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:


An Oxford Talk

Random College in Oxford

In the last little while (ok, long while) I have been busy writing my PhD dissertation. To the outside onlooker, it looks fairly straight-forward: you’ve done all the work, now you just have to put it in a document. How hard can it be, right? Well… it’s not the most complicated thing I had to do for my PhD, but it’s a lot of work. And this is relevant mostly because after four or five hours of writing my dissertation, I have no mental powers to write a blog post. Sorry about that. However, since I have you here, I’ll tell you about my trip to Oxford.

Last week I gave an invited talk at a seminar in Oxford University. I was super-excited (I still can’t believe I did that), and it went well. I went for the day, got to see a bit of the city and campus, and I had lunch at a college (don’t ask me how this system works, I’m still confused. I think my hosts were, too). It was fantastic. At one point I asked the people I was having lunch with whether you get desensitised to being at Oxford all the time. They all said “yes, pretty much”. I, however, marvelled at the 300-year-old buildings in which people are doing ground-breaking research for centuries. I’d love to have a conversation with the walls of one of the local old pubs.

Anyway, here is a pdf file of my slides from the talk I gave. One day I’ll write a post about my research, but for now, there are some interesting academic things in there 🙂

A tale of two flexibilities

Parenting and Self-Regulation

How we influence our children’s behaviour and compliance.
Photo credit:  athomson
Photo credit: athomson

As I was reading “Bringing Up Bébé” (which is a whole other post that I don’t know if I’ll ever write) it struck me that the author assumes that the way French parents behave makes their children more compliant. As a developmental researcher, I of course performed a “scholar search”, and came across several interesting studies. One of them was published a few years ago, and was really interesting.

What they Did

The authors examined the relationship between parenting behaviours and other demographic factors, such as gender and socioeconomic status, and the development of inhibitory control. If you need a refresher on what inhibitory control is and why it’s important, you can read about it here and here. I’ll wait.

So, this study had parents fill out a questionnaire assessing their child’s inhibitory control skills, and their parenting behaviours were assessed by the researchers during a home visit. The question was which variables would affect the initial level of inhibitory control at age 2 years, and which variables would affect the growth of inhibitory control between 2 and 4 years of age.

What They Found

There were two interesting findings about parenting. First, harsh parenting only influenced the initial level of inhibitory control but not the development. That is, harsh parenting was associated with lower levels of inhibitory control at age 2, but not with a slower growth of inhibitory control between the ages 2 and 4. In contrast, supportive parenting was associated with increased growth of inhibitory control over the two-year period, but it was not related with the initial levels.

What it Means

I think that we can combine these findings with what I talked about a few weeks ago regarding the praise we give. I said then that parenting a two-year-old is really different from parenting a four-year-old. As I’m doing both right now, I’m keenly aware of that. There’s a different focus, a different set of expectations, and of course different things “tick us off”. If my two-year-old is unable to follow the post-dinner routine, for example, I remind her and make it into a game. If my four-year-old skips his “duties” (brushing teeth, taking plate off the table, etc.) I’m more likely to get snippy because he should know better by now. So I can see how being patient rather than harsh helps the two-year-olds, but that later on a bit of annoyance isn’t all that harmful (and really quite reasonable). Similarly, I can see how being supportive and involved with the child is a bit over their head at 2, but can go a long way in later years. Of course, I don’t mean you shouldn’t talk to your child until she’s three, but there’s a qualitative difference, I think, between how you approach a similar situation with a two-year-old and with a four-year-old.

Do Kids Use Too Much Media?

Should we limit screen time or screen content?

Photo Credit: IntelFreePress (I know, I know)
Photo Credit: IntelFreePress (I know, I know)

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published their new guidelines for children’s media use. This, combined with a new survey that found that about a third of kids under 2 years of age have used a tablet or smartphone, has the potential to quickly becoming the new “health scare”.

The new policy is well thought out, and it emphasizes parenting monitoring mostly. Of course, what the media took from this was the one recommendation that – at least in the new policy – is the least supported one: the recommendation to limit total “screen” time.

