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Researchers Think They Have Found A Way To Help Close The Achievement Gap

Huffington Post
December 18, 2014

By Rebecca Klein

Growing up poor can affect a child's behavior and school performance. Research has found that the brains of students from poverty-stricken environments can even function differently than those of their more affluent peers, due to developments that inhibit the poorer children's ability to problem-solve and pay attention.

However, a group of researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas think they have found a way to counteract some of these issues, helping bring low-income adolescents up to speed with their more affluent peers.

A research team led by Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino worked with a group of over 900 middle school-aged adolescents from various socioeconomic backgrounds in the Dallas area to try and determine the impact of a specific learning intervention on these students. The students were split into two groups: students who participated in the cognitive intervention program and those who did not.
Students who received the cognitive intervention designed by the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth completed 10 different 45-minute sessions in the course of a month. During these sessions, students completed group interactive exercises and written activities, with the aim of teaching them how to extract main ideas from text and analyze that information. The students also took pre and post-intervention exams.

“It’s really the cognitive steps you and I take quite naturally to understand information and get to the big picture. We walk [students] concretely through various stages,” Gamino said. “We start by helping them focus on what’s most important by deleting what’s least important, we help them chunk information … get them to think at a higher level.”

After completing the cognitive training, Gamino told The Huffington Post that “kids in poverty showed as much improvement in them, even though they started out lower than kids not in poverty, which is good news.” A paper recently published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience outlines the results of the study.

She continued, “A lot of research is showing that kids raised in poverty -- their brains are not developing at the same rate as kids not in poverty, potentially due to environment, stress level, etc. … [Research showed that] kids in poverty who had deficits going in could overcome deficits.”

Gamino said that the steps taken in the cognitive intervention could easily be integrated into a normal school setting in a way that she believes would benefit all students -- regardless of socioeconomic background. The study notes that the researchers conducted the interventions amid an educational backdrop where “assessment frequently requires merely a regurgitation of facts” and “students are often more focused on memorizing huge quantities of information, rather than contemplating meaning.”

Gamino said the team specifically decided to target seventh- and eighth-grade students because it is an age where the brain is still capable of rewiring -- especially in regards to the frontal lobe, which is the last area of the brain to develop. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that helps regulate decision making, control and problem-solving.

However, Gamino said that the cognitive interventions seemed to impact female and male students differently. Although seventh- and eighth-grade girls showed significant improvement on assessments after participating in the interventions, only eighth-grade boys did the same. Gamino said results may be due to the fact that boys are thought to develop later than girls.

“I think we all know people who are very immature, who make bad decisions and don’t control their emotions. They haven’t developed the ability to use their frontal lobe to the full potential,” Gamino said. “The more we know from neuroscience, the more we know we can activate certain parts of our brain to make those connections become stronger. We have kids doing pen-and-paper tasks that help them use their frontal lobe.”

The team now wants to expand the data they've collected by seeing where these kids end up over time and how they perform on subsequent standardized tests, according to a press release about the research.