Helping Children Remember Better


Can you play memory games to improve your preschooler’s working memory?

A new article about an intervention to improve children’s executive functions caught my eye this week. This was done by Emma Blakey, a Ph.D. student at Sheffield University. Interventions are particularly scary for Ph.D. students because if the intervention doesn’t work you need to start from scratch, so just putting it out there: way to go Emma for a courageous foray! :smile:

What They did

The authors wanted to see whether an intervention would improve 4-year-olds’ working memory skills. For those of you who do not feel like going back to read my old posts about it (though you should, they are very good! :smile:), working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind. So, for instance, in order to do sums in your head (like 3+5=?) you need both to remember the question and to process it and figure out the answer. It is thought to be a part of executive functions, which are a group of cognitive processes that enable goal-directed behaviour (basically, anything you don’t do on autopilot).

The experimenters measured a bunch of things at the beginning of the study (very important, to make sure the groups are similar), and then randomly assigned children to either a training group or a control group, ran the intervention (the control group got tasks that did not train executive functions, which is an excellent way to have a control group), and then re-measured the same skills (a pre-post design). They also measured the children in a follow-up after 3 months, and threw in a maths assessment.

So, the intervention was basically tasks (or measures) that were very different on the surface from the tasks that they used to measure the before and after skills, but that in fact measure the same skill. This sounds very complicated, but it really isn’t. For example, to measure working memory at baseline (before) and at the follow-up (after), the researchers used the backwards word span task. This is a classic task to measure working memory. Basically, you ask children to repeat a string of words (dog, tree, house) in a backwards order. To do that, children have to both remember the original list and reverse it (process it in some way).

As an intervention, the researchers used a task called the six boxes task. Children have to look for two stickers that are hidden under two out of six boxes (similar to a memory game, in a way). The idea is that if you remember the boxes you searched under, you can find the stickers in 2 trials if you’re lucky, and a maximum of 6 trials if you’re unlucky. Children typically take more than that, because they search under the same box more than once. In order to do this task in a minimum number or trials, you need to remember which box you already looked under, and to figure out which one you want to look under next.

So both these tasks measure working memory, but they are very different in their characteristics: the backwards word span is very verbal and the input is auditory, whereas the six boxes task is rather visual; the backwards word span requires reversing the order of a list, whereas the six boxes task requires figuring out what box is next. The idea here is that because the tasks are so different, you are not training the kids to succeed in a certain task. However, because both tasks require working memory, you train the kids’ working memory as they get exposure to these tasks.

The researchers did the intervention once a week for 4 weeks. Each intervention session took 20 minutes. This is not an intensive intervention–this is not even an after school club. All in all, and I’m sure this was the point, we are not talking about something you need an expert to come in every day (which would be expensive and unrealistic for most children), we are talking about something most parents can do, and definitely all teachers can do.

What They Found

Children in the training group improved on working memory measures more than the children in the control group (everyone improved a little bit from the first time they did the task to the second time they did it, which is to be expected). They did not improve on any of the other measures. This lack of improvement on the other measures is particularly telling because the intervention included an inhibitory control part, which appears to have done fairly little.

Here’s a very neat finding: when the researchers came back 3 months after they gave children the intervention, they found that the children who had training did better on the maths assessment than the children who didn’t have training (the control group). This effect remained significant after the researchers controlled statistically for kids’ baseline working memory levels. This means that it’s not just that the children who had high working memory to begin with did better on the maths assessment.

I have a couple of issues with this study. First, the researchers did not separate the working memory intervention from the inhibitory control intervention. Sure, it would have required doubling the sample size, because ideally you want to use a 2×2 design with some children in the control group, some getting just a working memory training, some children getting just an inhibitory control training, and some children getting both training types. But it would have told us a much more interesting story. Another issue I have is with their statistical analysis: they had several outcome measures, but they did not run them in an analysis that includes all of them, but in separate analyses, one for each measure. For the purpose of this blog, I’ll just say it was not the appropriate analysis, and that it increases the chances of finding a significant finding accidentally (more details here). That said, they did find an effect 3 months after an intervention of 4 once-a-week 20-minutes sessions, which is extremely neat. Why? Because three months is a long time when you are 4 years old.