So what is the problem with screen time? When I was young they said you shouldn’t watch too much TV because you’ll need glasses. That makes the time-limit concern about 30 years old, and not quite substantiated (see link). But if you read the actual guidelines, the experts are mostly concerned about two things: the content that the kids watch and obesity. Kids watching unsupervised content (especially if it’s in their room) may be learning undesirable behaviours from TV and online. A different point completely is the fact that every hour a child is sitting in front of a screen is an hour in which they are not physically active. Let’s talk a bit about both these points.

Kids watching bad content

Sure, there’s a lot of bad content out there. From TV shows that have been experimentally shown to cause a decrease in executive functions, to pornography that is linked to all kinds of morally questionable attitudes, there’s no question that we as parents must monitor the content that kids are perusing. My question is, can you do that if your first rule is a time limit? When I was a kid, we didn’t have time limits on TV watching. If our homework was done, we could watch as much TV as we wanted to. Our house was the most popular house in the neighbourhood: all the kids who had time limits at their house told their parents they are going to play at my house. Kids are evil geniuses. So in my opinion, setting time limits is not in itself sufficient. If what we are trying to solve is unmonitored TV watching, then we have to increase monitoring, not decrease TV watching. That’s because kids can still watch a lot of bad stuff in two hours if they are left to their own devices. Personally I think that we as parents have a responsibility to teach kids how to watch TV. That is, we have to teach them that TV is not real, that people on TV are not real people, and that some things that happen on TV can’t happen in real life. This is particularly important, I think, in the pre-pubescent age, when they are old enough to watch, for instance, kids on TV that can do bad things and suffer no consequences. But at every age teaching them about how to watch critically and talking about the content they see is important.

A Link Between Watching TV and Obesity

A study done more than a decade ago found that children who have a TV in their room are significantly more likely to be overweight than kids without a TV in their room. This was true after controlling for “sociodemographics, physical activity, frequency of TV or movie watching[,] and internet use”. That’s an impressive set of controls. I don’t have access to the actual paper, so I can’t say anything about the methods of the research. But I think a couple of things are worth noting. First, they controlled (that is, statistically “levelled out”) frequency of TV watching. This means it’s not the time spent watching TV that is driving this relationship. What does? Could it be that kids who have a TV in their room have fewer rules in the household overall? Or perhaps the TV ads increase consumption of less-than-healthy foods? There’s a host of possible explanations, and the truth is we don’t know enough to say what the exact mechanisms are. Another thing to note is that the odds ratio was 1.32. Odds ratio is a statistical way to calculate the difference in risk between two groups. I took the liberty of translating this into concrete numbers, since that’s a lot easier to understand. It means that if in the general population of kids in the US you would expect 22 kids in 100 to be overweight (based on the numbers in this article), than for kids who have a TV in their room that number increases to 29 kids in 100. This is a statistically significant difference, yes, but it’s not quite an epidemic. I think it’s much more pressing to figure out why the other 22 kids are overweight.

Do my kids watch TV? You betcha. But we typically either watch with them (on the first, say, 20 times or so. By the 20th time I’m fairly confident we covered everything), and talk about what the characters do, whether they are real or not (especially monsters and dinosaurs), and what we can do in certain situations (say, if our teacher took us on a field trip to outer space). There’s great content out there, and some pretty awesome iPad apps. For instance, thanks to out newly installed “endless alphabet” app, not only can my 4-year-old spell famished, he can also use it in a sentence. You just have to mind it, like everything else, and teach your child independent thinking and moderation.

What Happens When You Get The Stickers Mixed Up?

Picture Credit: tails4evr
Picture Credit: tails4evr

I’m immensely proud of my lab-mate, Andrea Astle, who a few weeks ago successfully published her MA research. This took a lot of work on her part – the amount of details that one should pay attention to in a 14-pages paper is really rather remarkable.

In our lab, one of the main questions we ask is “how do children come to understand symbols?” A symbol is something that stands for something else. For example, language is a very complex symbol system, in which a set of sounds we make can stand for an object (dog), a place (home), or a feeling (happy). Symbols are everywhere in our society – written language, pictures and signs are some examples. Understanding symbols, then, is a basic skill that allows us to read and write, use numbers for math, and so on – it’s a pretty important skill.

