience negative feelings and worry related to math. This math anxiety negatively affects their math performance when it comes to solving math problems in standard arithmetic notation.

Study 2: found that second grade math anxiety affected second grade computations and math applications. Additionally, children with higher levels of math anxiety in second grade learned less math in third grade.

03/2013

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Poverty affects brain development through attention needs

December, 2012

One reason for the association between poverty and poorer cognition in children may lie in how poverty affects attention, with poor children tending to use more cognitive resources in monitoring the environment.

There have been a number of studies in the past few years showing how poverty affects brain development and function. One of these showed specifically that children of high and low socioeconomic status showed differences in brain wave patterns associated with an auditory selective attention task. This was thought to indicate that the groups were using different mechanisms to carry out the task, with the lower SES children employing extra resources to attend to irrelevant information.

In a follow-up study, 28 young adolescents (12-14 years) from two schools in neighborhoods of different socioeconomic status answered questions about their emotional and motivational state at various points during the day, and provided saliva samples to enable monitoring of cortisol levels. At one point in the afternoon, they also had their brainwaves monitored while they carried out an auditory selective attention task (hearing different sounds played simultaneously into both ears, they were required to press a button as fast as possible when they heard one particular sound).

While performance on the task was the same for both groups, there were, once again, differences in the brain wave patterns. Higher SES children exhibited far larger theta waves in the frontal lobes in response to sounds they attended to than to compared to those they should have ignored, while lower SES children showed much larger theta waves to the unattended sounds than for the attended sounds.

While the lower SES children had higher cortisol levels throughout the school day, like the higher SES children, they showed little change around the task, suggesting neither group was particularly stressed by the task. Both groups also showed similar levels of boredom and motivation.

What the findings suggest is that lower SES children have to exert more cognitive control to avoid attending to irrelevant stimuli than higher SES children — perhaps because they live in more threatening environments.

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Sensory therapy contraindicated for autism

December, 2012

A review has concluded that there is no evidence that sensory integration therapy helps autistic children.

A review of 25 major studies investigating the value of sensory integration therapy (SIT) for autistic children has concluded that this most popular of therapies has no scientific support.

Only three of the 25 studies found benefits from SIT, and these three all had serious methodological flaws. Eight of the studies found mixed results, while 14 studies reported no benefits. Many of the reviewed studies had serious methodological flaws.

It has been suggested that SIT may even be harmful, in that it may lead to an increase in undesirable behavior. Regardless, by taking up time that could otherwise be spent on effective therapies, the use of SIT is not recommended.

The only scientifically valid treatment and intervention for individuals on the autism spectrum is said to be applied behavior analysis, in which, unfortunately, few are trained. With applied behavior analysis, the therapist teaches children age-appropriate skills and offers systematic, repetitious positive reinforcement for desired behaviors.

Reference: 

[3183] Lang, R., O’Reilly M., Healy O., Rispoli M., Lydon H., Streusand W., et al.
(2012).  Sensory integration therapy for autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review.
Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 6(3), 1004 - 1018.

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Childhood music training has enduring benefits for hearing

September, 2012

More evidence that learning a musical instrument in childhood, even for a few years, has long-lasting benefits for auditory processing.

Adding to the growing evidence for the long-term cognitive benefits of childhood music training, a new study has found that even a few years of music training in childhood has long-lasting benefits for auditory discrimination.

The study involved 45 adults (aged 18-31), of whom 15 had no music training, 15 had one to five years of training, and 15 had six to eleven years. Participants were presented with different complex sounds ranging in pitch while brainstem activity was monitored.

Brainstem response to the sounds was significantly stronger in those with any sort of music training, compared to those who had never had any music training. This was a categorical difference — years of training didn’t make a difference (although some minimal length may be required — only one person had only one year of training). However, recency of training did make a difference to brainstem response, and it does seem that some fading might occur over long periods of time.

This difference in brainstem response means that those with music training are better at recognizing the fundamental frequency (lowest frequency sound). This explains why music training may help protect older adults from hearing difficulties — the ability to discriminate fundamental frequencies is crucial for understanding speech, and for processing sound in noisy environments.

Reference: 

[3074] Skoe, E., & Kraus N.
(2012).  A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood.
The Journal of Neuroscience. 32(34), 11507 - 11510.

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Support for benefits of omega-3 for poorest readers

September, 2012

A large-ish study of primary school children has found that omega-3 supplementation may help many of those who are struggling most with reading.

The question of whether supplements of omega-3 fatty acids can help memory and cognition has been a contentious one, with some studies showing a positive effect and others failing to find an effect. My own take on this issue is that, like so many other things, it all depends on what you’re working with. It seems unsurprising if only those who have a deficient diet, or greater demands on their system (e.g., because of stress or age), or greater needs (e.g., because of a lack of cognitive reserve) might benefit from supplementation. A new study is a case in point.

