Multiple decades of research and practice have resulted in significant shifts in the way students with learning disabilities are supported in schools in the U.S. and elsewhere. In the U.S., federal policy defines various categories of disabilities that may entitle students to special education services or other educational accommodations. Some of the disabilities identified in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) constitute barriers to access to education or limitations on the students’ ability to participate in certain activities. These would include deafness, blindness and orthopedic disabilities. These types of disabilities may exist even when the learning mechanisms of the brain are still intact and functioning normally. 

Other disabilities, however, directly involve the brain’s learning processes. Specific learning disabilities are defined as deficits in underlying psychological processes involved in learning. Such deficits may affect visual working memory, verbal working memory, processing speed, short-term memory and other cognitive processes. Intellectual disability also directly impairs the brain’s learning capacity. And still, other identified disabilities may include under-developed cognitive processes. For example, students with ASD or ADHD typically have issues with attention skills, working memory, and other executive functions, which play important roles in learning. 

Educators who work with students with deficits in underlying cognitive processes that impede their ability to learn to read, write and do math typically use three categories of strategies to help students receiving special education services:


It is important to understand that the purpose of these strategies is to bypass the cognitive processes that are weak to minimize the impact of processing deficits. Thus, for example, if a student has limited working memory capacity and can’t remember a set of three instructions, the teacher would eliminate the need to hold three items of information in working memory, and, instead, give the instructions one at a time. That is an example of an accommodation. These commonly used intervention strategies often do not result in student success. Students receiving special education services continue to lag the general population in academic achievement and often rely on these supports throughout their schooling. Recent research suggests that the lack of effectiveness of these strategies is explained by the substantial cognitive deficits that impair the students’ learning progress.

Over the last decade, researchers and educators have begun to explore a fourth strategy, the remediation of cognitive processes known to be weak. The concept is that helping students develop weak cognitive areas will help them learn more like their typically developing peers, rather than working around them or using strategies to bypass them. A major focus of many research efforts has been on the training of working memory; a cognitive skill also referred to as an executive function, which is highly correlated with a variety of aspects of academic achievement. Numerous studies have shown a positive effect of training on working memory, but not all have shown a transfer of the gains to academic performance. 

We take a more comprehensive and integrated approach to cognitive skills development, working on 43 skills in the areas of attention, memory (including working memory), visual processing, auditory processing, sensory integration and logic/reasoning. Both cognitive and academic gains have been significant for students with specific learning disabilities and IDEA categories of disabilities, including ASD and ADHD, as well as students receiving extra resource support. 

In developing an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) to include cognitive skills development, the following four aspects of the IEP should be considered: 

1) Current level of performance 

A student’s current level of performance on both cognitive and academic measures should be taken into account. Cognitive assessments such as the Woodcock-Johnson Cognitive Battery, the CAS, the CogAT, or Mindprint can be used as a baseline measure of cognitive functioning. It is also very helpful to gather parent and teacher observations of behaviors indicative of cognitive development. Formative and summative academic benchmark tests can be used to understand a student’s current level of academic performance. 

2) Measurable goals 

Few IEPs have historically established goals for cognitive growth since most cognitive testing has been used diagnostically, that is, simply to diagnose, without any expectation of significant change. However, when cognitive training is part of the intervention, then repeating a cognitive test following the intervention is appropriate. The cognitive assessments listed above can be administered again following the intervention to document areas of improvement. Behavioral goals should also be specified and can be based on parent and teacher observations gathered to document initial performance.

For example, if one of the original observations was that the student was not able to accurately copy assignments from the board, then that could form the basis for a behavioral goal that “X will be able to copy homework assignments accurately from the board.” In developing goals for academic performance, educators should recognize that the goal of a cognitive training intervention is to enable the student to learn as his/her normally developing peers. The research cited above suggests that goals should not just envision progress but progress toward narrowing or closing the gap to grade-level norms and peer performance. 

3) Services 

Cognitive training services defined in an IEP should specify the cognitive training tool and/or materials that will be used. An effective cognitive training tool will address the criteria listed here. The IEP should also define the frequency and duration of use of the training, the role of the individual or coach working with the student, and how progress will be monitored. 

4) Participation with non-disabled students 

An advantage of computerized cognitive training is that students can work on the program alongside non-disabled students. 

Training of cognitive skills can significantly remediate underlying weak cognitive processes for many students with learning disabilities. In some cases, students have been able to be mainstreamed more quickly into a general education environment; in other cases, reading and math specific interventions have worked more rapidly than prior to the cognitive training. 


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