Playing Up Your (Cognitive) Strengths

Posted by Rachelle Hinkle on 10/6/2017 7:00:00 AM

If you’ve ever encountered an educational evaluation, you know that much of the content is centered around  assessing a student’s weaknesses, but little is usually discussed surrounding the child’s strengths. Teaching a child how to utilize their strengths can help them gain confidence and improve their use of coping with deficits. Of the sixteen cognitive abilities identified to date, there are nine that are commonly related to school success and are assessed on standard IQ tests. Let’s discuss a few and how to help your student to access their strengths.

The two cognitive abilities most associated with school success are crystallized (or verbal) and fluid reasoning abilities. Verbal abilities are acquired through learning, but fluid reasoning skills are more difficult to learn and are more innate. When a student has strong verbal skills, “one understands and uses language well, has an average or better vocabulary, has good listening skills, and is able to use language well via verbal expression” (Flanagan, 2013). Examples of instructional strategies that work best for individuals with strong verbal skills include storytelling, brainstorming, journaling, and publishing/displaying written work. Fluid reasoning skills include how one makes correlations among concepts, draws inferences, and rearranges or transforms new information. Students with fluid reasoning strengths work well in small groups, need lots of breaks and time to think, and rely heavily on having real-world examples of concepts, samples of completed work, and colorful textbooks.  

Two areas of sensory processing are vital to learning: visual and auditory. Visual processing is the ability to think about and analyze visual patterns and imagery that are important for success in advanced math, reading charts/graphs, and in printing or written work. Individuals with these strengths learn best by seeing, visualizing, drawing, and diagramming. Instructional practices that work best include using gestures and facial expression in lessons, having presentation slides and textbooks with plenty of images, creating flow charts and graphs, and encouraging students to underline, highlight, and draw symbols around text. Auditory processing, analyzing and synthesizing information are necessary for success in phonological awareness for early reading and writing development. Those with strong auditory processing skills remember what they hear and what they say.  They recall information they’ve read aloud, and excel at information presented in multimedia and music.

There are two types of memory, and what you do with them: short-term memory/working memory, and long-term memory storage/retrieval.  Both of these are necessary for reading, writing, and mathematic success. Short-term memory is necessary for following directions, spelling, sounding out words, doing multi-step math problems, and understanding long reading passages. Without accuracy in short-term memory, long-term memory storage errors may occur. However, long-term memory retrieval is distinct and involves the ability to efficiently recall known information when necessary, the final demonstration that true learning has occurred.  An individual with strengths in long-term retrieval demonstrates the ease at which one recalls factual or visual information and can utilize flash cards, mnemonic devices and concept maps as study methods. Individuals with short-term memory strengths can handle a large amount of simple information, perform mental processes on it, and utilize it immediately, such as is used by successful librarians, day-traders, short-order cooks, and receptionists.

Finally, processing speed involves the time it takes to perform a mental task. Those who can do so efficiently are less inclined to make mistakes when pressed to work quickly, though one can be taught to improve.  Video gamers understand this necessity well and those with strong processing speed often become very successful assembly line workers, typists, data entry specialists, and sorters.

Rarely does one demonstrate a flat cognitive profile when assessed on all of these domains. Most often individuals have relative strengths and weaknesses, making them truly unique. Individualized education plans (IEPs) often focus on those lagging skills, or the deficits, but what makes for a real success story is when students can utilize their strengths to overcome their challenges.

Rachelle Hinkle Rachelle Hinkle, School Psychologist