LD Expert Podcast - Episode #55
How Processing Skills Impact Behavior and Attention - Jill Stowell
Jill Stowell: Have you ever tried doing a DIY construction project? If so, you might have found that you didn’t really have the right tools for the job. So, you used a less effective tool and maybe cut some corners or used workarounds. If you’re like me, these projects end up taking much longer than expected and with an end product that doesn’t nearly reflect the effort you put in.
This is something that our struggling students experience all the time. They’re trying to perform socially or in school without the right tools - in this case certain critical processing skills that are needed for ease in learning and paying attention.
Welcome to the LD Expert Podcast, your place for answers and solutions for dyslexia and learning differences.
Today, we’re discussing processing skills and their impact on behavior and attention.
I’m your host, Jill Stowell, founder and executive director of Stowell Learning Centers and author of Take the Stone Out of the Shoe, A Must-Have Guide to Understanding, Supporting, and Correcting Dyslexia, Learning, and Attention Challenges.
At Stowell Learning Centers, we work with children and families like yours - helping parents understand what’s going on when bright students struggle in school and what can be done to change that permanently, and we understand that having a child with dyslexia or a learning challenge can be very lonely for a parent. You feel like you’re the only one whose child is struggling and you don’t know who to talk to. This podcast is for you. We’ll equip you with knowledge and practical tools for understanding and helping your child. If this episode brings up any questions for you, go to stowellcenter.com and give us a call.
A homeschool mom shared with me once that her teenage son was bright and willing, but getting increasingly frustrated and depressed over his struggles with schoolwork.
She said, “I feel like I’m asking him to dig a hole, but don’t know what kind of shovel to give him.”
My husband is fond of saying, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” But the bottom line is that even though a hammer may be an excellent tool, it isn’t the right tool for all jobs.
There are many underlying processing skills that are needed to learn comfortably and efficiently. These are a student’s learning tools. If any of these underlying skills are underdeveloped or inefficient, it will stress the attention system, and impact behavior, and cause learning to be harder than it should be.
Struggling learners tend to have a pattern of real strengths and weaknesses in their underlying skills, and this causes them to over-rely on their strengths.
A student with a weak ability to think about the sound in words (phonemic awareness) may be dependent upon his memorized vocabulary for reading. Because he can’t sound out unfamiliar words, his reading may be inaccurate or slow because he has to reread over and over in order to figure out the words. This student may look like he has an attention or motivation problem because he avoids or gets distracted on reading tasks.
A student with good verbal skills but weak ability to get information from their head to the paper, may chat with neighbors instead of doing their work, or put excessive energy into talking their way out of things.
A student with weak language comprehension may rely on rote memory to write down everything the teacher says, or memorize her study guide exactly, so she ends up with very dense and unhelpful set of notes and then poor test scores, because questions phrased differently than the study guide will seem like completely different information. The poor test scores may make the teacher think the student isn’t studying or paying attention, when in fact, the student put a great deal of time in. This is an underlying skills problem - not a problem with laziness or lack of effort or attention.
Having the right tools always makes the job easier. In the case of students, these are “mental tools” or processing skills.
I have a colleague who is a neurologist and he just laughs at me when I use the term processing skills. He says, “processing is what the brain does - it encompasses everything!”
Well, we look at processing skills as a group of skills essential to learning that aren’t really taught, but are assumed to be in place. These are skills like memory, attention, auditory, visual, and language processing, logic and reasoning, and processing speed. These skills impact each other and if any are weak or inefficient, it will cause the person to have to work harder or longer than expected.
Students who experience learning challenges, including dyslexia and other learning disabilities, usually have areas of inefficient processing which are interrupting expected academic development. In order to make real changes in their learning, we need to explore the underlying skills that are so critical to that academic and social success.
Attention and memory are bottom line learning skills. They’re like the brain's receptionist for information. If a child can't focus long enough to let the information in, or if he doesn't have a way to hold on to it, there will be interference to all further learning.
Memory and attention are highly dependent on each other. You may feel like you have a really good memory skills, but if your attention is drifting in and out, or if you’re confused about the information, you’ll have trouble remembering it.
