For more than three decades, the National Association for Child Development (NACD) has worked toward a better and more thorough understanding of cognitive function and how neuroplasticity affects that function. The ability of the human brain to change and improve due to neuroplasticity provided the foundation for the development of the NACD approach. NACD has developed a “whole person” perspective that has not only helped thousands of children and adults, but has also provided essential data, which in turn has developed a greater and broader understanding of human function and development.
As scientists and researchers continue their work to try to unravel how the various components of cognition function together and develop, NACD has been working to try to ascertain the most effective and efficient ways to positively impact that function. By working with thousands of individuals over many years, ranging in function from severely brain injured to accelerated learners and from newborn to geriatric, the staff of NACD has been able to assess firsthand how various neurological functions impact the whole person.
Decades ago the founder of NACD, Robert J. Doman, Jr., was aware that a strong short-term memory could have a positive impact on the rest of cognitive function. He further discovered that once the short-term memory began to get stronger, higher-level cognitive function was able to expand, and more complex thinking improved. He and his staff began looking at ways to affect short-term memory as well as higher-level function. These strategies have evolved over the decades into a broader set of targeted interventions used to strengthen the generalization of improvement. As we review scientific studies in areas of cognition, we find an expanding vocabulary of neurological functions with a further breaking down of how researchers think these various functions work together and develop. What we find, however, is that the underlying premises upon which NACD was founded continue to be supported by this research into the structures of the brain.
The NACD Model
The NACD model of cognitive function recognizes various components of thinking and learning. Of all of these functions, working memory, including executive function, encompasses the areas that impact simple and complex behavior regulation and problem solving the most. The development of various parts of executive function appears to be a good indicator of future academic success, as well as future life success. Mathematics, reading, and critical thinking are all affected by how well various components of executive function develop and work.
Not only do these neurological functions impact academics, but NACD and researchers also find that they impact social skills, job skills, and the skills needed for a child or adult to navigate daily life independently. Time management, time awareness, goal setting and planning, organizational skills, social awareness, financial planning, running a household, writing a research paper, writing a paragraph, and forming thoughts into conversation are all functions that depend on this higher cognitive level referred to as working memory and executive function. Decades ago, Robert Doman realized that as these higher-level cognitive functions improved, it resulted in generalized functional improvement in the individual. As we investigate specific components of cognition, we need to keep in mind that the scientific community, as well as the NACD staff, is continuing to learn and explore how these various components affect each other.
A key component related to behavior and attention is inhibition. This ability to self-regulate is believed to start to develop in young children as an independent cognitive function that is later a part of working memory. Inhibition refers to the ability to stop a previously learned response or an impulsive response. An example of this might be a child stopping an action they were about to do in response to a parent saying, “no” or “don’t touch.” This very early level of inhibition is not yet working memory developing, but rather the development of inhibition as a separate function. When we think of very young children, individuals with delayed processing, and some individuals with sensory processing difficulties, we see that there is frequently a great deal of impulsivity and lack of sustained attention. Inhibition is the ability to stop that immediate, impulsive response, whether it means not grabbing something that you want or not throwing an object that you are not permitted to throw.
In children the ability to inhibit behavior that would cause errors is based on the strength of their “rule systems”(Zelazo et al 2003). The strength of these neurological processes determines a child’s ability to follow classroom rules, not run away from a parent in public, not scream when frustrated, not get up in the middle of a task or eat off of someone else’s plate. In adults inhibition at a higher level of complexity prevents the adult from failing to complete work tasks, spending the day on social media instead of doing assigned work, or even avoiding watching television when there is housework that needs to be done. Progress in inhibition continues into adulthood. Unlike children, adults become increasingly aware of their errors or inhibition failures. Adults will even slow down the pace of a timed task when they become aware of increased errors (Hogan, Vargha-Khadem, Kirkham, Baldeweg 2005).
Several decades ago NACD developed software and other targeted interventions to engage short-term memory and inhibition, as well as other executive functions. These activities continue to be expanded to include greater levels of varied cognitive functions. From intensity activities to higher level working memory capacity activities, the Simply Smarter System pushes the individual’s inhibition function as well as working memory. Studies have shown that specific computer-based tasks appear to have functional generalization, even with teens and adults, whereas some other forms of inhibition and working memory tasks did not generalize as well (Holmes, Gathercole, Dunning 2009, Klingberg et al 2005, Kraback, Kray2009). Working memory training that demanded a high level of working memory, according to Constantinidis and Klingberg (2016), improved functional conductivity between specific areas of the brain. This improved conductivity is believed to be the basis of plasticity, according to these researchers.
We know that inhibition becomes more complex when we add new rules and more required responses (Best, Miller 2010). Switching, which will be discussed further, and adding more rules to tasks work inhibition as well as other executive function skills (Miyake et al 2000). NACD discovered this several decades ago and added layers and levels of conflicting rules and added required manipulation of short-term memory information that rigorously works this part of cognitive function. In these activities, which are part of the Simply Smarter System, we are asking the individual to set aside, or inhibit, the first set of rules for an activity and apply a set of new rules. This requires greater inhibition and retention of a larger body of information, which is then being applied to specific sets of short-term memory storage. So as we add greater complexity to the inhibition tasks, we call on greater cognitive function (D’Esposito, Postle, Ballard, Lease 1999).
Working Memory & Executive Function
As the brain becomes better able to handle this greater level of complexity, how it functions changes. Studies have shown that as individuals become better able to complete these more complex tasks, the brain becomes more localized, or specific, in how it functions. In other words, as the brain is developing, it first tends to activate larger areas when trying to complete a specific task or respond to specific input. As the brain becomes more adept at completing more complex tasks, it begins to be able to localize the very specific areas of the brain needed to complete those tasks. The brain quite simply becomes more efficient. (Morton, Bosma and Ansari 2009).