What It Means

There are three interesting parts to this study. The first is that you can train working memory in 4-year-olds. Given the fairly large number of studies that have already found that you can train working memory in older children and in adults, this finding is not entirely shocking. But we have very little studies doing interventions with 4-year-olds, so it’s good that the authors have done that.

The second interesting part to this study is that the effects of the interventions were transferred to maths skills 3 months later. This could be for a host of reasons that this study cannot speak to (they did not measure, for instance, any maths skills of any kind at the baseline), but still, really interesting. Working memory and maths are related in all kinds of interesting ways. Specifically, what this study suggests is that we may be able to create a curriculum for preschoolers that would help them with their maths skills later on.

The third interesting part to this study–for me at least–is the lack of effects on inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility measures. It could mean that these skills are un-trainable. I can see that on inhibitory control: it’s really hard to train kids on inhibitory control tasks, and that makes a lot of sense to me. It’s one of those skills that you have to wait for the child to be mature enough (kind of like potty training, talking, and walking). You can’t really rush them. The lack of effect on cognitive flexibility in my opinion speaks to the fact that it is not just a more complex skill, as the authors mention, but also that it is a bit removed from the more basic skills such as working memory and inhibitory control. That’s why, I think, a working memory and inhibitory control training did not have an effect on cognitive flexibility.

To answer the question I’m sure many of you are asking: yes, you can probably help your child with their working memory skills. The training the authors used was simply other working memory tasks, in which feedback was given. So, practice makes perfect: ask children what happened already when you’re reading a story, or do some simple sums without writing things down. These will not only help practice their working memory, they are also good for literacy and maths (respectively). And play memory games. These will not only provide working memory practice, but also some family-togetherness time. And tell them they’ve done a good job when they succeed, or just give them a thumbs-up.
Happy Playing! :smile:

A Day At The Museum

Photo Credit: Mario Sánchez Prada (Flickr)
Photo Credit: Mario Sánchez Prada (Flickr)

What helps children learn from their visit to the museum?

Quick note: you may have noticed the theme changed. I’m trying a new look. It’s a work in progress. Do let me know if you like it!

Last week, an opportunity arose when my daughter commissioned her daddy to take her to a friend’s birthday party (“but no drop-off, daddy! You have to stay the WHOLE time.”). So, my son and I went to the British Museum. For a geeky 6-year-old and his nerdy mama, the British Museum is anthropological heaven. We saw all kinds of things: mummies, the Rosetta Stone, 6000 years old flint knives, and things that were buried in a ship 1300 years ago.

This got me thinking about museums and how children learn. Naturally, I consulted Google Scholars and found a study done in Chicago about how talking to your kids help them learn. As we are a family who talks a lot (I’m the least chatty person in our family, if you can imagine), I was very happy to find this paper.

What They Did

The researchers wanted to look at the effects of having conversation cards (with open-ended questions on them), as well as having a physical object (a hands-on experience). So they randomly assigned families into one of 4 groups: families who received no activity, families who received only conversation cards, families who received only physical objects, and families who received both (this is a very neat 2×2 design).

They then took the families to an exhibit that contained the target objects (the cards were about the same objects), and then to another exhibit that was linked, but did not contain the exact same objects. I thought the second exhibit was a nice addition because they could look at transfer—whether the families talked about what they saw in the first exhibit when they were going through the second exhibit.

What They Found

Parents who received the cards used more elaborative talk while going through the exhibit. Parents use elaborative talk when they ask the child open-ended questions (“What do you think this was used for?”) and when they make explicit connections with prior knowledge (“This is very different from your bed”). Elaborative talk is important because it helps children engage with what they are seeing, and anchors the things they see in their own daily experiences, which are very concrete.

The parents who received the cards (regardless of whether or not the families received the physical objects) also made more connections between the second and the first exhibit, supporting children’s transfer of knowledge. This means that the child is more likely to be able to transfer this knowledge to new settings, such as the classroom.