Working memory, the ability to hold information in order to work with it or store it, along with attention focus, are key ingredients to processing speed.
And of course the way the brain perceives and thinks about information that is heard or seen - which is what is called auditory and visual processing - impacts how clear and accurate the message that we’re receiving is. It’s really difficult to remember or pay attention to something that is unclear or confusing.
These processing skills are skills that every brain needs in order to learn and function at our highest potential, but weaknesses in any of these areas can affect students differently.
Tyler was a good student and a good football player. He was being looked at, in fact, by scouts from Ivy League colleges. But his SAT scores were pretty poor and he was afraid they would keep him out of the college he wanted to attend.
Tyler went to a colleague of mine in Texas for help. After completing a 12-week course in cognitive processing skills training, his SAT scores improved by 200 points!
The SAT is as much about knowing how to think quickly, problem solve, evaluate, and apply knowledge as it is about knowing facts and material. Students who do well on the SAT must be able to rapidly make good decisions so they can quickly spot and answer easier questions, leaving more time for the tougher ones.
For Tyler, as with many other college-bound students, the stress and length of the test was enough to compromise his performance. After completing the program of processing skills training, though, Tyler had the speed and the confidence to overcome those challenges.
Jessica, a high school junior, was an A student in advanced placement (or AP) classes. In spite of being a top performer, she had extreme test anxiety that had to be managed with a prescription medication. Her parents really wanted to get her off the medication, but Jessica was afraid to because she “didn’t want to screw up her classes.”
Jessica enrolled in an intensive processing skills training program over the summer to boost critical underlying skills for confident, efficient learning including auditory and visual processing, short and long term memory, processing speed, attention, logic and reasoning, visualization, and association. So all those foundational skills that academic learning sits on. Many of the activities are done to the beat of a metronome, which enhances processing speed, attention, internal organization, and quick decision-making. For Jessica, activities were worked on at such a fast pace that she couldn’t afford to split her mental energy with anxiousness.
When she went into AP Calculus the following September, she began scoring higher than anyone else in her class on her tests.
Jessica attributed her success to her intensive cognitive training. We know it gave her a really solid foundation of skills to think and learn with. And it showed her that she could perform without anxiety and gave her the skills to hold on to numbers and formulas in her head. And she was able to get off of her anxiety medication!
As the Boomer and Gen X generations age, awareness of brain health has dramatically increased. Several outstanding books have been written by medical doctors who outline steps for maintaining mental sharpness and treating and preventing neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, stroke, and Parkinson’s. The steps consistently include:
- Meditation or relaxation exercises, and
- Brain Training
The brain is a powerful resource. At any age, we can stimulate our cognitive skills for more efficient thinking and functioning, which I think is pretty exciting!
Our brain training or processing skills programs don’t look anything like school, which is really nice for our students. There are all different kinds of games, and drills, and activities that improve attention, regulation, and cross-train a variety of processing skills.
So, just for fun, I’m going to give you an example of a memory training exercise that also improves concentration and mental flexibility.
So I’m going to say some letters and numbers. I want you to picture them and hear them in your mind. I will tell you to count backwards from a given number. And then you need to say or write the numbers in numerical order followed by the letters in alphabetical order. Are you ready?
Now count backwards from 81 until I tell you to stop. 81-80-79-78-77-76-75-74-73
Now say the numbers followed by the letters in numerical and alphabetical order.
If you’re saying, “Ha! That was easy!” imagine doing five of these in a row, or doing it with 5 or 6 digits. Processing skills training works at a challenging level for the individual student because things that stretch us will make the most change in the brain.
We’re going to put some good resources for further information on brain health in the show notes for you.
We’ll also put a link to our summer intensive program information, as working intensively is a good way to improve processing skills rapidly.
Next week, we’re talking with Academic and Life Coaches Natalie Borrell and Alison Grant about procrastination, executive function, and strategies for parents and teens.
At Stowell Learning Centers, we help children and adults eliminate struggles associated with dyslexia and learning differences. We want to make this journey easier for you. Connect with us on social media and on our website, stowellcenter.com, for information and free resources.
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