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Working Memory Is the New IQ: An Interview with Carol Brown

September 19–23, 2016   |   Vol. 128, Week 6

A child can have all the IQ in the world, but if he has poor working memory, he will struggle to learn. What is this mysterious working memory and why is it so important? Find out on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat with HSLDA special needs consultant Carol Brown.

“When we say ‘equipping minds,’ we’re talking about . . . Equipping the student’s mind to reach the full potential that God has [given them].”—Carol Brown

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A child can have all the IQ in the world, but if he has a poor working memory, he will struggle to learn. What is this mysterious working memory and why is it so important? Find out on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat with HSLDA special needs consultant Carol Brown.

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Carol Brown. She’s a therapist, a learning specialist, and a former homeschool mom—and one of HSLDA’s special needs consultants. Carol, thanks for being with us today.

Carol Brown: Oh, Mike. I appreciate it. It is truly an honor to be able to join you today.

What is working memory? [0:37]

Mike: So Carol, our topic this week is working memory. Now, what is working memory and why is that important?

Carol: You know, Mike, that is an excellent question. I get asked that all the time because as parents are seeing challenges with their students, they will usually tell me that the students have difficulty following multi-step directions. And when we look at that, it’s an excellent example of what working memory really is. And working memory is that ability to hold on to two or more pieces of information and to do something with it. It also is that ability to be thinking about something and pull something out of our long-term memory to be able to take it to our current situation to solve problems and make decisions.

Mike: Well, you wrote a recent article about working memory and you called it “the new IQ.” Now what did you mean by that?

Carol: I’ll have parents call me and they’ll say, “You know, I just had my student’s IQ tested and I know they’re very smart but when we looked at the scores, their working memory score was really low.”

And so all the time we’ll see people who we know have strong intelligence in some different areas, but then as a common thread you will see challenges in working memory. And so where IQ, a lot of the times, can look at what someone knows, working memory is something that people have thought for years that was also just a static assessment that they would take, and now we know that it’s actually something that can be strengthened. Because, like I said, regardless of your IQ score, poor working memory is still going to result in challenges with learning.

When they do an IQ test, they’re going to look at four things. They’ll get a score for processing, working memory, comprehension, and perceptual reasoning. And they’ll look at those four areas.

Right now I’m finishing up my doctorate in education at Southern Seminary, and [I] just finished my big research study, and working with a school with kids with learning challenges. And so I had to see all their psychological testing beforehand to see if they qualified to be in the study. Well, one thing that was clear in the 32 students in our study is they all had low working memory.

Mike: So if a person has a really, really good memory—let’s say when they see something, they memorize it—will they have a real high score on the working memory category?

Carol: Well, there are a couple different things they’re going to look at, because there’s going to be auditory working memory, where they’re going to just hear things. And if that auditory processing is weak, or there’s difficulty discriminating whether it’s sounds, or the order of sounds, or they may have difficulty repeating something they hear, or they may not be able to make pictures in their head when they hear something. So they hear words, but they’re not able to hold on to it. So their auditory working memory may be weak, whereas if someone has a visual representation of something, and they have it in front of them, and they can visually see it, their visual working memory may be really strong.

Mike: Yeah. Okay, well that’d be good to know, of course.

Carol: Yeah, and so that can be challenging for parents and teachers or whoever’s working with them, because sometimes they’re like, “Well, I don’t understand, because they can do really well this way, and this way, something else.” And unfortunately, what has happened is people will then say, “Well, they’re just this type of learner.” And so what happens is then they make all these accommodations and strategies. As you and I both know, that doesn’t go on with you to college or to life. And so they’ll just [go], “Oh, I’m just going to teach the way they learn.” That just doesn’t work long-term.

Symptoms and solutions [5:10]

Mike: Carol, how can parents tell whether their child needs extra help developing his or her working memory?

Carol: Well, Mike, I always say parents know their child better than anyone else. And so some of the key things that I’ll ask parents is, “Does it seem like you teach something one day and the next day it’s like you never taught it?” And I see a lot of heads nodding in the room.

Or I’ll say, “Do you tell them three things to go do and they may remember one of them, [or] they may say, ‘Well, wait a minute. You didn’t tell me that’?” And they may have difficulty with spelling. They may have difficulty with learning their math facts or they may have difficulty with reading comprehension. Maybe they get the main idea but have difficulty holding on to the details.

And so those are just a few things that we’ll say to pay attention to. More for the college student or if they’re in a co-op, that’ll be if they have difficulty listening to a lecture and taking notes and that can be a real challenge for them. Or difficulty with staying focused with attention. And a lot of times, unfortunately that gets misdiagnosed as having ADD/ADHD when it could actually just be poor working memory.