NACD has dedicated many targeted activities to working memory due to its enormous neurological role. According to Robert Doman, “Working memory is the foundation for global neurological maturity and function.” It essentially encompasses most of what we think of as “thinking.” Working memory is what we use to put together relationships between new information and previously known information in new and novel ways. It is what we use not only to understand language spoken to us, or language we read, but also to combine our own thoughts into logical units of words to communicate those thoughts to others. Working memory allows us to form limitless new thoughts by allowing new combinations of information to be formed (Oberauer 2009).
In the case of reading, the working memory loads the information in units, which are chunked or condensed for meaning. The units are broken up based on sentences. The chunks are temporarily processed by the short-term memory and then stored and manipulated in the working memory. Pronouns within the text require that the brain rehearse the previous information to locate the subject of that pronoun. At times the working memory pulls in sensory information or visualization to help solidify and support the meaning of a chunk of words (Marchetti 2014).
The executive function related to the process of holding on to relevant information and changing it as needed as new relevant information is acquired is called updating. Updating allows the working memory to keep information in an organized way if it is pertinent and dropping it if it is not. Updating also allows the working memory to replace old information with new. Higher level Simply Smarter activities, which require reorganization of information introduced in the short-term memory, address the working memory so that information is sustained for a longer period of time, allowing for better assimilation of meaning and better recall. The activities work different components of working memory and executive function.
Many people have difficulty planning and setting goals, even simple goals such as what they are doing tomorrow. This too is a working memory function. The working memory allows individuals to think about hypothetical situations and imagine the future (Hill, Emery 2013). A poorly functioning working memory results in an individual who is unable to plan for a future that the brain cannot construct. The impact this has behaviorally is enormous. Our adult lives are so dependent upon our ability to set attainable goals and foresee future obstacles. Without a strong working memory, our ability to do this would be poor.
There are also many people, both children and adults, who have little sense of the passage of time. As a result their ability to manage their responsibilities is poor. For students the strategies needed to handle a timed test or get ready for school in a timely fashion may be severely impaired. Parents complain of their children and young adults having “no sense of time.” The working memory deals with multiple issues when it comes to understanding time. In order to have a sense of time, an individual must be able to compare one length of time with another. This is done by understanding or experiencing the length of time a task or event takes and holding it in recent memory, while experiencing or understanding how long another task or event is taking. This is quite a load for the working memory capacity to handle, as it requires holding on to information about one thing while experiencing another.
In 2011 researchers Broadway and Engle found that individuals with high working memory capacity, or WMC, were, in fact, quite good at comparing relative lengths of time. The better the working memory is at holding larger amounts of information, the easier it becomes to hold the length of time of one event and compare it to the amount of time it is taking to complete another event. So if we think of individuals who appear efficient and well organized, we speak of time-management “skills,” when what we are actually talking about is high working memory capacity with components such as inhibition and updating working well.
Using Simply Smarter for Working Memory
Decades ago as Robert Doman and the NACD staff began addressing short-term and working memory, the need for these functions to be strong was obvious. The fact that working memory capacity was key to a wide variety of day-to-day functions for children and adults was demonstrated over and over again with the individuals who were evaluated. Clearly if these children and adults had limited working memory capacity, the ability to rate how long they were taking to complete a task would be unknown or at least unclear to them. The reprimands of parents and teachers, of employers and co-workers would not be able to improve their function in this area. Broadway and Engle found that individuals with low working memory capacity found it difficult to judge relative times and were often inaccurate when they tried to do so. Many of the Simply Smarter System activities challenge working memory capacity in various ways. All effort has been made to ensure that the activities are not compromised, allowing the brain to turn them into simplistic memory tasks. They have been refined again and again to address the WMC efficiently and effectively.
This is certainly not all that the working memory controls. If you have ever wondered why some people have such an excellent ability to find their way to places with ease and other people get lost quickly, we must again look at the working memory capacity. Those who are excellent at finding their way and recalling a route are using both their visual spatial memory and their verbal working memory. The better those functions work, the more accurate the individuals are at finding their way (Weisberg, Newcombe 2016). Visual spatial activities are a part of the Simply Smarter System’s varied activities designed to address the many components of working memory.
All of the Simply Smarter activities progress to a level that engages the working memory, and the later activities go further in pushing the executive function and full working memory capacity. Some the activities do so by changing visual spatial input and asking for retention of more and more complex information. Some of the activities require reversing input, given visual or auditory input, or a combination of the two. Others require even more complex reorganizing of the information being given. Many of them require a function referred to as switching or shifting. Switching requires that previously used “rules” be set aside so that new rules can be applied in specific situations. This process also requires the use of inhibition to block the old information or rules. Shifting also requires outside information to prompt the shift, which, in the case of Simply Smarter, is triggered by a change within the activity or the introduction of a new activity. These activities each vary in difficulty based on a system that responds to the user’s performance, thereby consistently challenging the individual to use more of his or her working memory capacity, as well as greater levels of executive function.
Research points clearly to the importance of the development of strong working memory and executive function. As research continues to define how various neurological systems develop, work, and function together, we will continue to unravel how these systems impact the day-to-day life of all individuals. We continue to improve our understanding of how the brain responds to stimulation using working memory, short-term memory and visual spatial memory to hold on to and manipulate information, as well as inhibition, updating, and switching to handle new challenges. Simply Smarter is designed to work many different components of cognitive function in a way that continues to engage and challenge all of these areas.
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