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cognitive skills

What cognitive skills are, and how to improve them

July 3, 2023

Cognitive skills are important in every single aspect of our life.

They are the core of our cognitive functioning, which is our ability to process thoughts. What cognitive skills are important and how can they be improved? Let’s break it down.

What are cognitive skills?

Cognitive skills are the mental abilities that we use to process information, learn, and solve problems. They include many skills, but the ones we will discuss are: attention, memory, auditory processing, executive function and emotional regulation.

Every single thing you do will involve one or more of these skills, so good cognitive skills are essential for success in most areas of life. For example, poor memory, attention and problem solving will make school very difficult for a student. Poor reasoning, language and executive function skills will impact work performance. Poor emotional regulation affects relationships with family and others.

The good news is all these skills can be improved. You can get better at anything with some motivation and the right help. Let’s look at each cognitive skill—what it is, and how it can be improved.

cognitive skills

Attention

What is it?

It’s the concentration of our awareness on something to the exclusion of other stimuli. In other words, it’s the ability to focus on a task or piece of information, and to ignore distractions.

Why is it important?

Good attention skills mean we can focus and complete tasks. Attention is also closely related to memory formation, as we need to be able to focus in order to remember things. As you can imagine, this will affect areas such as academic performance. For example, studies show primary school students with attentional difficulties lag behind their peers in reading skills.

How can attention be improved?

Poor attention can be improved by identifying and addressing underlying causes, such as depression or anxiety. These conditions might be making it hard to concentrate. Also, making lifestyle changes, learning relaxation techniques, practicing mindfulness, breaking down tasks into smaller steps, taking breaks, and rewarding yourself are all ways of improving attention.

However, if you are struggling to improve your attention on your own, there are a number of resources available to help you. These include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is a type of therapy that can help people with attentional issues manage their symptoms. Techniques used include planning and scheduling activities, cognitive restructuring (such as learning how to avoid “catastrophic” thinking), guided discovery (helping you explore the positive), positive self-talk, learning how to break large tasks into smaller chunks, learning how to not get distracted during important tasks, and creating a distraction-free workspace. These techniques can help people with ADHD learn how to challenge negative thoughts and stay on task.
  • Online attention training programs. These programs engage you in motivating games with a supportive coach, with content that requires longer and longer periods of sustained focused attention, and which provides positive feedback for correct answers. Since progress is measurable, it’s a very motivating way of training attention. Our programs EF Kids (for ages 3-8), Fast ForWord (ages 6 to adult) and Cogmed (ages 6 to adult) are research-backed and done from home on your iPad or computer.
adhd symptoms in kids cognitive skills

Memory

What is it? 

The ability to store and recall information. Actually, ‘memory’ is divided into different types, such as sensory memory, working memory, short-term and long-term memory. Even long term memory is divided into episodic, semantic and procedural memory. For learning many skills, working memory is very important – It’s like a post-it note in your brain that holds information so you can work with that information to carry out a task. Working memory also helps you organise and save new information for long term memory.

Why is it important?

If you’ve ever forgotten anything important, you know why memory is so important. Children with poor working memory are more likely to experience grade repetition, behavioral disorders, mood and self-esteem difficulties, school failure during the school years, unemployment, and poverty in adulthood.

How can memory be improved?

Yes, it can. Some important ways to improve memory include:

  • Lifestyle changes. Engage in regular exercise, get sufficient sleep, have a healthy diet, and manage stress.
  • Train your memory. Playing games and puzzles that require working memory can help to improve this skill. Online programs that specifically target working memory are even better, such as Sonic Learning’s online programs Cogmed and Fast ForWord, both of which use interactive games and exercises that intelligently adapt to your working memory level. The programs are never too hard, never too easy, helping you stay motivated.
cogmed working memory training fluid intelligence cognitive skills

Auditory processing

What is it? 

The ability to use our sense of hearing to receive and interpret messages and learn from them. 

Why is it important?

Auditory processing problems can make it hard for children and adults to understand what they’re hearing and to express themselves clearly. This can lead to problems with reading and writing, and sometimes even to other conditions like dyslexia. Since reading is crucial to academic and professional success, poor auditory processing can have a lifelong effect.

How can auditory processing be improved?

Compensatory strategies can be beneficial, such as asking the other person to break up instructions, or positioning yourself closer to the speaker.

However, to achieve the best results, auditory processing skills must be trained directly. This means retraining the brain to process sound more accurately and quickly. The Fast ForWord program is a proven way to improve auditory processing and change the brain’s listening pathways. It does this by training people with auditory processing disorder (APD) in specific listening strategies and techniques.

Here is how the Fast ForWord program helps to directly train auditory processing:

  • It presents sounds in a variety of ways, including in noise, at different speeds, and in different combinations. This helps the brain to learn to process sound more accurately and efficiently.
  • It provides visual feedback, to help the learner know where to improve.
  • It automatically adapts to the individual’s skills level, so that it can be as effective as possible. Never too hard, never too easy.

The Fast ForWord program has been extensively researched and shown to be effective in improving auditory processing skills in children and adults with APD. It can help people to:

  • Understand speech in noisy environments
  • Follow directions
  • Complete tasks
  • Learn new information
  • Communicate more effectively
auditory processing cognitive skills

Executive function

What is it? 

