Goal of program is to make technology useful for kids

By Catherine Robertson Souter
June 1st, 2013

In 2010, the Kaiser Foundation reported that children spend more than seven hours each day with entertainment media, including time on a computer at home or at school, playing video games, watching television or using a mobile device. If multitasking is taken into account, like texting while watching a show, that number climbs to more than 10 hours.

According to Randy Kulman, Ph.D., president and clinical director of South County Child and Family Consultants in Wakefield, R.I., and author of “Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to Executive Functions,” we have to accept that digital media is not going away. With many recent studies pointing out ways that technology can help with development and learning, it’s time, he says, to harness the undeniable attraction it has for children and put it to better use.

In February, Kulman and a team of collaborators launched a Web site designed to work with parents, educators and clinicians to do just that called “Learning Works For Kids.” He spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about his endeavor and how they hope to use the medium to improve executive functioning in children.

Q: Where did the idea for this site come from?

A: In the early 1990s, I was doing a doing a great deal of therapy with kids and I would ask them what they liked to do, what engaged them. It seemed to be pretty universal that kids loved technology. They weren’t learning necessarily from it but they were sure engaged in it.

There is a great deal of data showing that video games and other technology can improve reading fluency or working memory skills, but games in and of themselves are not enough. Otherwise, we would not have kids coming in to see us anymore. So, we’ve tried to figure out how we can help parents and educators use those games to help kids.

Q: How does the site work?

A: We essentially prescribe a set of games and skills. People who subscribe to the site get updates on a daily basis, new games and apps that are coming out. We have written up extensive guides, what we call playbooks, about each game that tell parents what parts they should play with their kids, what they should talk about. Then we help them develop what we call generalization strategies – activities that take the skills and practice them in the real world.

We have developed a set of measures of executive functioning skills that we have been working on over the past five or six years through a series of studies with over 500 people and presentations at different conferences. From this, we developed a questionnaire for a parent to complete to tell us about their kid’s executive functioning skills and from there, we  can prescribe a set of games and technologies to help.

Q: Do you develop these games?

A: Although we have talked about developing training games and apps at some point, at this point, we simply prescribe games and apps that kids already like – popular games, fun games and find ways to use them to teach skills.

Q: Give me an example of a game that you would recommend?

A: Angry Birds, for instance, is a popular game for executive functioning skills because when you play, you need to use planning skills to plan out each shot and you need to predict the consequences. It’s a good game for practicing flexibility – what works on one level doesn’t work on another level.

Q: The site is mainly subscription-based yet you also provide some free material?

A: We have about 500-600 playbooks and about 10 percent of them are free.

While the site is good for any parent who has concerns about their kid’s use of video games and wants to make it more productive, it is particularly strong for parents of kids who have ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, executive functioning disorders, anxiety and depression. Subscriptions are more for parents who want specific recommendations for their kids based on their needs. People who join also get access to additional quizzes that provide more specific information beyond the original assessment.

We are also building parts specifically for clinicians, psychologists, social workers and educators and we are doing an evaluation of our school-based program “Playing Smarter,” in a local preschool.

Q: You’ve done 500-600 of these in-depth playbooks and thousands of pages of written information. How did you put this all together, it sounds like a massive undertaking.

A: Well, you’re right about that. We have five people to do the game playing and the ratings and write the guides. They go through an extensive training program around executive functions and ADHD and autism.

We play all the games on the site and rate them according to what I call the LQ, or learning quotient. An LQ is made up of two components, a brain score and a fun score – we only put up games that we like to play, that are good.

The information on the site gets updated daily. We add between 35-50 games and apps a month and, in terms of posts and articles and recommendations, there are three to five a week. When a parent goes onto their Learning Works for Kids page, they will see new articles relating to the executive functions that their child needs work on. They don’t have to go searching.

 Q: So much of this research that you’ve based this on is new.

A: What we have here fits with the scientist/practitioner model I grew up with even though there is not great research yet to support all of these interventions. That’s one of the questions that I face when I go to APA conferences. But we do know that the kind of strategic teaching that we have built into the program, all of our concepts are out there. For example, the idea of metacognition, helping kids to think about their thinking, the idea of developing activities to generalize skills from one place to another, those are as solid as you get when it comes to teaching kids who have learning and attentional differences. One of the things we talk about in education is the idea of the differentiated instructional model, individualizing teaching to a child’s needs.

Q: Why is this important and why now?

A: When you look at the data, how much time kids are spending on digital media, it is incredible. We should know a whole heck of a lot more about that because there are legitimate concerns about how this is affecting people. More and more kids have mobile devices that are just incredibly powerful, the power of computers in your hand, walking around playing games, accessing the Internet.

It is not going away so how do we make it better and more productive and useful for kids?

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