Is poor cognition the root cause of some of our most common categories of special educational needs? Sarah Marks, head of education at MyCognition, believes it is and that the company’s Achieve programme can help

Special educational needs (SEN) is a diverse label, encompassing everything from mild, non-specific learning difficulties and emotional and social behavioural difficulties (ESBD), to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the subgroups of specific learning and physical difficulties. In this complex landscape, educators must look to creative solutions to help address the numerous hurdles facing children with SEN.

By going to the root of the issue – the brain – and looking at SEN through the lens of cognition, schools can improve their ability to identify and understand their pupils and begin to address each individual child’s unique and personal educational needs. Cognition is our ability to think, learn, respond and remember. A healthy cognition is critical in order to live life to the full and to make good life choices.

As such, cognitive health is essential for optimal educational development. The five key cognitive health domains are: attention (concentration), executive function (planning and strategic thinking), psychomotor speed (speed and accuracy), working memory (problem solving) and episodic memory (recall). Altogether, these make up who we are and what we can become in life.


Cognition and SEN
Poor cognitive health is closely correlated with special education needs. Many types of specific learning difficulties are intricately linked to specific cognitive domains, which is why it’s logical to take a ‘cognition-led approach’ to identifying and supporting children with SEN. ADHD, for example, is closely associated with attention and poor episodic memory, while dyslexia and dyscalculia are both linked to poor working memory.

MyCQ-Score

MyCQ-Score

A cognition-led approach means that focusing on the working memory domain improves pupils’ problem-solving ability. This can be the trigger that helps a child with dyscalculia to engage in learning, become more confident with numbers and be able to count or remember a parent’s phone number. As cognition is the very basis of mental wellness, a cognition-led approach to identifying and supporting SEN makes sense.

It is, however, a relatively new approach, and educators are often inhibited by school policy, which tends to focus on curricular content and passing examinations rather than going to the root cause of their students’ needs and specifically improving their cognitive health. It is like asking an athlete with a broken leg to take part in a 100 metres race without first healing the break.

We developed Achieve to transform SEN provision in schools and improve cognitive health for all children. Achieve, is a rigorous, scientific tool designed to measure and improve cognitive health in children aged four and above. It comprises cognitive assessment tools, and an integrated training programme, made up of entertaining online games. These interactive tools were developed in partnership with world-class institutions, including the University of Cambridge and Amsterdam Medical Centre.

Achieve empowers children with SEN and supports their parents and educators by helping them to identify the potential causes of SEN. The programme’s adaptive cognitive training generates measurable cognitive improvement, and it is an engaging tool that motivates children.


The assessment
Achieve includes two psychometric cognitive assessments. The first, AquaSnap Assess, is aimed at children between the ages of four and eight or those with mild to moderate learning difficulties. It is the first cognitive assessment to be embedded into a video game. This unprecedented combination helps children access, engage and enjoy the programme instead of reacting adversely to a more structured, formal assessment.

The second assessment, MyCQEd is aimed at students of eight to eighteen years and it provides the insight and information required for tailored cognitive training. Both assessments are based on over 200 years of neuropsychological and experimental psychological research, but can be self-administered in about 15 minutes using any computer or iPad.

The assessments quantify individual performance in the five key cognitive domains, providing children with a visual representation of their strengths and areas in need of development. Teachers receive a detailed report encompassing each domain, which offers them a greater understanding of the children’s cognitive health. When the assessment is retaken, both students and teachers are provided with a visual representation of progression achieved since the last assessment. This visibility is a key element in allowing children to be actively involved in their learning journeys.


Identifying special educational needs

MyCognition Diagram

MyCognition Diagram

The identification of special educational needs can be a complex and lengthy process involving parents, teachers, and medical specialists as well as local and legal authorities. AquaSnap Assess and MyCQEd are simple to administer, more accurate and quicker than previous methods, transforming the use of psychometric tests in education.

It is estimated that 17.9 per cent of children in the UK have some form of special educational needs, but only 2.8 per cent have formal statements of SEN, known now as Education, Health and Care plans (EHC). Although many SEN children may never require an EHC, an enhanced understanding of the nature of their needs is nevertheless invaluable when it comes to deciding how best to help and support them.

