For many of us, the upcoming Presidents Day holiday mostly means a day off, or the annual bombardment of mattress commercials and car ads. But for thousands of kids across the country, it’s much more than just a brief reminder of George Washington, or a reason for another three-day weekend. For them, Presidents Day brings the perfect opportunity to share an accomplishment – the ability to quickly recite from memory all 45 U.S. Presidents in order. They can do it forward and backward, and often while blocking out intense distractions, or performing tasks like hitting baseballs.
This impressive memorization feat isn’t designed to give kids an advantage in American history class; the goal is to build a better brain. The training used to learn this strengthens the underlying mental skills that we all need to think, reason, remember, learn, read and pay attention. By building up these cognitive skills, people actually become better learners with faster, more efficient brains.
Learning to recite the presidents is one of the first things students master when going through a brain training program at LearningRx. They use a memory tool called a mnemonic – a colorful picture of all the presidents linked together in a story-like list. Learning to memorize the presidents with this mnemonic not only strengthens long-term memory, it can also grow visual processing skills, increase processing speed and strengthen attention.
At-home brain-building exercises can help in similar ways. One way to strengthen memory is by creating paperless lists. Simply imagine your items strung together in a colorful, memorable way. Often the more funny or vivid the image, the easier it is to remember.
Ready to give it a shot? Let’s say you need to remember four things at the market: 1) toilet paper, 2) carrots, 3) cereal, and 4) chicken. First, picture yourself walking into the store following an incredibly long roll of 1) toilet paper to the 2) carrots. The toilet paper is wrapped around the giant singing carrots which are stuck into an animated box of 3) cereal. The cereal is holding a flying 4) chicken by the leg. As you add more things to your paperless list, grow the picture. If you remember you need cheese, expand your image to include the chicken eating mozzarella.
The presidents exercise also helps strengthen the three types of attention:
- Sustained attention is strengthened by focusing on recalling the presidents from memory.
- Divided attention skills are honed by working on more than one task at a time.
- Selective attention is improved by working to block out unnecessary distractions.
Here’s a way you can help your child strengthen the three types of attention at home AND work on basic math facts.
- Gather ability-appropriate math fact worksheets for your child.
- Time him as he completes it as quickly and accurately as possible.
- Next, warn him that you will try to distract him as he tries to beat that time. Start with low-level distractions like tapping or humming. After he can meet or beat his best time, add higher-level distractions like singing off-key or blaring the TV.
- Make it fun and reward effort and accomplishments. High-fives and verbal encouragement go a long way, as do small rewards like M&M’s or extra screen time.
- Next, add a task to help strengthen working memory and divided attention. Explain to your child that while he works, you’ll say three words that he must repeat immediately after he finishes the worksheet. This will force him to choose which information to remember and which to ignore.
- Finally, combine the timed element, the distractions and the additional task for the ultimate brain-building exercise.
Can you see where these types of targeted attention drills are especially beneficial for people who struggle with ADHD? It not only enhances their ability to pay attention, it also helps them multitask and ignore distractions.
Still need a little motivation to get you working on improving your own cognitive skills? Check out website (www.learningrx.com/fortcollins) to see some students who’ve mastered memorizing the presidents. And remember, it’s more than just an impressive memory feat – it’s a sign of a better, faster, more efficient brain.