The study involved 362 3rd, 4th, and 5th year students (mostly aged 7-9) from 74 schools, all of whom were reading poorly (in the lowest third). Participants were given 600 mg/day DHA (from algal oil), or a taste/color matched corn/soybean oil placebo. This was given in three capsules throughout the day, for 16 weeks.

The study found no significant improvement in reading or working memory for the DHA group as a whole, and although parents did report fewer behavioral problems, this was not confirmed by teachers.

However, there was a significant effect on reading if only those in the worst-performing 20% are considered (224 children), and an even greater effect if only those in the worst-performing 10% (105 children) are considered.

There was no significant effects for working memory, but I observe that this seems to be due to the much greater variability between individuals in the worst-performing groups (with this particularly evident in the bottom-10% group). It seems likely that whether or not DHA supplementation improves working memory capacity, depends on the factors affecting an individual’s WMC. Interestingly, a U.K. study that looked at the effects of omega-3 supplements on reading found highly significant benefits for those with Developmental Coordination Disorder.

The researchers do say that they had originally intended to look only at the poorest 20%, but decided to extend it to the lowest third when their participant numbers failed to reach the desired threshold (over half of the participant pool declined to take part).

The other point, of course, and typically for this research, is that participants only took the supplements for four months. We cannot rule out greater effects, and to a broader range of individuals, if they were taken for longer. There is also the question of compliance — compliance for those given at school was about 75% on average, and parental compliance is unknown.

In summary, I would say this is affirmation that omega-3 oils can be helpful for some individuals, but it shouldn’t be assumed that it’s a magic bullet for all.

Reference: 

[3069] Richardson, A. J., Burton J. R., Sewell R. P., Spreckelsen T. F., & Montgomery P.
(2012).  Docosahexaenoic Acid for Reading, Cognition and Behavior in Children Aged 7–9 Years: A Randomized, Controlled Trial (The DOLAB Study).
PLoS ONE. 7(9), e43909 - e43909.
Full text available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0043909

Richardson AJ, Montgomery P (2005) The Oxford-Durham study: a randomized, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder. Pediatrics 115: 1360–1366.
 

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Development of mathematics in children — a round-up of recent news

August, 2012
  • Fifth grade students' understanding of fractions and division predicted high school students' knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement.
  • School entrants’ spatial skills predicted later number sense and estimation skills.
  • Gender differences in math performance may rest in part on differences in retrieval practice.
  • ‘Math’ training for infants may be futile, given new findings that they’re unable to integrate two mechanisms for number estimation.

Grasp of fractions and long division predicts later math success

One possible approach to improving mathematics achievement comes from a recent study finding that fifth graders' understanding of fractions and division predicted high school students' knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement, even after statistically controlling for parents' education and income and for the children's own age, gender, I.Q., reading comprehension, working memory, and knowledge of whole number addition, subtraction and multiplication.

The study compared two nationally representative data sets, one from the U.S. and one from the United Kingdom. The U.S. set included 599 children who were tested in 1997 as 10-12 year-olds and again in 2002 as 15-17-year-olds. The set from the U.K. included 3,677 children who were tested in 1980 as 10-year-olds and in 1986 as 16-year-olds.

You can watch a short video of Siegler discussing the study and its implications at http://youtu.be/7YSj0mmjwBM.

Spatial skills improve children’s number sense

More support for the idea that honing spatial skills leads to better mathematical ability comes from a new children’s study.

The study found that first- and second-graders with the strongest spatial skills at the beginning of the school year showed the most improvement in their number line sense over the course of the year. Similarly, in a second experiment, not only were those children with better spatial skills at 5 ½ better on a number-line test at age 6, but this number line knowledge predicted performance on a math estimation task at age 8.

Hasty answers may make boys better at math

A study following 311 children from first to sixth grade has revealed gender differences in their approach to math problems. The study used single-digit addition problems, and focused on the strategy of directly retrieving the answer from long-term memory.

Accurate retrieval in first grade was associated with working memory capacity and intelligence, and predicted a preference for direct retrieval in second grade. However, at later grades the relation reversed, such that preference in one grade predicted accuracy and speed in the next grade.

Unlike girls, boys consistently preferred to use direct retrieval, favoring speed over accuracy. In the first and second grades, this was seen in boys giving more answers in total, and more wrong answers. Girls, on the other hand, were right more often, but responded less often and more slowly. By sixth grade, however, the boys’ practice was paying off, and they were both answering more problems and getting more correct.

In other words, while ability was a factor in early skilled retrieval, the feedback loop of practice and skill leads to practice eventually being more important than ability — and the relative degrees of practice may underlie some of the gender differences in math performance.

The findings also add weight to the view being increasingly expressed, that mistakes are valuable and educational approaches that try to avoid mistakes (e.g., errorless learning) should be dropped.