The ability to plan, organize, and execute tasks.

Why is it important?

Neuroscientist Bill Jenkins likens executive functioning to an internal “air traffic control system”. Executive function skills help children succeed in school and in life. They help us to remember instructions, avoid distractions, control our impulses, and adjust to change. These skills are also important for professional success, as they allow us to be better organised, solve problems, and adapt to change.

How can executive functioning be improved?

If you Google “executive function help” you’ll see a lot of strategies (e.g. “keep a schedule” and “use visual aids”). Compensatory strategies can help people with executive function challenges, but they’re not a cure-all. They’re just a way to help people manage their symptoms in the short term. The best way to improve executive function is to use a combination of compensatory strategies, learning environment modifications, and skill-building strategies.

Online executive function programs can help you train your brain to remember more information, control your impulses, and think more flexibly. It takes time and effort, but it’s definitely possible to improve your executive functioning skills. And luckily, there are some online programs that can make the process easier and more fun.

Here are a few examples of online executive function programs:

  • Cogmed Working Memory Training: This program is designed to improve working memory, which is a key component in executive functioning. It is suitable for children 6 to adult.
  • Fast ForWord: This program is designed to improve auditory processing skills, which are important for tasks such as paying attention, following directions, and learning new information. It is suitable for children 6 to adult.
  • EF Kids: Builds executive function skills (attention, memory, and cognitive flexibility). Most suitable for children aged 3 to 8.
executive function adhd cognitive skills

Emotional regulation

What is it? 

The ability to manage our emotions and control our responses. It is an advanced cognitive skill that helps us stay “socially appropriate.”

Why is it important?

Poor emotional regulation can affect everything in our life, from happiness levels to interpersonal relationships. Poor emotional regulation can disrupt cognitive processes such as working memory, attention, and planning. This can make it hard to process new information, retain knowledge, and organise thoughts and actions.

For children, poor emotional regulation can make it hard for kids to focus in class, retain information, and complete assignments. This can lead to early academic difficulties and learning problems that can persist throughout a child’s school years. They are more likely to experience peer rejection and social problems, as well as emotional and behavioral disorders. These disorders can further interfere with academic performance by making it difficult for kids to attend to tasks, follow instructions, and interact positively with teachers and peers.

How can emotional regulation be improved?

Psychologists say the following skills help with developing emotional regulation.

  • Self-awareness. Notice what you are feeling and name it.
  • Mindful awareness. Breath control or sensory relaxation can help us be in the right headspace to deal with our emotions.
  • Cognitive reappraisal. This is the process of changing the way we think about a situation, often used in psychotherapies like CBT. Instead of thinking, ‘I’m a failure,’ learn to replace this kind of thinking with ‘I made a mistake, but I can make up for it.’
  • Adaptability. Objective evaluation of our feelings improves adaptability.
  • Self-compassion. Remind yourself of your strengths.
  • Emotional support. Friends and loved ones are a fantastic source of support.

For children, particularly those with autism, the above skills can be hard to train on their own. Fortunately, the research-backed Social Express online program helps teach teach social skills and communication.

Social Express uses animated interactive lessons, addressing:

  • Recognising and coping with feelings such as anger, frustration and sadness
  • Participating in groups and conversations
  • Respecting personal space
  • Interpreting non-verbal communication
  • Building friendships with others
  • Dealing with peer pressure and teasing
Social anxiety vs autism - similarities & differences cognitive skills

Cognitive skills can be trained

Cognitive skills are essential for success in every area of life. They allow us to learn, think, and solve problems. The good news is that all of these skills can be improved with practice and the right help.

If you are struggling with any of the cognitive skills discussed in this blog post, there are a number of resources available to help you. If you have any questions about how Sonic Learning’s programs can help you or you child with any of these cognitive skills, please reach out to us.

References

  • Martin RE, Ochsner KN. The Neuroscience of Emotion Regulation Development: Implications for Education. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2016 Aug;10:142-148. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.06.006. PMID: 27822488; PMCID: PMC5096655.
  • Britannica website, Attention (psychology)
  • Rabiner DL, Carrig MM, Dodge KA. Attention Problems and Academic Achievement: Do Persistent and Earlier-Emerging Problems Have More Adverse Long-Term Effects? J Atten Disord. 2016 Nov;20(11):946-957. doi: 10.1177/1087054713507974. Epub 2013 Oct 18. PMID: 24141101; PMCID: PMC3991770.
  • Better Health Victorian government website, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – therapies
  • Roberts, G., Quach, J., Gold, L. et al. Can improving working memory prevent academic difficulties? a school based randomised controlled trial. BMC Pediatr 11, 57 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2431-11-57
  • Aristidou IL, Hohman MH. Central Auditory Processing Disorder. [Updated 2023 Mar 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan 
  • Center on the Developing Child website, Harvard University, InBrief: Executive Function
  • Graziano PA, Reavis RD, Keane SP, Calkins SD. The Role of Emotion Regulation and Children’s Early Academic Success. J Sch Psychol. 2007 Feb 1;45(1):3-19. doi: 10.1016/j.jsp.2006.09.002. PMID: 21179384; PMCID: PMC3004175.
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