Parents jump on brain-training wagon in bid to boost concentration and memory of children

Children attending a brain-training session at BrainFit Studio. Experts say there is limited evidence to show that brain training gives children an edge, but some parents say they have seen improvements.
Children attending a brain-training session at BrainFit Studio. Experts say there is limited evidence to show that brain training gives children an edge, but some parents say they have seen improvements.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

But experts express doubts about classes to boost concentration skills

Forget maths tuition, swimming lessons or piano classes.

Parents are now sending their children for brain training, hoping to improve their concentration and memory skills.

Owners of enrichment centres that run such classes told The Straits Times that more children - especially young ones - have been signed up for their programmes in recent years.

Ms Jacqueline Neo, co-founder of Happy Train, said parents are more resourceful and many share their experiences on blogs.

Some opt for these classes - which can cost more than $100 per session - as they think tuition may not be as effective.

Aiming to train motor and processing skills, for instance, the centres use methods such as listening exercises and puzzles, as well as physical activities like catching balls.

Children also play games that require them to sort objects or remember details such as colours and shapes.

Some centres develop customised exercises designed to target children's weak areas.

Ms Cheryl Chia, founder of BrainFit Studio, said getting distracted is a common problem. To combat this, children learn to focus and follow instructions.

BrainFit has three branches here, two of which were set up in the last five years. Each branch takes in 200 pupils every year.

To cater to the growing interest, it started programmes in the last two years for pre-schoolers and toddlers as young as six months old. These programmes had about 50 and 20 children respectively last year.

At Happy Train, children go through "right-brain training" to speed up information processing skills.

The centre has seen more than 400 children sign up, twice as many as seven years ago. Children younger than two years old make up half of its pupils today, compared with 30 to 40 per cent in 2008.

Another centre, People Impact, uses brain training techniques among its methods to boost intellect and social skills. It had over 100 children last year, a 45 per cent jump from the year before.

But experts said there is limited evidence to show that brain training gives children an edge.

Current research in the field is usually based on case studies with small sample sizes, said Dr Kalyani Vijaykumar Mulay, a consultant at the National University Hospital's child development unit.

Experts also said that the skills developed in brain training may not lead to an overall improvement in cognitive ability.

Associate Professor Noel Chia, from the National Institute of Education's early childhood and special needs education academic group, cited American neuroscientist John Bruer, saying: "Descriptions of brain function at the cellular level are simply too far removed from the behavioural to be of any application in class or at school."

Dr Catherine Cox, head and principal psychologist of Psychology Service at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, agreed: "A child may improve on the brain training tasks, but it may not necessarily lead to improved academic performance for the child in a formal school context."

Ms Jessie Ooh, an educational psychologist, said: "Most of the time, the gains in these targeted skills are also short term."

Dr Cox suggested that instead of the brain training tasks, regular activities like reading to children, outdoor play, exercising as a family and learning to play a musical instrument "can help to promote brain health in our children".

However, parents like Madam Debbie Chua, 37, say they have seen improvements in their children after brain training.

The deputy director of a career centre sends her six-year-old daughter to Thinkers Box Development Centre, which has about 100 pupils, up from 10 in 2006.

"She doesn't skip letters and words now when she reads, with training to slow the eye down and see things in detail," she said.

Other parents are unconvinced. A mother in her 40s whose two sons, aged five and seven, went for brain training, said: "They enjoyed the classes and it gave them some confidence. But there are so many variables. Children grow in maturity and are exposed to more things as they get older. To attribute progress to a programme is like saying you ate a miracle pill and you're cured."

ateng@sph.com.sg