They also found that children whose families received the cards made more spontaneous comments while going through the exhibition, and they also made more associations between the second and the first exhibits.

What It Means

The British Museum has “family trails”—basically booklets that take you to certain items along the galleries and explain about them. They have some activities on them (such as, “talk about what you would bring to your after-life”. I’m not kidding.), but from this research it would appear that sitting down before going into the exhibit and talking about what we are going to see might have helped my son to get more out of the experience. Personally, I was a bit disappointed when all my son could remember the next day was that he has the best eye-sight in the family because he spotted all the items we were supposed to find on our “trail”. Not exactly what I was hoping for in terms of learning.

So, if you are taking your kids to a museum, ask them lots of open-ended questions and connect what you see to their lives (try not to invoke discussions about death if your kid is young unless you really want to). If you have a few extra minutes at home before you head out, take a peek at the museum’s website and find something you want them to see. Show it to them, and talk about it on the way: talk about why you want to see it, what you think the museum people wrote on the sign beside it, what would you use if for if you had one at home, and so on. It might be a fun talk 😀


Creativity at One

Photo Credit: Aaron Gilson (Flickr)
Photo Credit: Aaron Gilson (Flickr)

It’s nice to have time to read things that are not directly related to my area of research—the perks of being done with the Ph.D… :) So, today I’ll talk about a very neat study looking at divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is what we do when we brainstorm and come up with lots of ideas. It’s a very cool area of research, and it’s kind of related to my research area, which is basically convergent thinking (finding links between objects or events and combine them into a new idea).

This study comes from Elena Hoicka, who is at Sheffield University. She and her colleagues have a very neat device they call the Unusual Box—it’s a colourful box that has all kinds of pieces attached to its external walls (shelves and strings and such). The Unusual Box Test includes getting 5 different objects to play while interactive with this box. They are measuring divergent thinking by counting the number of different actions that the toddler is performing with these items and the box. Simple and elegant; I’ll get to a tiny little problem with this score later.

What They Did

The researchers gave toddlers this test, and counted the number of different actions they performed. They did this twice, in the space of about a week or two, to check whether the scores on this task are reliable (see a new entry on reliability in the glossary!). They also measured children’s motor development—a very nice control on their part. The idea is that this task is motor, and so children who are more advanced on their motor development might get higher scores not because of their divergent thinking but because of their better dexterity. They also gave the kids’ parent (they didn’t say how many dads brought toddlers to the lab) a measure of adults’ divergent thinking (drawing as many different things as you can on a set of circles. Try it; it’s lots of fun).

What They Found

This task was reliable, which means that children tend to get similar scores on it in both times. The researchers also checked that children did not just repeat the same actions on the second time they saw the task, which was a nice touch. Interestingly, children’s score on this task was related to the parents’ score on the adult divergent thinking test, which means either that children inherit their parents’ creativity, or they imitate their parents’ creative style (more on that next week!).

What It Means

Well, it’s a really nice little task to measure creativity in one-year-olds. It means that we can see individual differences in this skill at a very early age, which is very cool. Here is my small issue with how they scored the task: I think that they should have accounted for the total number of actions the children performed on the box. One-year-olds’ attention tends to stray sometimes, and some kids are just more active than others. Either of these scenarios (lack of focus, higher activity levels) could impact the number of total actions the child is performing on the box, and by that impact the number of different actions she is performing. So I would have liked to see the score as something like the ratio between different (divergent) actions and total actions (and it would also be an easier variable to work with, statistically speaking, but that’s for a whole other blog). In general, however, this lab has produced some interesting research, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else they’ve got :)

Imitation and Problem Solving: More Complicated Than It Seems

Photo Credit: Booyabazooka

This week I have an unusual post. I’m going to talk to you about an article that I think has not managed to answer the question it was asking. I haven’t posted about these kinds of articles, because I didn’t think it would be useful. However, this is part of being scientifically literate: recognizing when the article hasn’t done what it said it would. So I figured I’ll walk you through my thought process on this one.

