Cognitive Skills Development in an Accelerated Curriculum – by Betsy Hill

April 10, 2014

Much of our work has dealt with helping struggling students — those who are behind or have identified cognitive deficits — but it is important to remember that very bright students can also benefit from developing their cognitive skills and executive functions.  Here’s a story that explains what this can look like:

Dr. Sara Fraser, a clinical psychologist and Director of Students Services at Curtis School in Los Angeles, California, had been following the literature on executive functions for some time before she encountered BrainWare SAFARI at a Leaning and the Brain Conference in 2012. What she had seen up until that point was not all that encouraging – training on working memory that didn’t seem to transfer beyond short-term memory. It was also labor-intensive and would require a pull-out approach in their school setting.

What appealed to Dr. Fraser about BrainWare SAFARI was that its video-game format would appeal to their students, that it was supported by research showing that the breadth of cognitive skills developed meant that they could expect to see transfer to academic tasks, and that it could be implemented by teachers within the classroom.

The next step was to bring some teachers into the process – enter Joan Cashel and Susie Sobul, two of Curtis School’s third-grade teachers. Following a webinar demonstration, both teachers used BrainWare SAFARI themselves over the summer, with Joan finishing all but a few levels (we’re impressed!). An implementation webinar in the fall prepared them to kick things off with their students, which they did by reading Your Fantastic Elastic Brain and talking about brains as a learning muscle. The students heard that getting better at something means going for the sense of frustration that is inevitable when you’re moving up a learning curve.

Later, students would get the opportunity to learn that lesson at a deeper level. After building confidence as they passed the early, easiest levels of BrainWare, they would each find an area that was truly difficult for them. Joan found it fascinating to see some of her students easily complete levels she had struggled with and struggling with others.

Knowing that it was important that their students move around through the different games and taking to heart the admonition in their implementation webinar not to let students avoid the hardest games*, Susie and Joan had a timer running on their SmarBoard to help students switch games every ten minutes and came up with a chart that let the students plan and keep track of their own progress and. During each of their thrice-weekly sessions, students would pick one of the Key 5, and then ensure that they rotated through all the other games before repeating. The students used the program over 14 weeks, completing 30 or more sessions, the kind of usage that has been shown to drive substantial growth in cognitive skills.

A second cohort of students is using BrainWare SAFARI during the second half of the year. While the school won’t see the data on impact on student’s cognitive and academic skills until the end of the school year, a couple of things already apparent. First, the students started talking with each other outside of class … “How far did you get?” “Isn’t it fun?” The program became a real conversation piece. The other observation relates to the fact that the Curtis School offers an accelerated curriculum and serves high-level learners. As Dr. Fraser explains, many of those students haven’t experienced much in the way of frustration by the time they get to third grade. Giving students the experience of something where everyone gets challenged and learns to understand and tolerate frustration as a part of learning, has been, in her words, “incredibly helpful.”

Congratulations to all the third grade students at Curtis School for working hard at BrainWare SAFARI (and it’s ok if you think its fun!), and for learning that vital lesson – that challenge and frustration are essential in learning, and that persistence is key to accomplishing their goals.

Closing the Achievement Gaps: The Need for a Cognitive Intervention

March 29, 2014

Despite great effort, the achievement gaps in education persist. While some progress has been made increasing the percentage of students performing at grade level in reading and math, the national average is only about 35% for 3rd graders. That’s one big gap. And the gaps are even bigger for historically low-performing students – students who are economically disadvantaged, students with learning disabilities, and English Language Learners.

Here is what some recent research suggests about these populations and the potential to make dramatic, rather than incremental, strides in raising performance levels.

Economically Disadvantaged Students

The gap for economically disadvantaged students is not just an achievement gap; it is a cognitive gap. Low-SES (socioeconomic status) students have less well developed cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts. This impacts their ability to visualize and see patterns, to manage spatial relationships and sequence, to control the focus of their attention, to learn and understand words, to hold and manipulate information in the mind. These cognitive skills are essential in reading and math, in particular, and in being a successful and organized student, in general.

Consider the situation of two classes of 4th and 5th grade boys, low-SES, and with a history of behavior problems. The students were tested and shown to be performing, cognitively, 3 years behind their chronological age. Understanding that these students’ minds were functioning like those of 1st and 2nd graders, what would you predict for their academic performance (and their behavior) when challenged with 4th or 5th grade work? Twelve weeks later, following a cognitive intervention, these students were performing on average 3 years ahead of their chronological age. What would you predict now for their potential for academic performance?

Students with Learning Disabilities

The gap for a large portion of students in Special Education – those with learning disabilities – is also not just an achievement gap, but a cognitive gap. Working memory, short-term memory, attention, processing speed and similar cognitive functions are what stand in the way of making adequate academic progress for these students.