Infants can’t compare big and small groups

Our brains process large and small numbers of objects using two different mechanisms, seen in the ability to estimate numbers of items at a glance and the ability to visually track small sets of objects. A new study indicates that at age one, infants can’t yet integrate those two processes. Accordingly, while they can choose the larger of two sets of items when both sets are larger or smaller than four, they can’t distinguish between a large (above four) and small (below four) set.

In the study, infants consistently chose two food items over one and eight items over four, but chose randomly when asked to compare two versus four and two versus eight.

The researchers suggest that educational programs that claim to give children an advantage by teaching them arithmetic at an early age are unlikely to be effective for this reason.

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Immediate reward improves low-performing students’ test scores

July, 2012

A large study involving Chicago public school students has found conditions in which rewards offered just before a test significantly improve test performance.

In contradiction of some other recent research, a large new study has found that offering students rewards just before standardized testing can improve test performance dramatically. One important factor in this finding might be the immediate pay-off — students received their rewards right after the test. Another might be in the participants, who were attending low-performing schools.

The study involved 7,000 students in Chicago public schools and school districts in south-suburban Chicago Heights. Older students were given financial rewards, while younger students were offered non-financial rewards such as trophies.

Students took relatively short, standardized diagnostic tests three times a year to determine their grasp of mathematics and English skills. Unusually for this type of research, the students were not told ahead of time of the rewards — the idea was not to see how reward improved study habits, but to assess its direct impact on test performance.

Consistent with other behavioral economics research, the prospect of losing a reward was more motivating than the possibility of receiving a reward — those given money or a trophy to look at while they were tested performed better.

The most important finding was that the rewards only ‘worked’ if they were going to be given immediately after the test. If students were told instead that they would be given the reward sometime later, test performance did not improve.

Follow-up tests showed no negative impact of removing the rewards in successive tests.

Age and type of reward mattered. Elementary school students (who were given nonfinancial rewards) responded more to incentives than high-school students. Younger students have been found to be more responsive to non-monetary rewards than older students. Among high school students, the amount of money involved mattered.

It’s important to note that the students tested had low initial motivation to do well. I would speculate that the timing issue is so critical for these students because distant rewards are meaningless to them. Successful students tend to be more motivated by the prospect of distant rewards (e.g., a good college, a good job).

The finding does demonstrate that a significant factor in a student’s poor performance on tests may simply come from not caring to try.

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Extra-large letter spacing improves reading in dyslexia

July, 2012

Increasing the spacing between letters has been found to improve reading accuracy and speed in dyslexic children, with poorest readers benefiting most.

It’s generally agreed among researchers that the most efficient intervention for dyslexia is to get the child reading more — the challenge is to find ways that enable that. Training programs typically target specific component skills, which are all well and good but leave the essential problem untouched: the children still need to read more. A new study shows that a very simple manipulation substantially improves reading in a large, unselected group of dyslexic children.

The study involved 74 French and Italian children — the two groups enabling researchers to compare a transparent writing system (Italian) with a relatively opaque one (French). The children had to read 24 short, meaningful, but unrelated, sentences. The text was written in Times New Roman 14 point. Standard interletter spacing was compared to spacing increased by 2.5 points. Space between words and lines was also increased commensurately. Each child read the same sentences in two sessions, two weeks apart. In one session, standard spacing was used, and in the other, increased spacing. Order of the sessions was of course randomly assigned.

The idea behind this is that dyslexic readers seem to be particularly affected by crowding. Crowding — interference from flanking letters — mostly affects peripheral vision in normal adult readers, but has been shown to be a factor in central vision in school-aged children. Standard letter spacing appears to be optimal for skilled adult readers.

The study found that increased spacing improved accuracy in reading the text by a factor of two. Moreover, this group effect conceals substantial individual differences. Those who had the most difficulties with the text benefitted the most from the extra spacing.

Reading speed also increased. In this case, despite the 2-week interval, there was an order effect: those who read the normal text first were faster on the 2nd (spaced) reading, while those who read the spaced text first read the 2nd (normal) text at the same speed. Analysis that removed the effects of repetition found that spacing produced a speed improvement of about 0.3 syllables a second, which corresponds to the average improvement across an entire school year for Italian dyslexic children.

There was no difference between the Italian and French children, indicating that this manipulation works in both transparent (in which letters and sounds match) and opaque writing systems (like English).

Subsequent comparison of 30 of the Italian children (mean age 11) with younger normally-developing children (mean age 8) matched for reading level and IQ found that spacing benefited only the dyslexic children.

A further experiment involving some of the Italian dyslexic children compared the spaced condition with normal text that had the same line spacing as the spaced text. This confirmed that it was the letter spacing that was critical.

These findings point to a very simple way of giving dyslexic children the practice they need in reading without any training. It is not suggested that it replaces specific-skill training, but rather augments it.

Reference: 

[3017] Zorzi, M., Barbiero C., Facoetti A., Lonciari I., Carrozzi M., Montico M., et al.
(2012).  Extra-large letter spacing improves reading in dyslexia.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109(28), 11455 - 11459.

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