Mike: Well, if the child’s having a problem in this area, what’s a parent to do?

Carol: Well, that’s when it’s really beneficial to consult with an educational specialist. You know, as HSLDA members, you have the benefit of calling myself, Faith, Kristy, or Joyce and talking to special needs consultants. And that’s when we can sit there and do some informal checklists to determine where the breakdown is. Is it with the visual system—in what they’re seeing? Is it with the auditory system—with what they’re hearing? Is it in their language system—in how they express themselves? And so then that’s where we can help pinpoint and see which direction is going to be best. Is it something as simple [as] “go get a hearing test or an eye test,” or do we need to sit down and look at a further evaluation?

But then the next thing we’re always going to look at is a solution and how to strengthen those challenge areas. Because I’m not someone who’s going to put a label or a diagnosis on a student because we all have challenge areas and we all have strengths—but it’s [about] identifying those challenges so we can strengthen them.

Games help your child succeed [8:00]

Mike: Carol, what are some easy and fun ways for parents to help their kids develop working memory?

Carol: Mike, that’s what I get to do all day long and I have the funnest job in the world—and that is: by playing games! Games are the best way to develop working memory.

I think what we have to keep in mind is academic subjects show us where working memory is not working. Where it’s kind of falling apart, where it’s interfering with learning. And so instead of pulling out another curriculum where the child’s heart just sinks because, “Oh no, I can’t learn this,” we pull out games.

Because to train working memory we can only train the brain with something that’s known. And so imagine a deck of playing cards, for example, and where you take out the cards and you just have the student, “Well, tell me what number you see on the cards?” Well, all of our kids can do that. And then have them tell you what color. Well, we only have red and black on a deck of playing cards. And then have them tell you what suit and whether they have a heart or a diamond or a club or a spade.

But then it all comes back to what we’ve been trying to teach our kids all through the beginning, is the ability to take turns. And that’s how I like to explain working memory with parents because they can see their child do things. If they’re just focusing on one thing—“Oh, just a number on the card or just a color or just a suit”—they’re super fast. But then we take turns and I’ll ask them, “Hey, tell me the number of my first card, and then on the next card tell me the color you see. Now tell me the suit you see.” And then as you keep that going, I have parents who say, “Wait a minute, I can’t do this. Wait, what was I supposed to say? The number? Wait, is it the color next?” And then that’s when I’m like, “That’s what your working memory is.” And so we take something that’s really fun and play games with it.

My other favorite game is called “I See You.” The other day I mentioned in our interview how parents will say students have a hard time following directions. And it may be something [like] “You know, I need you to go upstairs and brush your teeth and put your pajamas on.” And they come back downstairs and they have their pajamas on but they forgot to brush their teeth. But I will play the game “I see you.” And so you just say to your child, “I see you going upstairs, now I see you putting on your pajamas, then I see you brushing your teeth. What do you see yourself doing?” And they repeat it back. “Mom, I see myself going upstairs. Then I see myself putting on my pajamas. Then I see myself brushing my teeth.” And they do it. And parents are just amazed. And I hear all the time, “That worked.”

But you can do that; you can make up silly things and make it a game to do as well. I will tell the kids though, “Next time your mom’s going to the grocery store say, ‘Mom, I see you picking up some mint chocolate chip ice cream for me, please. What do you see yourself doing?’”

Mike: Oh, Carol, I can see that that’ll get the kids attention; that’s great. Say, are there some resources you’re recommending to help children’s memory?

Carol: You know, there are probably three that I recommend outside of my own program. And that is: Erica Warren has a website called Good Sensory Learning, and then there are two computer games, and while I am not a huge advocate of computer games, two that I have used would be the games Jungle Memory by Dr. Tracy Alloway and Ross Alloway, who are just experts in this field and it has a lot of research behind it. But it’s not something that I would just say, “Put a child in front of a game to play, to just do on their own.” Having a parent sitting there as a coach, as a mediator, is really important. The other one is BrainWare Safari and Homeschool Buyers Co-op has the best price on it. Those are the ones that I have personally used and have seen positive results from.

Making therapy work for you [12:29]

Mike: Carol, tell us about your son’s learning disabilities. How did you help him overcome the struggles he faced?

Carol: Well Mike, my son’s struggles started the day he was born. He was a miracle, as all children are, but he was premature and had what was called respiratory distress. And literally it was like God had to breathe for him those first 13 hours before he was able to get the help he needed.