A group of students in 2nd through 4th grades, identified as having specific learning disabilities, were tested and shown to be performing cognitively at just above 60% proficiency, where 90% proficiency is the level expected of a normally developing student. These students were reading at about 28% proficiency and performed in math at about 45% proficiency. Twelve weeks later, the students who received a cognitive intervention were performing at 89% proficiency cognitively, 68% proficiency in reading, and 77% proficiency in math.

ELL Students

Cognitive processes play a role in language acquisition and the ability to function in a second language. Working memory, visualization, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility are especially important.

ELL students who received a cognitive intervention in various studies accelerated gains in reading comprehension, performed better than students in a control group on state tests in reading and math, and performed better on measures of academic performance in reading, writing and math.

The cognitive intervention: BrainWare SAFARI

Learn more at


Executive Functions and Reading Comprehension – by Betsy Hill

November 4, 2013

There are varied opinions among education and neuroscience researchers regarding how many executive functions are involved in human cognitive processing, but the role that executive functions play in reading comprehension has become much clearer in recent years.  This is important to recognize for a number of reasons.  First, students with less developed executive functions struggle with comprehension, even when they are able to decode and read with fluency.  Second, practicing decoding and fluency does not automatically develop comprehension.  And third, executive functions can be developed with the right kind of mental exercise in a way that translates to rapid gains in reading comprehension.

Here are some examples of executive functions that are required for reading comprehension:

  1. Planning.  This is what we do when we read a text and are looking for specific information.
  2. Working Memory.  Working memory is the ability to hold information in our minds while we manipulate it.  In many ways, this is the essence of comprehension – the ability to think about what we are reading, while we are reading it.  The role of working memory can also be as simple as remembering the beginning of the sentence until we get to the end.
  3. Sustained and Selective Attention.  While we are reading, we need to sustain attention for an extended period of time and filter out distractions.  The ability to select the information that we are looking for (using our Planning skills) is also an aspect of Selective Attention.
  4. Response Inhibition.  This is the self-regulatory part of our cognitive processing that we put to use when we correct something we’ve misread or when we continue to bear in mind multiple possibilities until we reach the conclusion and can be sure there is no additional information that might change our understanding of the text.
  5. Sequential Processing.  Keeping the order of events in mind as we read and grasping which happened before and after are essential to reading comprehension.

Another obvious but important aspect of executive functions is that they apply to everything we do, not just reading, of course.  We have to sustain attention when listening to a weather alert on the radio.  We have to plan when we are preparing a recipe for a family dinner.  We use working memory to follow a set of verbal instructions, such as how to get to a friend’s house.  We inhibit responses when we are angry but don’t lash out.  We use sequencing skills when we organize our work.  It shouldn’t be surprising therefore that students with reading problems also commonly exhibit problems with organizing their work, following set of instructions, and staying on task.

Just how integrally executive functions are involved in reading comprehension can be appreciated by looking at some of the recent research on programs that develop executive functions.  For example, students who used BrainWare SAFARI, a comprehensive and integrated cognitive skills development program ( for 12 weeks improved their performance on the Woodcock Johnson III Passage Comprehension subtest by 1 year 11 months, compared to no change for a control group.  Ramps to Reading and SkateKids ( are reading programs that explicitly develop key cognitive skills, along with phonics and comprehension application.  They have shown a dramatic impact on the development of reading comprehension.

Our education system has gotten really good at teaching phonics and phonemic awareness and at giving students plenty of practice to develop fluency.  Now it’s time to get just as good at developing the executive functions required for the ultimate goal of reading – Comprehension.

Reality Show Test Anxiety – by Betsy Hill

June 27, 2013

I was watching one of my favorite shows – Restaurant Impossible – when I saw a textbook case reminder of one of the consequences of high-stakes testing.  First, let me say that I very much admire Robert Irvine, the star of the show and a very accomplished chef and restaurateur.  In the shows, he takes on a series of challenging restaurant makeovers.  Chef Robert comes in to a failing restaurant and turns everything upside down.  Among the changes is often retraining the servers and requiring them to better know the restaurant’s menu.  In this episode, I watched him hand out a new menu and then test the servers the next day.  He tells them that whether they keep their jobs depends on them knowing it flawlessly.  The expression on the servers’ faces took me back to high school.  The segment could have been called “The Worst Pop Quiz of Your Life.”  Taking each server in turn, Chef Robert barks out a question, “How is the Bistro Burger prepared?”  “What can you tell me about the ribs?”  “What is the sauce on the red snapper?” A few of the servers do well, but many servers stutter, hesitate, miss an ingredient … on the brink of going home.

Were they really showing what they know?  The restaurant owner decided to keep all the servers, saying she thought their performance was impacted because they were nervous.  That makes perfect sense based on what we know about stress impacting our cognitive functioning.  The situation was clearly unlikely to show them at their best.

