Cognitive training programs have often been explored and employed for their potential benefits in patients with cognitive impairment. [XNUMX] Rather recently, they started serving as a tool for children with learning disabilities as well. The hope is that focused training on particular cognitive skills would translate to overall better academic abilities. [XNUMX]

Few concerted scientific efforts focus on the effect such programs may have on typically developing children, and those that do seem to report inconclusive results. This is true despite several studies showing that so-called executive functions (working memory, inhibition of irrelevant stimuli and flexibility – the ability to switch between different tasks) are related to academic performance. Such programs, and learning as a whole, are often dependent on multiple variables that are difficult to control. One, does, however, seem quite important to take into account when speaking of children: motivation..

This is precisely the scope of a XNUMX article by Verena E. Johann and Julia Karbach.XNUMX The authors aim to ascertain what role does motivation play in the overall success of a cognitive training program designed to improve the XNUMX main executive functions. To this end, they designed a working-memory training, an inhibition training and a flexibility training available in both standard and game format. Based on psychological theories, they designed the game so that it makes children feel connected, be able to explore an environment on their own and interact with it efficiently. This should, supposedly, prompt intrinsic motivation.

Today we add another piece to the knowledge on the subject.
In a scientific article published in 2019[1] an interesting hypothesis has been tested: does making a game-like treatment make it more effective?

Results show that after the training sessions, regardless of the standard or game approach, subjects’ performance on the specific tasks was improved.

A questionnaire showed that children’s motivation to perform the task gradually decreased over the weeks, despite the fact that they were getting better at performing the tasks. The reduction was, however, significantly less pronounced in the game approach.

The newly acquired skills seemed to also translate quite well in non-familiar circumstances. Both training programs caused improvement of all XNUMX executive functions, with a slightly larger improvement in working memory and flexibility tests for children who had gone through the game training. Furthermore, their reading comprehension and reading speed also improved, with slight differences for flexibility and inhibition game-based groups. Nevertheless, mathematical abilities were not improved by either training program.

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The study concludes that, although adding game elements did not significantly increase training gains, it did improve children’s interest and motivation. Another interesting observation notes that the largest performance improvement was noticed for children with lower baseline results, suggesting training programs may help them compensate for deficits in the classical teaching approach.

In conclusion ...

While it provides a worthy insight into cognitive training programs for children, this study faces several limitations, such as the relatively low number of subjects/group and the fact that children were only trained for one specific task rather than all three. More research of this kind is needed in order to reach a firm conclusion.

Future educational programs may benefit from employing new, evidence-based approaches in the way they mold young minds. Further investigations in this area could improve the way we teach, and eventually come up with more motivational, yet efficient ways to unravel children’s potential, ultimately improving their academic performance.

Despite the limitations just mentioned, this research confronts us with an important reflection on our clinical work: when we work with children, how much time do we devote to their motivation? In the endless hours spent planning and creating personalized training on the characteristics of a child, how much space do we leave for engaging activities? Do we give enough importance to the game?

We are sure that many professionals did not need specific research to imagine how important the motivation of children can be within our work. Having confirmations and food for thought from research, in any case, is always useful in our work.

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reading and executive functionsWorking memory and phonological awareness