Are Expensive ADHD Computer Training Programs Worth It?

I was reviewing some science-y research –as opposed to fantasy-esque research– when I came across this article:

ADHD study: Expensive training programs don’t help grades, behavior

This did not come as a huge surprise to me, as last year The National Association of School Psychologists published an excellent review of current research in their professional newsletter, NASP Communiqué. In “The Effectiveness of Computer-Based Training Programs,” Dr. Walcott and her associate, Ms. Phillips, examine the research to date on computer programs designed to improve symptoms associated with Attention Deficit Disorders, such as working memory and processing speed. These include such popular programs as CogMed, Jungle Memory, Braintrain, and Mindsparke. Such programs are heavily marketed and even note that they are “evidence backed.” But… are they?

In a word, no. How do I feel about such programs? In a word, meh.

As Dr. Walcott and Ms. Phillips conclude,

The current body of research suggests that while CCT [Computer-based Training] programs can significantly improve children’s functioning on program tasks and other closely related EF tasks, there is not resounding empirical support for long-term EF  [Executive Functioning] improvements or a transfer of effects to other areas that should, theoretically, be positively impacted by underlying improvements in EF.

In other words, students may improve on computer tasks (sort of like a practice effect) and students may also experience improved performance on similar tasks, but research has not demonstrated any robust transfer effects or ability to generalize these improvements. All of this is to say the the real world impact of these expensive programs is yet to be substantiated. Are expensive computer training programs for ADHD worth it?

spark adhd
I would be remiss not to mention exercise as a proven remedy for improving cognition.

So, in three words: save your moola.

The good news is that research, as Dr. Walcott and Ms. Phillips point out, currently demonstrates that the brain is plastic, meaning we can grow our brains and we can change. No one is saying that children with EF and/or ADHD deficits cannot improve on weaknesses. I have certainly observed, and research has shown, that ADHD symptoms attenuate over time. That is, although executive functioning may be underdeveloped during school years, with adulthood many abilities (and coping skills) come online.

Now, if you are a practitioner or parent who has used these CTT programs, I would love to hear from you– how and why did this work for you?

I could write a dissertation on all the effective interventions for ADHD/ EF, but to date, one of the best real-world interventions I have seen for students with ADHD and EF weaknesses are those posited by Drs. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. If you do not already own Smart but Scattered, I urge to stop reading right now and point your browser to Amazon. This book, along with others by these authors (they have done some great guides for clinicians), do a marvelous job outlining what I believe to be an excellent approach to ADHD/ EF. It’s my opinion, and just my opinion, that one of the best ways to remediate cognitive weaknesses is by teaching metacognitive skills that students can employ to implement micro-level coping skills. Metacognition simply means being able to monitor one’s own thinking and behavior– it implies an awareness. Microskills are those little skills one utilizes to manage the day-to-day executive functioning, such as keeping track of time or keeping assignments prioritized.

My second favorite intervention is exercise and improving the mind-body connection. It’s unfortunate that we can’t mandate more outdoors time in an IEP, but schools are certainly trying. The book I urge you to pick up is “Spark” by John Ratey, M.D. I have seem entire schools adopt Dr. Ratey’s program to miraculous effect.

In conclusion, let’s approach increasing student’s ‘screen time with caution. Instead, let’s explore common-sense and less expensive alternatives: direct instruction skill-building with experienced adults and quality time moving.

References

Walcott, C. M., & Phillips, M.E. (2013). The Effectiveness of Computer-Based Training ProgramsCommuniqué, 41, 1, 28-29.

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