What is Cognitive Proficiency and How Does It Affect My Child?

Young student with several adhesive notes

Students with attention and learning issues often experience deficits in processing speed or working memory, or a combination of both. Processing speed abilities are required to work with ease, efficiency, and automaticity; in short, it’s our “thinking speed”. Up to 50% of children with learning and attention issues exhibit processing speed deficits. Working memory, on the other hand, is the brain’s Post-It Note: the ability to identify visual and auditory information, hold it in mind temporarily, and re-sequence it for use in problem-solving. Up to 80% of children with learning and attention issues may exhibit working memory deficits.

Together, processing speed and working memory indicate our cognitive proficiency abilities: the efficiency with which we process information. Cognitive proficiency can be determined during the psycho-educational assessment process. It is the combined score of a child’s working memory and processing speed performance (using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children®-Fifth Edition), although these abilities can also be assessed with other measures. This score can provide an additional layer of insight into a child’s individual pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

Strong cognitive proficiency abilities free up cognitive space for thinking and learning by reducing the effort needed for simple tasks (like basic multiplication facts) and allowing energy to go into more complex processes (like solving a multi-step word problem that includes basic multiplication facts). When students have not developed fluency in basic tasks, such as basic multiplication or recognizing sight words (e.g., “the”, “and”, “because”, etc.), solving 6 x 7 or sounding out each letter in “because” takes up cognitive space, energy, and time, preventing them from completing more difficult tasks, such as problem solving, or reading fluently and accurately for comprehension, etc.

Students need to be able to process information automatically and quickly in the classroom without intentionally thinking through each piece of information in order to be successful. Cognitive proficiency deficits can negatively impact all aspects of learning: reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension; numerical operations, problem solving, and mathematics fluency; and writing abilities, such as morphology (i.e., word structure), syntax (i.e., the arrangement of words and phrases), and semantics (i.e., the meaning of words).

Weak cognitive proficiency abilities also impact a child’s social world. Underdeveloped working memory abilities may make it extraordinarily difficult to engage in the give-and-take, listen-and-wait behaviours required for adept social interactions. With processing speed, research has shown that successful interactions with same-aged peers rely a great deal on the rapid processing of social information, resulting in social impairments for children with slower processing speed.

At home, cognitive proficiency difficulties can look like: appearing not to pay attention when you are speaking because they are still processing previous information; not following instructions because they don’t remember what you’ve told them or they are still processing the request; delayed responses to questions because they are working to process details or are struggling to remember information; and, “made up” responses because they haven’t yet processed the question or can’t remember certain details and feel pressured to provide responses, etc.

The good news is that cognitive proficiency impairments can be supported by our interactions with our children and by small adjustments to their environments. To support weak cognitive proficiency at home:
• Have clear, consistent and predictable expectations for behaviour
• Give advance notice of transitions, upcoming activities, etc.
• Allow more time for your child to respond to your questions and to make decisions
• Provide fewer choices
• Break up larger tasks (e.g., cleaning their bedroom) into smaller tasks (e.g., make your bed, put your books on the shelf, etc.) and focus on quality VS quantity

Article written by Tanya Keto, M. Ed, Registered Provisional Psychologist, Manager of Parent Education and Professional Development at Foothills Academy Society Community Services
March 2018

Additional suggested reading:
Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up (Braaten & Willoughby)
Smart But Scattered and Smart But Scattered for Teens (Dawson & Guare)

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