But what impacts children’s understanding of symbols? Children have a basic capability to understand symbols at a fairly young age – as can be seen by their pretend play and their use of language. But are there individual differences in this universal skill? In other words, is there a certain characteristic or early ability that makes symbolic understanding easier?

What We Did

In this study, we looked at a very specific symbol use: children saw a room (kind of like a doll-house room) and a line drawing of that room. On the line drawing there were indicators of where the stickers are hidden in the actual room. The child’s job was to find the stickers in the room, based on the line drawing and the indicators. There were two kinds of stickers (say, an orange tiger and a green turtle), but both kinds were marked on each of the line drawing. Now, we had several versions of the indicators that marked the stickers’ hiding places. In one version, these indicators looked exactly like the stickers (they were little pictures of an orange tiger and a green turtle). In another version (the “conflict” version), we used dots of the opposite colour – so a green dot would stand for the orange tiger and an orange dot would stand for the green turtle, because the stickers got “mixed up”. In the third version, we had dots of arbitrary colour stand for the stickers (say, pink for turtle and purple for tiger).

What We Found

Turns out that working memory – the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind – was related to children’s performance on the third version, the arbitrary version. But in order to solve the conflict version, both working memory and inhibitory control – the ability to suppress a strong response – were required. In the conflict version, children needed to overcome their strong tendency to look for the orange tiger where the orange dot was. Both of these relationships were examined after performance on the baseline version (where orange tigers pictures stand for orange tiger stickers). That is, what relies on working memory or inhibitory control is the “extra” skill that is needed over and above being able to solve the baseline version.

What Does it Mean?

Well, not surprisingly perhaps, it means that children find it harder to use symbols when the symbols are conflicting with what they stand for. We see it very clearly in language, for example. Children can understand the sentence “that’s just great” when it is meant to be positive (you got an A in your exam? That’s just great!) at a fairly young age. It takes them a few more years to understand that this sentence can sometimes mean the exact opposite of positive (you forgot your books again? That’s just great!). So if you are trying to use symbols with children, the best way to go is with something that is exactly what it stands for. For example, if you are going on a treasure hunt, using a little picture of a treasure chest might be less confusing (and more fun!) than a red X.

All That Jazz

Photo Credit: Daniel Schwen
Photo Credit: Daniel Schwen

I’m leaving tomorrow for Chicago, to go to yet another conference. I’m a little bit conferenced-out, but I’m presenting my own research there, which makes it kind of exciting. I’m a bit excited because the conference is the Jean Piaget Society, and Jean Piaget invented cognitive developmental psychology (among other things), and I hear good things about this conference.

MCS sample trial for blog
Sample Array of Cards

I’ll be presenting one of my tasks there. This is a task I literally made up one day, and then said, hey, wouldn’t it be a good task to measure cognitive flexibility in children? In this task, children see an array of cards like in the picture. Then, I ask them to give my friend Sarah (a cute Plan Toy doll) all the hearts. After we’ve done that, Sarah goes home and we put all her cards back. Then I ask them to give my friend Tommy all the yellow triangles, and after that they are asked to give my friend Kate all the small red circles. So, in order to succeed on level three (Kate’s small red circles), kids have to be able to coordinate all three dimensions – shape, colour, and size – to select the correct cards (and only the correct cards) to give to Kate.

It’s so simple that I still sometimes think I’ve missed something. The idea was to create a task that is simple to run, that even little kids can understand and do at least something, and that will give us a measure of the child’s cognitive flexibility, which, as I mentioned before, is an important skill to have. My poster shows the task, and goes into details about what this task correlates with and what it tells us. The bottom line is that my task is good because it measures preschoolers’ ability to coordinate two or more dimensions at the same time. The tasks that exist now only allow us to measure shifting between two dimensions, that is, for instance, first think about colour and then shift to thinking about shape. So, the two new things that we can measure with this task is thinking about two dimensions at the same time as opposed to one and then the other, and it allows us to look into children’s ability to think about more than two dimensions, something that so far has not been investigated.

