The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to better understand and address mental health in more effective ways.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges to students, educators, and parents. Children already coping with mental health conditions have been especially vulnerable to the changes, and now we are learning about the broad impacts on students as a result of schools being closed, physically distancing guidelines and isolation, and other unexpected changes to their lives.”
As early as June 2020, if not before, the Coronavirus pandemic was already taking its toll on the mental wellbeing of our young people. According to a Gallop Poll at that time, “Nearly three in 10 parents (29 percent) say their child is ‘already experiencing harm’ to their emotional or mental health because of social distancing and closures. Another 14 percent indicate their children are approaching their limits, saying they could continue social distancing a few more weeks until their mental health suffers.”
Obviously, the reality of social distancing, remote learning and isolation have lasted much longer than “a few more weeks.” Even though the rate of COVID-19 infection has been lower among young people and the cases less serious for the most part, the societal consequences have been severe.
Even when students returned to the classroom, which most have done, it did not resolve the challenges that children continue to face that affect their mental health. A recent study by the Pew Institute stated, “After more than 18 months of school closures and social isolation, the nation’s more than 50 million public school children are mostly back at their desks… The grief, anxiety and depression children have experienced during the pandemic is welling over into classrooms and hallways, resulting in crying and disruptive behavior in many younger kids and increased violence and bullying among adolescents. For many other children, who keep their sadness and fear inside, the pressures of school have become too great.”
In June, 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared that the pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health had become a national emergency.
Cognition and Mental Health
“’Nearly every child in the country is suffering to some degree from the psychological effects of the pandemic,’ said Sharon Hoover, co-director of the University of Maryland-based National Center for School Mental Health. “Suddenly everyone is talking about mental health. Parents, teachers and students are openly discussing it. That’s why schools need to invest now in the mental health and well-being of our kids in a broad and comprehensive way—not just for children with learning disabilities and diagnosed mental health conditions, but for all students,’ Hoover said.”
So, what do schools, administrators, teachers and parents need to understand about the relationship between learning and mental health? Helping students get access to mental health treatment and support is clearly a first step. But one often under-appreciated aspect of health outcomes in general and mental health in particular, is the role of cognitive skills.
Cognitive Impairment commonly accompanies a variety of mental conditions, including affective disorders such as depression, bipolar disease and anxiety. In a 2015 landmark study authored by the Mental Health Coordinating Council (New South Wales) and the University of Sydney Faculty of Health Sciences (Australia), researchers found a direct correlation between cognition and mental illness. Cognition being defined as the “mental capabilities or thinking skills that allow a person to perceive, acquire, understand and respond to information from their environment. In a broad sense, cognition means information processing and denotes a ‘relatively high level of information processing of specific information including thinking, memory, perception, motivation, skilled movements and language.” This does not mean that these diseases and disorders are caused by deficits in cognitive skills. In fact, the reverse may be true. When children suffer from mental health conditions, their cognition, and hence their learning, are adversely affected.
While educators and parents can’t wave a magic wand and make the pandemic and other sources of stress and anxiety disappear, there is much they can do to relieve the pressure and help children develop the resilience they need to deal with the difficulties they face and continue to acquire the skills and knowledge they will need to be prepared for whatever comes next. What they can do is help students to develop their cognitive skills to make learning easier and less stressful. Research has shown that cognitive training can improve the academic performance of students, yielding increased confidence, pride in authorship and improved relationships at school and at home.
Improving cognitive functioning is possible, whether it is related to chronic disease, short-term stress or other causes. While strengthening cognitive skills may not, by itself, cure a mental illness, developing stronger skills typically reduces stress for children and adults because it gives them more confidence in their ability to learn, to solve problems and to successfully engage in new learning situations.
For years, research has indicated that low academic achievement erodes self-esteem, a pattern that begins in school and can last a lifetime. Poor self-esteem has also been shown to have a direct correlation to a lack of goal achievement, which can interfere in life success not only in academic pursuits, but in economic pursuits of all kinds. Further, the relationship between self-esteem and independence is closely related, and independent children tend to be higher achievers.
Interestingly, when it comes to high academic performance, studies show that fully 50 percent of the variance in this equation is determined by a student’s cognitive capacity. We also know that cognitive capacity is the one thing for which we have a large measure of control.
As educators and parents, we oversimplify in large part because we usually don’t have the tools to look under the hood at the learning successes and struggles each student has. When we do, we see that learning struggles are less often attributable to curriculum or instruction and more often to the specific cognitive strengths and weaknesses of each student.
