If your kids are struggling at school, a bit of brain training may make life easier. Karen Iley dusts off her cells for a session with The Brain & Learning programme.
The brain is like a muscle. I know this because I can feel it throbbing. I’ve just completed a cognitive skills assessment – 45 minutes of sheer mental sweat, fathoming out patterns and sequences, remembering facts from pictures and stories, spelling made up words and the like. It’s pretty draining, and as I cool my forehead on my desk, my colleagues look at me as if I’m ill.
Why have I put myself through this? Apart from being nosy, I’m assessing my brain to find out where my mental strengths and weaknesses lie. The results, which measure everything from processing speed to my logic and reasoning skills, reveal that my memory is questionable (it’s true – I’m incapable of leaving the house without having to return for my mobile phone, keys and/or sunglasses) and that my attention span, particularly when it comes to staying focused under pressure, needs work. Mercifully, given my job, my ability to understand the spoken word and my logic and reasoning skills are above average.
This isn’t just a fascinating exercise. It’s the start of a rather complex process at The Brain and Learning – a programme designed to whip brains into shape. For children struggling at school – who may have problems reading or difficulty concentrating in class or while doing homework – it’s a real boon, helping pinpoint weaker areas of the brain and training them up, much like a personal trainer strengthens the body.
Take 11-year-old Mackenzie Spinks, who I meet just over half-way through her intensive 13-week programme. Clearly very bright, she talks nineteen to the dozen, is quick, keen and very funny. But her mum, Jill, is concerned because, while she sails through other subjects at school, she’s having a tough time in maths. ‘It just doesn’t come easily,’ Jill explains. ‘Mackenzie is articulate, bright and charismatic and she works so hard, but in maths she just doesn’t do that well.’
Her cognitive test had showed she was streets ahead of her peers in many respects (the test ranks kids against a huge US database of other kids the same age), but had issues with visual memory, logic and reasoning and processing speed. In short, she was so impulsive, she would often sacrifice accuracy for speed.
‘Maths is all about working memory,’ explains Simmi Chanda, Mackenzie’s personal ‘brain trainer’. ‘You need to remember instructions and hold information in your head, for example, when you carry over a figure. That was an issue for Mackenzie.’
Her mum agrees. ‘Mackenzie would do the work and be on the right track, but then something would get lost in translation, she’d get the wrong answer and become frustrated.’
Simmi is taking Mackenzie through a tailor-made course designed to correct these weaknesses and help her use her natural strengths. As I join in, Mackenzie is working on developing her processing speed, attention and maths computation. She picks two numbers between one and nine, the first she’ll circle on two grids of numbers, the second she’ll cross out, while the same time counting to the beat of a metronome. Oh, and she’s timed to see how quickly she can complete the task. Sounds tricky? It is (it’s the whole patting your head and rubbing your tummy combo taken to the next level). ‘The first time I tried it, I took 16 seconds to circle just two numbers, but now I’m so much quicker,’ she explains. ‘I still find it difficult when the metronome is going really, really slowly and I’m trying to find the numbers fast!’ Exercises like these reveal some interesting brain quirks and help the trainers hone in on problem areas. ‘We identify weak areas which are then targeted using the latest cognitive and neuroscientific techniques,’ says director Pouneh Roney.
A former teacher, Pouneh saw that many young learners were left behind or failed to reach their full potential. Wanting to understand the root cause of academic difficulties, and believing that intelligence is not only about who is clever and who is not, she took a Masters in Mind, Brain and Education at Harvard. ‘Intelligence is fluid, and we can improve it by training it. The brain is like a muscle – it needs exercising to perform at its best, and we can help anyone who wants to learn, read, and think faster and easier.’
Mackenzie has now ‘graduated’ and is already seeing improvements. ‘We’re definitely happy with the programme,’ says Jill. ‘I can’t say how much is down to brain training, but Mackenzie is certainly working hard on her maths and she’s reached a point where she’s getting it – the lightbulb has switched on.’ The commitment in terms of both time and money has been huge. Mackenzie has been brain training for an hour a day, five days a week for 13 weeks. It’s hit her social life – and that of her family – pretty hard, but, says Jill, that’s all part of the programme. ‘Whether it was the actual brain training or the ritual of going to something every day, working hard and concentrating for an hour a day, I don’t know,’ she says. ‘But Mackenzie is definitely able to focus, concentrate and work harder for a longer period of time.’
Cognitive assessment costs Dhs300, sessions cost Dhs230 per hour or Dhs16,560 for a 72-hour course. For more information, visit www.thebrainandlearning.com, 04 453 4170