The authors set out to examine whether children can combine (by imitating) two different actions in order to solve a novel problem. The authors argue that it’s possible that problem solving, rather than being an individual generation of ideas, is really about combining different previously witnessed actions in order to create a solution. This idea is really neat, because it directly challenges the (widely common) concept that we come up with ideas in a vacuum (see this oldie-but-goodie).

What They Did

So, the authors gave preschoolers a problem box with two stickers in it. Children had to open two compartments in order to get the two stickers (stickers are thought to be fantastic motivators among researchers who study preschoolers). Then, some children were randomly assigned to a baseline condition—they were given no instructions, and were allowed to explore the box. Other children were randomly assigned to a single model condition, in which one model showed children the four actions needed to solve the box (removing two Velcro “defenses” and opening two compartments). They also had a dual-model condition, in which two different models showed the children various parts of the solution.

What They Found

Not-so-shockingly, children were more likely to open both compartments when they were shown what to do as compared with the baseline, in which they were not shown what to do. Sometimes it looks like researchers think that children are complete idiots. In our defense, children sometimes behave like complete idiots. But that’s not the point. By the way, children were more likely to open the two compartments when they saw two models as compared with a single model. The authors suggest that this is because children made fewer errors when they saw two models as compared with a single model, but that’s not an explanation. I would have hypothesized that it would be something about the memory, since using two models provided a more salient break and breaks help us remember what we saw.

What It Means

Yes, children imitated the actions shown to them by the models. So, the researchers found significant results and published them, and that’s fantastic. But, my problem with this study is that each compartment of the box was independent. That is, children didn’t have to combine the actions in order to open both compartments, they just had to repeat these actions, and then both compartments would be open. So, children didn’t really aggregate the different actions, they just imitated a longer sequence. And that’s not really new: we know that children are great imitators. So the article says they want to examine children’s ability to aggregate actions into a novel solution, but then they had a methodology that didn’t quite test this. It doesn’t mean that this study is not neat; it is. It just doesn’t answer the question it’s asking. And that’s a shame because it’s a fantastic question.

A Letter To My Son On His Sixth Birthday

Photo Credit: Sweet-Tooth Cakes and Cupcakes This is what your cake would have looked like if you mummy had any talent.
Photo Credit: Sweet-Tooth Cakes and Cupcakes
This is what your cake would have looked like if your mummy had any talent.

My love,

My, how you’ve grown this year. This year was all about science, and it doesn’t look like it’ll be the last year, either. You are so curious and you ask so many questions. You want to know how everything works. And you figured out Google, so it has become our standard answer to pretty much all of your questions: I’m not sure, honey, let’s google it. Because, really, how am I supposed to know whether a yew is evergreen or deciduous? But I like that you keep asking me these questions; that you haven’t given up on me yet.

You are also an enthusiastic ice-skater. You love going to the ice-rink so much, that I have accepted the 40-minute trek in each direction with a resigned sigh. Seeing your face when you go on the ice is so worth it. And what you lack in grace you more than make up for in confidence. I love how confident you are.

The chess club is another one of your newly blossoming interests. I was convinced that once we went there and you played against the older kids (most of them two years your senior) and lost marvelously, you would want nothing to do with it anymore. But you looked at me and said, mommy, I came to learn. And so we came back, and you like it so much that you don’t even mind losing. You have certainly come a long way.

This year, I wish for you to keep asking lots and lots of questions. You are well on your way to be a scientist, and you make me so very proud, seeing as I consider myself one. And that adult tooth you found in the back? It’s not going to be the last.

Lots of love,


The Popularity Contest

Photo credit: Pixabay
Photo credit: Pixabay

I took both my kids to a movie night at their school last week. It was great excitement: coming to school in the evening, wearing pajamas, and watching a movie (complete with popcorn and juice) with all your friends. As you can imagine, there was very little watching going on. I was struck by the completely different behaviour of my two children. My son walked into the hall, found a clear spot to sit down, and was immediately immersed in the movie. He hardly noticed what was going on in the hall. My daughter was hauled by some girls, two years her senior, to come sit with them as soon as she walked in. Throughout the movie, I noticed she was mostly with her back to the screen. We went to the same event, but each of my children had a completely different experience.

