Brain Training for Kids?

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You've heard about brain training for the elderly - but what about for your rambunctious child? A growing body of evidence shows there's something to cognitive training for the younger set.

Janet Weller’s oldest son was a smart kid and a great reader, yet he still struggled with spelling, writing and grammar. She suspected he also had some auditory processing issues but since they homeschooled she was able to focus on his strengths, encouraging verbal response instead of written work, to get results.

“Handwriting for any length of time resulted in tears,” Weller says. “Typing wasn’t really a favorite thing either. We sought tutors and did some home therapies, but I wasn’t seeing many results.”

Spelling words and concepts took constant review to finally stick months or even a year later, and when Weller’s son was in third grade, he was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia. At first she tried tackling it herself, incorporating home diagnostic therapies including those taught by education professional Dianne Craft.

Then Weller heard about the Brain Balance brain training program a few months before the center opened its Franklin location. Intrigued by the center’s approach of tackling root issues, she enrolled her son by the spring of his fourth grade year.

Within weeks, she saw improvement in not just his school work, but all areas of his life from sports to the dinner table.

“A few months later when summer began, we continued our usual spelling review,” she says. “I started noticing that he wasn’t missing any words. As the weeks progressed and I went back to older and older words, he was getting almost all of them correct. Things were sticking, finally.”

Training helps attention, memory, studies

The concept behind brain training is that a range of cognitive abilities can be improved through various mental and physical activities, with the results boosted by the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to change. Basically, by playing games people can learn faster, become more alert and process information better.

But even the idea that the brain can grow and change over the years is a far cry from the long-held belief that the muscle remained largely unchanged once childhood development was over. Chiropractic neurologist Doug Long, owner of the Franklin Brain Balance Center, believes the brain is malleable, able to be improved upon through brain training’s mental and physical challenges.

“The idea that our brain is changeable hasn’t been very well accepted, except in the last 20 or 30 years,” he says. “We always thought your brain is your brain and you’re stuck with it, that everything else in your body has the chance of improving, but not your brain. Well, it turns out we were wrong. Your brain can be trained, just like anything else.”

Long says many children can see benefits from brain training, including those having issues with dyslexia or ADHD, or those who simply need a daily reminder to do homework or can never remember where they put their shoes.

“Our brains tend to do things in an inefficient way, so if I’m sitting in a classroom and I’m trying to listen to a teacher, write notes and possibly be flipping through pages in a book all at once, it’s easy to get lost, especially for some kids,” Long says. “You can practice those things and unlearn the bad ways and learn the right ways for these neurological processes to occur.”

Blame memory, not misbehavior

Adam Butler, co-owner of LearningRX in Murfreesboro and Brentwood with his wife Bridgette, believes when children don’t follow through on tasks it is not a matter of misbehavior, but memory. After all, most adults can relate to walking into a room only to forget the reason they entered in the first place. This foggy phenomenon happens to children, too, and perhaps even more frequently.

“When they walk into their room and forget, they may play with toys until they remember why they are there,” he says. “The next thing you know you’re frustrated with them because they haven’t accomplished the task that you asked.”

Butler says training can help improve a child’s memory as well as processing speed, logic, reasoning and attention. That will then translate through into cleaner schoolwork, improved play and all other parts of life.

“As a society, we don’t pay attention for long periods of time,” he says. “We really have become easily distracted. As soon as our phone buzzes, we’re reaching for it. For kids, classrooms are an incredibly distracting environment. There are lots of other kids around, people walking up and down the hallway talking. A lot of the time, attention struggles go hand in hand with memory struggles.”

Time commitment

Change doesn’t come quickly. Weller says she and her son visited the Brain Balance center three times a week for a one-hour session for three months, then at home they worked on core exercises and primitive reflexes for about 45 minutes a day, five days a week.

“It was what they told us it would be like,” Weller says of the time devoted to brain training exercises.

Long says to think about the effort like you would getting your body in shape — putting in the minimum will yield some good, but the real results come from some serious mental sweat.

“You can exercise once a week and maybe get some benefit for your body, but if you really want to get in shape you have to eat right and do a little something several days a week,” Long says. “In our program, we usually try to get people into our center three times a week and then the days in between we try and get them doing a few little things at home.”

Bridgette Butler says the experience of training the brain at LearningRX is similar to working with a personal trainer, with each exercise capable of being done at various levels to meet the person where they are cognitively, then build strength from there.

“The procedures are very intensive, but they’re also very fun,” she says. “The way in which we train, being one on one, it allows us to individualize the procedures. We’re always pushing just a little higher, as the cognitive skills grow. If somebody reaches a block, we can work at that stop for a bit and then push them on from there. As we do these individualized and intensive procedures, we are growing and really changing the brain. You really do end up feeling a mental sweat.”

Adam Butler says most people at LearningRX train on average four-and-a-half to five hours a week between four and seven months, but after that the improved cognitive skills are naturally strengthened through the course of living.

“They’re using them when they’re driving,” he says. “They’re using them when they’re on the baseball field or on the soccer field and in class. When you strengthen those cognitive skills you have upgraded their tools. They went from doing a job with a manual screwdriver to a power drill. Things are easier, they’re faster — they’re just more efficient in the things that they’re doing.”

Does it deliver?

Not all people will react the same way to the various exercises, with variables ranging from initial diagnosis to age. And according to a 2014 statement released by the Stanford University Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development, there is no solid scientific evidence that the use of software-based brain games alters neural functioning in ways that improve general cognitive performance in everyday life.

But it certainly worked for Weller’s family. Within a couple weeks at Brain Balance Weller says her son showed big improvements in his quality of life. Within six weeks his handwriting had become smaller and more controlled, and he was able to play sports better. He became more willing to try new foods and would respond when his parents called him home instead of relying on a nudge from his friends when he was distracted.

In fact, Weller is so happy with the outcome she has enrolled her son currently in second grade to start in the spring.

“My oldest is still dyslexic, but his work with Brain Balance leveled the playing field for him,” Weller says. “There was a lot going on in his head and body that was making learning a challenge. Those issues were all knocked out, boosting my son up to a whole new level of learning.”

Long says early intervention can be key in keeping kids on track at school, so showing interest in their progress can help even if brain training is not the magic bullet.

“A lot of times these things don’t get better on their own,” he says. “In fact, a lot of times our brains work a way around the problem so we get by, but it doesn’t solve the problem. We can cope, but it’s always going to kind of hold us back in some way or another. But little compensation tricks that worked in the fourth grade might not in the seventh grade.”

Hollie Deese is a local freelance writer and the mom of two boys.

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