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Closing the achievement gap for students with learning disabilities

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In January, I presented at a Congressional briefing on neuroscience in education. My hope was to raise awareness about the need to find ways to add training in basic foundational skills to the educational system. Students come to the classroom with varying levels in their capacity to learn and with different profiles of cognitive strengths and weakness that can facilitate or impair learning and academic achievement. Therefore, addressing the underlying cognitive deficits of students with learning disabilities is a key way to help close the achievement gap.

Although considerable research has documented that students with learning disabilities have underlying deficits in visual and verbal working memory, executive functions and processing speed that contribute to their poor academic performance (Meltzer,2007; Naglieri, 2008), much of the current interventions are geared toward circumventing these weaknesses rather than remediating them. This may be somewhat due to the fact that although much progress has been achieved in the field of cognitive neuroscience with regard to the relationships between cognitive processes and learning (Naglieri & Das, 2001), there is still much uncertainty about the efficacy of training cognitive skills in directly improving academics.

I have set myself on a mission to fill this gap in special education. The good news is that research on the effectiveness of cognitive training continues to progress. As a trans-disciplinarian, I value the collaboration across disciplines and feel that by having cognitive neuroscience and special education blend efforts to create more targeted interventions for special-needs students, we stand to open new pathways to improve education practice.

I shared with Congress the striking results of a recent study I conducted in New York City with 40 elementary-school students in grades 2 to 4 with specific learning disabilities who completed a neuroscience computer-based cognitive skills training program called BrainWare Safari.

Before I continue, let me note that I am an independent researcher and have no professional relationship with BrainWare. I asked them for permission to use their software as part of my research and have presented my research findings on their website and in webinars.

The purpose of the experimental study was to examine the effectiveness of BrainWare Safari on both the cognitive and academic performance of students. Results showed that after 12 weeks of training, the children in the experimental group improved their cognitive functioning by 2.8 years, compared with two months for the control group, with significant growth in each skill area examined including working memory, broad attention, executive function and processing speed. The experimental group increased their General Intelligence Ability (GIA) scores from 63% to 89%, essentially closing the gap to normal performance or to the performance generally expected from typically developing peers.

BrainWare Safari did have significant impact on academic performance as well even though the intervention addressed cognitive skills rather than specific reading or math instruction. Reading improved by 0.8 grade equivalent for the experimental group, compared with 0.1 grade equivalent for the control group. Math performance improved 1 grade equivalent, compared with 0.2 equivalent for the control group. In other words, the experimental group became 31% more proficient in reading and 25% more proficient in math at post assessment than they were three months prior. Their counterparts in the non-treatment group became 1% more proficient in reading and 4% more in math (Abitbol Avtzon, 2013).

Implications from these results include that training of cognitive processes for students with learning disabilities can result in significant academic performance. As an independent researcher, I aim to continue evaluating the effect of BrainWare Safari on other student populations with special needs and compare and contrast effectiveness levels among other existing cognitive-skill-training programs.

Our children deserve brain-informed educational practice. Being helped to develop the capacity to benefit from good teaching and good curriculum is essential to closing the achievement gap.

Sarah Avtzon is director of early childhood education for Daemen College’s master’s program in early childhood special education. Avtzon trains faculty, special-education mentors and practicum supervisors in effective instructional strategies for teacher candidates. She also consults in many self-contained and inclusion settings in New York City, presents workshops on various topics in special education.


Abitbol Avtzon, S. (2013). The effect of neuroscience cognitive skill training on growth of cognitive deficits associated with learning disabilities in grades 2-4. Learning disabilities: A multidisciplinary journal, Vol 18 (3)

Meltzer, L.J. (Ed.). (2007). Executive Function in Education: from theory to practice. Guildford Press, N.Y.

Naglieri, J.A. (2008). Best practices in linking cognitive assessment of students with learning disabilities to interventions. In Thoma, A., Grimes, J., (Eds), Best practices in school psychology, p.679-696. National Association of School Psychologists: Bethesda, Md.