If Irvine’s goal was to impress on the servers how seriously they must take their jobs, he may have accomplished that.  If the goal was the best, most enduring learning possible, then it may not have been the most effective approach.  Testing in a stressful environment is actually a pretty poor way to test a server.  When we are stressed, it shuts down our cognitive processes.  We literally can’t think.  That’s especially important when servers are learning – before their knowledge becomes automatic.

What might Robert have done to help those servers really LEARN the new menu?

  • Have them taste the dishes and discuss the elements.  Many restaurants, including Chef Robert on other shows, have servers taste the menu.  Tasting and discussing the ways the dish is special or different from the competition – would help create a much more powerful memory than simple memorization.
  • Pair the servers up and have them test each other.  Each time through, have them focus on the things they got wrong, until they are fluently going through the entire menu.  The key point here is not to practice the things they already know, but to repeat – over and over, as many times as needed – the ones they don’t know as well.
  • Roll play patrons ordering in a restaurant.
  • Ask each server to develop their “favorites” that they can speak about with more detail, authority – and, ideally – passion.  Consider the difference between a server who says, “the chicken fried steak is a breaded steak served with a chicken gravy,” and one who says, “that’s one of my favorites.  The steak stays so tender when it’s coated in the chef’s personal breading recipe.  And the gravy is creamy and so flavorful.  I’ve never seen any left over at the end of the night.”  Well, you get the idea. (p.s.  the quality of the food itself had better live up to the description!

Learning is the process of building and strengthening neural networks.  Stress can impair that process.  When we want to know what our students have learned, it’s important to give them an opportunity to show the depth of their understanding rather than rote recall under stress.  Food for thought.

What do you mean you’re bored? — by Betsy Hill

June 12, 2013

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal treated a familiar topic for many parents as the school year ends and summer begins – kids who say they are bored.  I was particularly interested to read about research indicating that when kids say they’re bored, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bored.  The research cited in the article suggests that kids who are bored are really in a “tense, negative state,” or “frustrated.”

That’s very consistent with what I have been observing personally in recent weeks.  When I was in Indianapolis a few weeks ago, conducting interviews with groups of middle-school students regarding their experience with BrainWare Safari (cognitive skills development software), the first thing they would say was, “It was boring.”  Then they would start to mention aspects of the games in the program that they liked.  And they would talk about which games were hard or easy.  And they talked about what they were getting out of the program (better memory, understanding science or math better).  In fact, the more they talked, the less their descriptions matched up with my idea of “boring.”

I ended up concluding that kids use the word “boring” differently than I might have when I was younger.  It doesn’t really mean, “I’m bored … there’s nothing to do.”  Rather it might mean, “It’s hard,” or “I’m frustrated.”  It might mean that they’re having a hard time getting started on it, but that it would be very engaging if they did.  And it might mean, as became clear to me in talking with the students in Indianapolis, that no one had explained to them why there were doing what they were doing.  In other word, the activity didn’t have a purpose, or a goal.  All of those feelings can be wrapped up in the simple statement, “I’m bored.”

As adults, our knee-jerk response to a child telling us they are bored is often to feel guilty.  We haven’t made the lesson interesting or the program engaging.  We haven’t provided enough fun things for them to do.  When those “I’m bored” situations arise, which they inevitably do, it’s important for us to look beneath the statement to the emotions that are really at play.  It’s also important to help our children find ways to problem-solve their way out of those negative feelings.  After all, isn’t that exactly what we have to do every day with the “boring” parts of our own jobs?

What are Cognitve Skills? — by Betsy Hill

May 31, 2013

We hear the term “cognitive skills” more frequently these days as we all become more aware that our brains perform a variety of functions critical to helping us navigate school, work, personal relationships … in fact, everything we do.  How can we start to understand what these skills are and how they relate to how successfully we interact with our world?  Here are some basics:

Cognitive Skills…are “thinking” or mental processing skills.  They allow us to take in, process, understand and apply information. Some of the important cognitive skills for learning include:

  • Attention skills.  Attention refers, in part, to the “executive control” function of our minds, for instance, the ability to focus on one input without being distracted, as well as the ability to pay attention to two activities at the same time, such as taking notes while listening to the teacher.  Good attention skills also enable us to move from one activity to another with ease and to focus on the most important information with which we are presented, for instance, to identify the key clues in a math story problem.
  • Visual/spatial processing skills.  These functions include the various skills related to processing and making sense of visual inputs.  Examples include the ability to interpret the concepts of “left” and “right,” to process a volume of visual information at a glance, and to get meaning from information received sequentially – all critical for reading.  Strong visual processing skills enable us to recognize patterns, such as in a science experiment or in analyzing a set of historical facts, and to distinguish specific features or forms from a distracting background, such as identifying a bird in a tree.
  • Auditory processing skills.  Auditory skills are similar to visual processing skills, but deal with information that is heard. These skills include the ability to distinguish differences in sounds, such as the inflection in the voice for a question versus an exclamation, as well as the ability to identify the most important sounds, just as the conductor’s tapping his baton signals the musicians to cease warming up and prepare to perform.  Good auditory processing skills allow us to learn from what we hear and follow a series of directions.
  • Sensory integration skills.  These types of skills include the ability to combine sensory skills with motor activity, such as hand-eye coordination, rhythm and timing.  These skills directly relate to our ability to use our eyes and hands together efficiently, as in writing, drawing or typing.  They also enable our visual or auditory and our attention and memory systems to work effectively and smoothly together, such as keep a mental map in mind while we listen to a set of auditory instructions.
  • Memory skills.  Memory is one of the cognitive skill areas that seems the most familiar, but it covers a spectrum of skills that may not always come to mind when we use the word.  These include the ability to manage information and retain it for different lengths of time.  Long-term memory refers to our abilities to permanently store information and retrieve it when needed, such as math facts, locker combinations or grammar rules.  A different type of long-term memory allows us to perform procedures automatically, like walking, driving a car or playing a familiar piano piece.  Working memory is the ability to hold information in the mind while performing a mental operation, such as remembering the alphabet while alphabetizing spelling words.  Short-term memory is nonconscious memory where the brain decides what information to discard or what to retain in working memory, within 1/1000 of a second.  Sequential memory refers to the ability to recall a sequence of information, in order, such as remembering the historical series of events leading up to the Revolutionary War or what happened at the beginning, the middle and the end of a story.  Memory skills also allow us to remember the relationships between bits of information and keep them straight, such as learning a foreign language or solving an algebra problem.  Memory is the essence of learning, because information that is not remembered has not been learned.
  • Thinking skills involve abilities such as logic, reasoning, problem solving, conceptual thinking and the ability to make decisions quickly.  These skills, in which information is manipulated and applied, include such processes as planning, for example, how to tackle a multi-part science experiment; concept development, such as deductive reasoning; and the ability to use thinking skills quickly to make correct decisions, such as in responding to questions on a test.

Research continues to make clear both just how important these skills are, but how we can develop them and build our capacity to learn.  One very effective tool for developing these skills is BrainWare Safari. How strong are your cognitive skills?

Thoughts on the Value of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative – by The BrainWare SAFARI Team

April 13, 2013

The BRAIN Initiative announced recently by President Barack Obama has underscored the importance of better understanding brain-behavior relationships and it holds potential for deeper knowledge of the mechanisms involved in the development of the cognitive skills involved in learning and thinking.

President Barack Obama this week announced that his 2014 budget proposal will contain $100 million in funding for a research initiative with the acronym BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), a 10-year $3 billion initiative previewed in the President’s State of the Union Address.  The purpose of BRAIN is to develop technologies to expand our understanding of how brain cells (neurons) interact to produce thought and learning.

Here are some of our thoughts:

Betsy Hill, President & COO, BrainWare SAFARI:  The BRAIN initiative has been likened to the Human Genome mapping project, but there are some important differences.  The order of proteins in the human genome can be determined and will be the same the next time you look at it.  There is a basic sequence that applies to all of us.  The principle of neuroplasticity means that the organization of our brains – the neural networks that account for learning and thought – are unique and constantly changing.  Our brains literally construct themselves.  In fact, the creation and strengthening of neural networks is the definition of learning.  It is vital that we learn more about how the brain processes, uses, stores, and retrieves such enormous quantities of information.

Roger Stark, CEO, BrainWare SAFARI:  A key to technological exploration of brain-behavior relationships will likely be the use of tools and techniques that have already been developed to impact brain function and behaviors, such as attention, working memory, visual-spatial processing, auditory processing and the integration of cognitive functions.  BrainWare SAFARI cognitive skills development software is just such a tool and has been shown in research and clinical practice to develop brain processes that enable us to take in, store, retrieve and manipulate information, the very processes the BRAIN initiative is designed to explore.  The BRAIN initiative could help explain in a much more detailed way than is currently available to exactly how key cognitive processes involved in learning and memory are developed and modified, leading to even better approaches.

Dr. Sara Sawtelle, Director of Scientific Affairs, BrainWare SAFARI:  We know that the brain develops in interaction with our environment.  BrainWare Safari helps the brain interact with the environment (in this case a software program, in a video-game format) in a way that develops cognitive processes critical for learning and thinking.  This could be a valuable tool in helping researchers working in the BRAIN initiative to examine how the brain develops and uses these key processes.  We look forward to collaborating with researchers on this exciting initiative with so much promise for our entire society.

What are your thoughts about the President’s BRAIN initiative?


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