The cool part? About half of my sample (which are 3- and 4-year-olds) were able to think about shape, colour, and size at the same time, whereas only about a third were able to shift between sorting cards first according to shape, then according to colour, and then according to size. So it is possible that this task taps into an aspect of cognitive flexibility that is, in fact, easier for kids.

Why is this interesting?

First of all, if we can measure it we can investigate it, and so far we weren’t able to measure preschoolers’ ability to coordinate three dimensions at the same time. Second, because cognitive flexibility plays a key role in problem solving and flexible behaviour, it would be really interesting to look into different aspects of this skill, when they develop, and how they relate to other skills (I’m focusing mostly on executive functions – inhibitory control and working memory). And the ultimate goal would be to help children who lag behind. For example, cognitive flexibility is related to school readiness and academic success. If we can identify children with lower cognitive flexibility skills when they are three years old, and we know how to help them overcome those deficits, and hopefully that would make the gap smaller by the time they get to school. And wouldn’t that be awesome??

The Great Pretender

Photo Credit: JesseBarker
Photo Credit: JesseBarker

Pretend play is one of the most interesting milestones in children’s cognitive development. What does it tell us?

Last week, my daughter, who is just shy of 2 years, started crawling on all fours on the floor, mewing loudly. “I’m a cat, mommy!” she told me brightly, and continued to pretend to drink milk from a nonexistent bowl. I was very excited, being the geek-developmental-researcher mom that I am, because that was fairly sophisticated pretend play for a two-year-old. Just think about the cognitive processing power that goes into that simple play-act: this young child, who is barely talking in full sentences, behaves as a certain animal, complete with stance, movement, and sound-effects, not to mention being able to imagine something that doesn’t exist (a bowl of milk) in order to complete her play. And, importantly for the point I will make later, not once did she actually think she was a cat, or lost her own identity.

How Low Can You Go?

Pretend play is one of the more fascinating milestones in children’s development. During the second year of life, children are increasingly capable of following pretence scenarios. For instance, in one study a researcher pretended to pour water into two cups, drink from one, and then asked the child to drink from the full cup. Even 16-month-old children chose the cup from which the experimenter did not drink more than what could be expected by chance. That is, the 16-month-olds were able to follow the pretence scenario, track the experimenter’s actions, and choose the correct cup. Pretty impressive for someone who can barely talk. The nicest thing about this experiment is that there was minimal language involved. In other words, it wasn’t just that the children who understand what the experimenter says do better.

What Can we Learn From Pretence?

I have been arguing for years (mostly at dinner parties, nothing published) that pretence is a great example of cognitive flexibility – the ability to consider two aspects of the same object or event. When a child pretends to be a cat, she keeps track both of her pretend identity and her real identity. Children never actually think they are cats. In fact, they never confuse the pretended scenario with the real state of things. Now, other researchers are starting to empirically look into that relationship. Stephanie Carlson organized a symposium in the conference I was at in April, and she talked about how linking imagination and executive functions sounds counterintuitive. And it is: executive function is about controlling your behaviour and thought. We think about imagination as the opposite – not controlling your thoughts, but letting them roam freely. However, in order to imagine that she is a cat, my daughter has to actually “control reality” in a way. When we imagine things, we have to “supress” reality, and that’s exactly where executive function comes into play.

The Link Between Pretence and Executive Functions

Is there empirical evidence for this link? So far, according to Carlson, the links are circumstantial and correlational. However, there is a growing interest in the research community about this link, and therefore, more experimental evidence are coming into light. For instance, Jennifer Van Reet at Providence College found that children who completed a battery of conflict inhibitory control tasks did better on pretence tasks than children who did the same pretence tasks before they went on to complete the inhibitory control battery. All kids performed roughly the same on the inhibitory control tasks. It’s an interesting finding, and I can think of two explanations: either the inhibitory control battery made the children more aware of the conflict (making the whole executive functions “system” alert), or that it served as a kind of practice. Either way, it’s pretty neat.

Do your children pretend? Did you pretend when you were a child?