It got me thinking about what makes kids popular. I was not a popular kid, so I wouldn’t know from experience. So, naturally, I turned to science. And I found this neat meta-analysis, which looked at whether Theory of Mind (reasoning about other people’s mental state) was correlated with popularity.

What they did

A meta-analysis is a study of studies (check out my new glossary for more details, and do let me know if it was helpful!). What I found interesting was that they differentiated between “sociometric popularity” and “perceived popularity”. Or, in non-technical terms, they distinguished between the kids who are well-liked by their peers, and the kids who have a perceived high social status. They also looked at the effects of age, gender, and the valence of the rating (that is, whether the ratings were positive or negative, because there’s a difference between not being liked and being rejected).

What They Found

So, overall there was a significant correlation between Theory of Mind and popularity—children who are better at “reading other people’s minds” were more popular. The relationship was a bit higher for perceived popularity, and a bit higher for girls, but these differences were not significant (although in the article’s abstract it almost sounds like they were).

What Does It Mean?

Well, it mostly mean that children who have better Theory of Mind are more popular. We cannot conclude, based on this study alone, that these children are popular because they have better Theory of Mind—we can just as easily conclude that these children have better Theory of Mind because they are more popular (they get more practice, for example). There is, however, evidence from different studies that Theory of Mind in preschool predicts later peer acceptance or likability.

This correlation definitely holds in our house: my daughter has been lying to us since she was 2.5 years old. Lying requires quite advanced Theory of Mind (for a preschooler), as you have to understand that other people don’t think what you do, and so mommy doesn’t necessarily knows what’s in your head. However, my daughter also entered school with a big brother, and she knew quite a few kids from her brother’s class, so Theory of Mind is not the whole story.

Double Thumbs Up

Photo Credit: Brendan Riley
Photo Credit: Brendan Riley

A little while ago I wrote a post about how the way we praise children influences their motivation. Previously, researchers have looked at two specific verbal praises: linking children’s success to a stable trait (e.g., “you’re so smart”) and linking children’s success to effort (e.g., “you worked really hard”). Researchers generally find that the first kind of praise actually reduces children’s motivation after a failure. The logic is this: if I succeeded because I’m smart, and now I’ve failed, I must be too stupid to do this. That’s not a fun place to be in, by the way. In contrast, the second kind of praise increases motivation: if I succeeded because I worked hard, and now I failed, I just have to work harder next time.

So, here are some great news: two researchers from Ohio found that gesture praise, such as a thumbs-up or a high-five, and vague verbal praise (e.g., “great!”) function in the same way as linking children’s success explicitly to effort, as opposed to a stable trait.

What They Did

These authors conducted a straight-forward and elegant research: they randomly assigned 5- and 6-year-old children into five groups: children either got specific trait praise, specific effort praise, vague verbal praise, a thumbs up gesture, or a high-five gesture. They first measured everyone’s motivation levels, to show the children had similar levels of motivation going into the experiment. Then, they showed all groups of children four “successful” works (on which they received praise according to the condition they were assigned to), followed by two “failed” works (incomplete drawings, such as a cat without ears). They measured children’s motivation levels after these “failures”.

What They Found

First, all children had similar motivation levels at the beginning of the study. After they heard the praise for the successful works and saw the incomplete pictures, children in the first group (who heard praise such as “you’re a good drawer”) had lower motivation, and were more likely to focus on errors than the other groups. Children in the vague verbal and gesture praise groups showed similar levels of motivation as the children who received specific effort praise (“you did a good job drawing”).

What It Means

My kids think they’re awesome all on their own, they do not require me to tell them this. I noticed that I don’t often say to my kids “you succeeded because you worked hard”. I tend to either say “great” or give them a thumbs-up (and sometimes, when they’ve done something very excellent, a “double thumbs-up”, as my daughter calls it). I’m really glad to know that they interpret this in the most positive way they can—it tells us something about children’s resilience. The lesson for parents here is clear: if you don’t have anything nice to say, give them a high-five.