The brain fitness industry is a booming billion dollar business that seems to grow bigger every day with a new tea or tonic, game or gizmo that promises a better brain. Brain training tops the list of programs actually proven to provide powerful improvement. Research now shows that certain types of brain training can reduce or eliminate learning struggles, including those associated with ADHD, dyslexia and certain degrees of autism. When used at home, some exercises based on brain training can give your kids a jump start on school and may even help prevent learning struggles.

What exactly is brain training? Think of it as exercise for the brain. Just as physical exercise strengthens physical muscles, mental exercise strengthens the underlying cognitive skills, or mental muscles, that we all need to reason, think, remember, read, learn and pay attention.

“The most effective brain training requires intensity, increasing complexity and immediate one-on-one human feedback,” says Dr. Ken Gibson, author of Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake Up the Smart in Your Child (LearningRx). “Dramatic changes are possible, because the training forces the brain to grow more synapses, and that makes it work faster and more efficiently.”

Nine-year-old Tripp Bell got phenomenal results with a 24-week brain training program. Tripp was diagnosed with ADHD and several other learning disorders, but was able to move out of special needs programs after training. “His therapists told me they’ve never seen such a drastic change in anyone,” says Tripp’s mother Amie Bell. “Now he’s independent, focused, and can do his schoolwork and his homework on his own. Best of all he’s confident, he’s smiling and he feels smart.”

This type of intense, one-on-one brain training is the focus of a National Science Foundation study led by Virginia State University psychology chair Dr. Oliver Hill, Jr. It’s a follow-up to recent studies that show six months of personalized training with one acclaimed brain training methodology resulted in average gains of 15 IQ points.
“This approach has the potential to revolutionize education,” Hill testified before a congressional subcommittee. “We think this addresses one of the primary developmental problems that block success in mathematics and science classes— weak cognitive skills.”

Dr. Gibson agrees. “Strengthening those skills early is key,” he says. “By helping children build skills like attention, memory, comprehension, and logic and reasoning even before school years, parents can actually increase the chance of academic success and likely life success.”

These easy and entertaining exercises require little investment other than time, and give your child a boost on strengthening critical skills.

  • Talk to your baby. It’s widely reported that some researchers believe the number of words an infant hears each day is the single most important predictor of later intelligence, school success and social competence. A particular study reviewed the number of words infants heard in an average day. Results from the study showed that the group of infants that heard the least daily words before the age of 2 lagged behind the other infants. The differences in academic success remained through elementary school. Further studies conclude the words need to come from a present and engaged person. Listening to entertainment from Baby Einstein and watching Dora the Explorer doesn’t count.
  • Use a stopwatch. Nearly any type of mental activity can become a brain workout if you add a timing component. To strengthen executive processing speed, start by timing your child during an age-appropriate mental task, such as tying his shoes, finishing a puzzle or completing a set of math problems. If it takes one minute the first time to finish the task, challenge your child to finish it in 55 seconds, then 50 seconds and so forth on subsequent tries. For a neat twist that also strengthens attention skills, throw in another component like challenging your child to complete the task in a shorter time frame while you try to distract him.
  • Rhyme all the time. Well, you need not rhyme all the time, but do it often. Rhyming forces the dissection of sounds and helps grow phonemic awareness, which is the ability to blend, separate and manipulate sounds in a word. The importance of this skill became obvious in the largest ever grouping of studies on reading struggles. In the ten-year effort by the Institute of Health, 130 studies identified a single weak cognitive skill as the cause of 88 percent of learning-to-read problems. That skill is phonemic awareness. To begin witnessing the wonders of rhyme, say a word and take turns with your child finding new words that rhyme with it. For older kids, put your minds together to create goofy rhyming lyrics to favorite songs.

While exercises based on games may be enough to give your child a brain boost, more intervention may be necessary if your child is already struggling. If learning delays are obvious or diagnosed consider getting your child’s cognitive skills tested. And don’t spend another dime on brain products until you determine if a cognitive weakness is causing the problem.

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