So we started off in speech therapy, and occupational therapy, working with specialists from the very beginning. And one thing that I did, Mike, that I just implore parents to do: every single therapy that Clayton received, I was present. I was either in the room physically or in an observation room, because I wanted to learn what they were doing. Because I knew for the brain to make the connections that it had to happen seven days a week and not just for that hour a couple times a week that we went to therapy. And so that was a huge difference.

I also, when he got intensive therapy when he was about 8 years old, got to know the director of the center, I got trained in all the therapies that he was doing. And I really found as I partnered really with the people that we worked with—with the therapist and the centers—that I was actually interviewing them, to say, “Are you going to allow me to be a part of this process?” And if they would, then we had a great working relationship.

He continued to make progress, but you know, when he was a sophomore in high school, despite all the progress, he hit another road block and actually I needed to pull him out of the classical school [where] I was headmaster and hire someone to homeschool him. And we kind of thought we were stuck at that point and we didn’t see college as an option right then. And so that’s when I did more training in neuroplasticity and cognitive development training. And through that he went through some more therapy, fast-forward, ended up attending Boyce College which is the undergraduate for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, got a degree in biblical counseling, and we were thrilled with that.

What was most thrilling, which I did not mention earlier, was because of his learning struggles he actually didn’t have language until he was 4 years old. He had a severe language processing disorder in what he understood and what he could say. And ironically, he now has the gift of speaking and preaching and teaching and so we actually have to get out video tapes [of] when he was young to kind of prove to some of his friends, so to speak, that he really did have the challenges, because he is just so articulate now and has even done graduate work. He’s also a therapist at the center that we have at Equipping Minds.

And so we have been the parents who have cried the tears, who spend tens of thousands of dollars on therapy, but right now he would not pass as having learning challenges. And so that has been—he’ll be 24 in a couple weeks—a 24-year journey that we’ve been on and it’s been exciting to see how God has worked in his life.

Mike: Well Carol, thank you so much for sharing that story. That’s tremendously inspiring for us.

Equipping minds to thrive [16:22]

Mike: Tell us about your Equipping Minds program. How did you get started and what’s the purpose of it?

Carol: Mike, Equipping Minds started in 2009. I had stepped out of private school administration to really focus on helping students like our son, like Clayton, who were having challenges, not really reaching that full potential and were kind of coming to a crashing halt, like with high school and some frustrations. And so what I saw is as effective and great a teacher could be, that it was really the student’s mind that we needed to focus on. And that’s when we started taking really a holistic approach in how we worked with students.

Now, ironically, before we got on this call today I was working with a young girl with Down syndrome. What we found with Equipping Minds is that it’s not just for kids like Clayton, it is for students with neurodevelopmental delays like Down syndrome or fetal alcohol syndrome or people who experience a traumatic brain injury, autism, ADHD, dyslexia. But, in fact, believe it or not, we have even trained Toyota executives. We’ve worked with senior adults to help prevent dementia, and people who’ve had PTSD. And so, many adopted students are clients that we work with.

And the real purpose of Equipping Minds as well is that it’s threefold. We actually work with families on Skype, and if you’re an HSLDA family then I do complimentary time with you to help assess what’s going to be best. So we can work with families doing therapy on Skype. We work with missionary families in over 20 countries and families around the U.S. But then we also have our program in a workbook in a workshop that’s home-based, so many of our homeschool families are actually purchasing that because we are developing those cognitive foundations for learning. And so, when we say “equipping minds,” we’re talking about equipping the minds of parents to actually be the ones helping their child and equipping the student’s mind as well to reach the full potential that God has.

Mike: Carol, what a great week this has been. This has been so inspiring and I know it’s going to be helpful to our listeners and so thank you very much and until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Carol BrownPhoto of Carol

Carol Brown has over 30 years of experience as a principal, teacher, cognitive developmental therapist, social worker, reading and learning specialist, speaker, consultant, and mother. She also homeschooled her children at different stages of their educational journey.

Carol received her M.A. in Social Services from Southwestern Seminary and B.A. in Rehabilitation Counseling from Marshall University. She is a certified school counselor, special education specialist, teacher and principal, and served classical Christian schools in North Carolina, Georgia, Northern Virginia, and Lyon, France. Since 2009, she has been the director of Equipping Minds Brain Development Center and author of Equipping Minds Cognitive Development Curriculum. In 2012, Carol was licensed and certified as an FIE Mediator by the Feuerstein Institute: International Institute for the Enhancement of Learning Potential.

Beginning in 2014, Carol continues her educational and research endeavors pursuing a Doctor of Education at Southern Seminary in Louisville. She has been married to Kyle for 26 years, and they have three grown children.

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