Most students and most teachers don’t know much about the underlying cognitive skills that are the foundation for learning – visual processing, auditory processing, reasoning, memory and others.
In The End of Average, author Todd Rose suggests that each individual brings strengths and weaknesses to every academic experience. If a student has strong perceptual skills and weak memory skills, his or her experiences will be very different from a student with weak perceptual skills and strong memory skills. The surface performance could look very similar, but it may not be obvious why because those underlying skills are difficult to evaluate without an assessment that specifically targets them.
Students with weaknesses in visual processing, for example, may not “see” what they are meant to see on the screen any more than on the whiteboard at school. Students with auditory processing issues may not take in any more of the auditory inputs that are being delivered to them than if the audio feed were garbled. Students with weak attention and/or working memory will only get fragments of the learning experience, whether in a classroom or online. These students aren’t getting the same access to the learning experience. They never really have a chance because the processes they need to learn are underdeveloped.
Learning experiences are unpredictable for students with uneven underlying strengths and weaknesses. And that unpredictability can make learning more stressful than for a student with more even skills.
When a student has strong skills in some areas and weaknesses in other areas and isn’t aware of them, some learning experiences will be easy and some will be difficult, but the student usually can’t predict which is which. Inexplicably, some things will be easy, and others will be tough. That tends to cause an enormous amount of stress for the student. On the other hand, knowing one’s own variability, that is, one’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses, is very empowering. Learning becomes more predictable. The student knows how to use his or her strongest cognitive skills to tackle any academic task. And teachers and parents can give students more responsibility for their own learning.
Once we understand each student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses, the next task is to remediate them, to build and strengthen both weaker cognitive processes and those that are already strong.
Comprehensive, integrated cognitive training does exactly that. It involves the systematic and integrated exercise and development of the processes our brains use to take in, interpret, organize, store, retrieve and apply information. With the right kind of cognitive training, cognitive skills can be improved to a far greater degree than most people realize, educators included.
Research with students who have Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) shows what can be accomplished with the right kind of comprehensive, integrated cognitive training. Students with SLD diagnoses were randomly assigned to treatment and no-treatment groups. All the students were receiving the standard reading and math interventions the school provided because of their classification. Only the treatment group engaged in cognitive training, three to five times per week for 30 to 45 minutes each time, for 12 weeks. The students were given the Woodcock-Johnson Cognitive Battery and Tests of Achievement before and at the end of the 12 weeks. For the students in the non-treatment group, no significant cognitive change was noted, while the students who participated in cognitive training on average closed the gap cognitively almost to the level of normally developing students. The gains in cognitive capacity translated into accelerated academic gains. While the no-treatment students made the kind of incremental progress on the reading and math tests that is typical of students even when receiving common interventions, the treatment-group of students gained 0.8 Grade Equivalent in Reading and 1.0 Grade Equivalent in Math over the course of 12 weeks.
Back to student wellbeing
In an issue brief submitted by the Kennedy Forum entitled Fixing Behavioral Health Care in America: Promoting Brain Health and Brain Fitness: A National Call for Action, researchers said, “Today we know that without interventions that directly address a child’s ability to learn and function in society, our current academic paradigm and process will continue to be less than effective. Neuroscience shows that brain fitness interventions can build higher-order processing skills, promote emotional resilience, and mitigate stress. These interventions interrupt and ameliorate many of the underlying neuro-developmental lags in children caused by the environmental stressors that thwart learning. In fact, many of the current adverse and economic conditions that almost half our children are exposed to are likely due, in part, to the limitations our education system had in preparing their parents to succeed.
“Brain health and fitness interventions implemented across American education will benefit our nation’s children now and into the future and help close the academic achievement gap. Research over the past two decades illuminates the powerful opportunities that simple, targeted, effective brain fitness interventions offer. On the neuro-cognitive level, these interventions can shift the intrinsic dispositions, abilities, and capacities of children to help them cultivate the cognitive capacity, attention, and self-regulation needed to succeed both academically and in life.
“Regardless of economic status, race or background, brain fitness improves a child’s academic performance and overall well-being. The most effective brain fitness interventions fortify learning across all academic subjects and build emotional mastery by developing underlying core cognitive capacities.”
The study concluded, “All stakeholders—from scientists to school superintendents to parents to friends to future employers—must become aware that brain fitness is the missing link in American education and that they have an important part to play for a national implementation to be successful.”
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About the authors
Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.
Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari