This month’s featured author is Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway, a Psychology professor and Graduate Program Director with a PhD at the University of North Florida. Her series SEN Superpowers celebrates the positive traits associated with a range of common SEN (Special Education Needs) conditions, boosting the confidence and strength-awareness of children with those conditions, while also allowing for better understanding and positivity among their peers. We asked Tracy about her process and where she sees the series going. Order copies of the first two books in the series and pre-order upcoming books here.
Can you talk a little bit about your background in working memory? How did your work in psychology contribute to this series?
My journey began on a crisp October day about ten years ago. I was surrounded by a sea of small and eager faces in neatly pressed uniforms. As part of a government-funded project, I was working with 5 year-olds to understand what cognitive skills are important for academic success.
I met Andrew that day. That six-year-old boy stood out from the rest. He loved being at school and made friends quickly. In the classroom, he was always excited about participating and would raise his hand to answer questions. Andrew enjoyed ‘story time’ best, when Mrs. Smith would ask the children to present a short story. Andrew loved telling stories and would be so animated and use such creative examples that all the children enjoyed them as well.
As the school year progressed, I noticed that Andrew began to struggle with daily classroom activities. He would often forget simple instructions or get them mixed up. When all the other children were putting their books away and getting ready for the next activity, Andrew would be standing in the middle of room, looking around confused. When Mrs. Smith asked him why he was standing there, he just shrugged his shoulders. She tried asking him to write down the instructions so he could remember what to do. But by the time he got back to his desk, he had forgotten what he was supposed to write down.
His biggest problem seemed to be in writing activities. He would often get confused and repeat his letters. Even spelling his name was a struggle, he would write it with two ‘A’s or miss out the ‘W’ at the end. Mrs. Smith tried moving him closer to the board so he could follow along better. This didn’t seem to work; he would still get confused.
Mrs. Smith was at a loss. She always had to repeat instructions to Andrew but he never seemed to listen. It was as if her words went in one ear and out the other. On another occasion, an assistant found him at his desk not working. When she asked him why he wasn’t doing the assignment, he hung his head and said, “I’ve forgotten, sometimes I get mixed up and I am worried that teacher will get angry at me.”
His parents contacted me to see if I could help. They were concerned that Andrew might have a learning disability. When I tested Andrew on a range of psychological tests, I was surprised to find that he had an average IQ. Yet, by the end of the school year, he was at the bottom of the class.
Two years later, I went back to the school to conduct some follow-up testing on the children. Andrew seemed like such a different boy. He was placed in the lowest ability groups for language and math. He became frustrated more easily and would not even attempt some activities, especially if they involved writing. His grades were poor and he often handed in incomplete work. He only seemed happy on the playground.
Although I wasn’t able to follow up on Andrew, I never forgot him. His predicament inspired me to deeply research how we can support thousands of students who, like Andrew, struggle in class through no fault of their own. This book is about a powerful cognitive skill called working memory that, when properly supported, can stop students like Andrew from falling through the cracks and remembering their school years as a frustrating experience.
Special Education Needs is an area that desperately needs more children’s literature. What kind of research did you do on the current market and how you could start filling in some of those gaps?
It is hard to conceive of a classroom activity that does not involve working memory, our ability to work with information. In fact, it would be impossible for students to learn without working memory. From following instructions to reading a sentence, from sounding out an unfamiliar word to calculating a math problem, nearly everything a student does in the classroom requires working with information. Even when a student is asked to do something simple, like take out their science book and open it to page 289, they have to use their working memory. They have to work with a number of pieces of information, including looking for the book in the right place, such recalling that it is in their desk and not in their backpack, identifying which book is in fact their science book, and finally guesstimating where among the thick stack of pages they are most likely to find the correct one. If they overestimate or underestimate, they have to use their working memory to adjust, and flip forward or backwards until they finally find 289.
Most children have a working memory that is strong enough to quickly find the book and open to the correct page, but some don’t—approximately 10 percent in any classroom. A student that loses focus and often day dreams may fall in this 10 percent. A student that isn’t living up to their potential may fall in this 10 percent. A student that may seem unmotivated may fall in this 10 percent. In the past, many of these students would have languished at the bottom of the class, because their problems seemed insurmountable and a standard remedy like extra tuition didn’t solve them. But emerging evidence shows that many of these children can improve their performance by focusing on their working memory. Working memory is a foundational skill in the classroom and when properly supported it can often turn around a struggling student’s prospects.
How did you choose the topics you chose (ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, and autism)? What does it mean to you personally to have these special abilities represented in children’s books?
Working memory affects all areas of learning, from language to math, from history to art. No matter how hard Ben tries, he will not “catch up” with his peers. If your son or daughter has low grades in kindergarten as a result of their working memory, they will almost certainly have poor grades all the way through high school. In one study, I found that teenagers who were diagnosed with working memory deficits two years previously were still performing very poorly in school (Alloway, 2009).
As students get older, the learning gap also widens and they will continue to struggle throughout their academic career. If a six-year-old with working memory deficits is struggling, they are unlikely to catch up with their peers without intervention (Alloway et al., 2009). In a government-funded study, I compared 6- and 11-year-olds with working memory deficits and found that he effect of poor working memory is cumulative, resulting in greater decrements in learning as a student gets older.
This difference in performance can be explained in part by the classroom environment of the two age groups. Younger children are more likely to have additional adult support and memory aids made available for them in the classroom. However, as they get older, they are typically expected to be more independent in their learning and may be left to develop their own strategies. In older classrooms, teachers are also more likely to use longer and more complex sentences, which require the students to rely on their working memory. Their poor working memory means that they struggle to acquire key learning skills and concepts. Without these building blocks in place, they are unable to keep up with their peers. As they get older, the combination of the increasing difficulty of their class work and an insufficient learning foundation results in them lagging behind their peers.
This is why early diagnosis and support is so crucial. I regularly come across parents of college-age students who tell me with tears in their eyes how they wished they knew about working memory when their child was younger, how much it could have helped them, and how much they struggle just to pass a test now they are in college. The good news is that we can change their grades by changing their working memory.
Some students have poor working memory and a learning disability as well. In fact, if a student has a learning disability, they also have a poor working memory. Thus students with learning disabilities have a double deficit: they have a “core problem” and a working memory deficit. Each of the learning disabilities included in this series have very different “core problems”. For example, students with dyslexia are characterized by reading difficulties, those with ADHD find it hard to inhibit and control their behavior, individuals with Autistic Spectrum Disorder have a restricted range of language and social skills, and those with an anxiety disorder can experience a working memory overload due to worrisome thoughts.
Given their distinctive profile, what do these groups have in common? All of them have a weakness in working memory. That is not to say that poor working memory causes the core deficit in their respective disorder. However, it coexists as a separate problem and ultimately leads to learning difficulties. For example, a deficit in working memory does not cause motor problems in the student with DCD, but their weak working memory leads to learning difficulties. Throughout this series, we will learn that each group also has a specific area of working memory strength – a superpower! And when we know what this is, we can provide targeted support to maximize learning.
Can you talk about what challenges you encountered creating this series?
The biggest challenge was to demonstrate how the brain works in these children and to shift the focus on maximizing their strengths. It is easy to focus on their learning needs and miss the many ways in which their brain is unique and gives them an advantage in other areas.
What research are you currently working on? Any chance we’ll see it pop up in the next SEN Superpowers book?
You will have to stay tuned to find out!
About Tracy Packiam Alloway
Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD is a Psychology professor and Graduate Program Director at the University of North Florida. She specializes in working memory and its role in learning and the benefits of training working memory. As well as having written several books on the subject, Dr Alloway’s work has been featured on Good Morning America, the Today Show, The Washington Post and many others. She blogs for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post. Visit Tracy online here.