There’s been a ton of research on the impact of working memory: its importance in learning, its effect on math skills, and its relationship to other mental abilities. Yesterday’s entry on The Wild Side discusses working memory’s relationship with IQ. It’s been shown that adults can improve working memory with training, and training has even been shown to work for kids as young as seven.
There are clearly tremendous benefits to working memory (and at least one down side). A related mental function, inhibitory control, is also a key to many cognitive abilities. But if working memory training works for adults and school-age kids, could it also help even younger kids? What about inhibitory control?
A team led by Lisa Thorell trained 35 4- and 5-year-olds on either working memory or inhibitory control for 15 minutes a day for five weeks. For working memory, kids saw objects appearing on a computer screen and had to click in the proper order and location they appeared in. The difficulty of the task gradually increased over the weeks. For inhibitory control, the preschoolers were trained on five different tasks, including the SART we’ve discussed recently. Here’s their progress on two of the tasks over the course of the training:
These graphs show that there were significant gains, both in working memory and the go/no go task (which was similar to the the SART task). In fact, the preschoolers improved in all the tasks they were trained on. But does the improvement in these tasks carry over to other abilities?
For those trained in inhibition control, there wasn’t much improvement in other tasks like working memory and problem-solving. But for working memory, modest gains were found. The kids were trained on visual working memory, but their working memory for words improved too, from an average of 3.25 words to 4.25 words. There were smaller improvements in performance on the Stroop task, problem-solving, and also the go/no go task that the other preschoolers were trained on.
Two control groups, one who played an unrelated game each day, and another who only took the pre- and post-tests, showed no gains.
The researchers say this shows that training in working memory can have significant effects in other cognitive skills, even in four- and five-year-olds. Since improving working memory has been shown to reduce symptoms of ADHD in older kids, they say their short training program might also be effective for preschoolers.
Thorell, L., Lindqvist, S., Bergman Nutley, S., Bohlin, G., & Klingberg, T. (2009). Training and transfer effects of executive functions in preschool children Developmental Science, 12 (1), 106-113 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00745.x