The new assessments provide the missing information by way of a unique, detailed analysis of the cognitive health for each child. The knowledge that a young child with ADHD may further be held back by poor recall (episodic memory) rather than just a short attention span, for instance, can help teachers to adapt their teaching methods and better draw out the child’s potential. Each child’s unique profile requires a unique, personalised solution. The assessments allow this through targeted, adaptive training, as explained below.


Cognitive training
After the initial assessment, the next step in the programme is cognitive training. The cognitive training within Achieve caters to children aged four and above through adaptive, video games. The games are integrated with the assessment so that once a pupil has completed AquaSnap Assess or MyCQEd, the training adapts to each individual’s specific cognitive needs.

Integration with the assessment allows the games to focus on cognitive areas in need of development while providing holistic training for all areas of the brain. The video game is the best way to encourage the compliance of the child, because they are deliberately being taken out of their comfort zone and trained where their cognition is most fragile.

Traditional teaching methods don’t offer a framework or the necessary flexibility to target abstract parts of the brain function to help exercise specific aspects of a SEN pupil’s cognition – but technology is now enabling us to do this.


MyCognition’s work in schools
Our training games are designed to target these abstract parts of the brain function and they have been shown to generate measurable cognitive improvements. We ran a major study at the Stad & Esch School in the Netherlands to quantify the cognitive improvement following repeated play of our games over eight weeks.

The study split 600 Year 7 and 8 pupils into 300 game-playing students and a 300-strong control group. For all game playing students there was an improvement across all five cognitive domains, with statistically significant improvements in working memory, which tends to be particularly low in students with dyscalculia, dyslexia and autism, and executive function, frequently low in those who suffer from dyspraxia and ASD.

These positive results were later endorsed by the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies at its forum in Milan in July 2014. MyCognition is now working with over 2,000 pupils across the UK to introduce cognitive training in the classroom. The schools we partner with use Achieve on a tailored basis, either focusing training on the children who have the greatest need, as highlighted by the assessment, or choosing instead to train a whole class.

In whole class training the children believe they are all playing the same game, without realising it is specifically training their unique, individual needs. Thus, there is no stigma attached to the game play. The positive results that we received in our pilot trial have been echoed by the feedback received to date.

Selborne Primary School, an innovative and forward thinking school based in Hampshire has introduced Achieve to students in Years 3, 4, 5 and 6. Beyond the marked improvements in MyCQEd scores thanks to cognitive training (see graph below), the qualitative feedback from the school reveals increased confidence, enthusiasm and motivation among the pupils. ‘My level of concentration has changed since playing AquaSnap,’ says a pupil at Selborne.

For another child who experienced the training games, the experience was equally positive: ‘Since playing AquaSnap I enjoy my time at school more’. The games can also enhance the performance of SEN children in traditional subjects. A Year 8 pupil at Reading school with Asperger’s syndrome, felt that, ‘[he]could remember more words in foreign languages’, while, for another Year 8 student, the main difference was felt in working memory: ‘I think I am faster at problem solving in maths’, he stated.


Year 5 boy with special educational needs over an eight-week period (Selborne CE Primary School)

Graph of cognitive assessment score

Graph of cognitive assessment score


To provide effective support to children with special educational needs, we need to embrace technological developments and introduce them into our schools. Achieve is our answer to this complex challenge, as it sits alongside traditional teaching, but seeks to go right to the heart of individuals’ cognitive issues and make a real difference.

It is also providing the vital ingredient of evidence, through research-based school trials and studies. Schools have for a long time understood the value of promoting physical education; now is the time to take the next step forward and embrace the power and potential of cognitive training.

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About Contributors

Sarah Marks has been the Director of Education at MyCognition for a year. She is an advocate of a skills-based approach to learning and has presented at various events about the importance of cognitive health in education. Previously, she worked for Service Children’s Education as a primary school teacher specialising in science, special educational needs and working with autistic students.

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