Middle School KidsGrowing up in poverty can negatively affect academic development, limiting language, learning, and attention. Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) investigated whether a cognitive training program could help bridge the academic gap between children in different socioeconomic strata. The findings show that cognitive training can help children from impoverished homes improve their abstract reasoning skills and their ability to remember facts.

The researchers tested a cognitive training program called Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART), deploying it at public middle schools. Over 900 seventh and eighth grade students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds participated in the research—556 received the SMART cognitive intervention and 357 acted as a control group. All of the students completed assessments before and after the one-month study period. For the assessments, the students read several texts and wrote a summary. This required the students to make inferences and recall facts about the reading.

The SMART intervention consisted of 10 45-minute sessions. During these sessions, students completed interactive group exercises and pen-and-paper activities. The program is targeted to improve students’ hierarchical cognitive processes.

All of the students participating in SMART demonstrated cognitive gains, but the students from impoverished backgrounds improved the most. The researchers evaluated the students’ gist reasoning skills, or the ability to derive abstracted meaning from information. Students from impoverished households improved as much as 25 in gist reasoning compared to students living above the poverty line. The SMART students, regardless of socioeconomic status, had generalized gains of up to 18 percent and demonstrated increased memory for facts, although memory for facts was not a specific goal of the program.

In contrast to most research that focuses on early childhood interventions, Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino, director of the Center for Brain Health’s Adolescent Reasoning Initiative and assistant professor at the UT Dallas, explains that middle school is an appropriate time for cognitive training. “Existing studies show that a large percentage of students in middle school are not developing inferential thinking entering high school. The cognitive gains demonstrated after short-term, intensive training in this research suggest that middle school is an appropriate and beneficial time to teach students strategies to enhance understanding and the ability to infer global meanings from information beyond the explicit facts.”

This research is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

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