Building Your Toddler's Cognitive Skills
You consider yourself a good parent, right? You try to limit TV time for your toddler, buy organic whenever you can, and download only the most educational apps to keep your little one entertained while you fold laundry or get dinner started.
But if you’re like the rest of us, sometimes you wonder what else you could be doing now to help your toddler excel later. Should they be playing an instrument already? Learning Japanese? Doing baby yoga?
Everyone wants their baby to grow up to be healthy, happy and smart. You’re probably doing enough to promote the first two already. But what about the latter? What can you do now to help your child avoid struggling academically later? You can start by building a foundation of strong cognitive skills.
What are cognitive skills?
“Cognitive skills are the core skills your brain uses to think, read, learn, remember, reason and pay attention,” says Tanya Mitchell, Vice President of Research & Development for LearningRx’s, personal brain training company with 80 centers across the United States. “Working together, they take incoming information and move it into the bank of knowledge you use every day at school, at work, and in life. In babies and toddlers, we may not see these weak skills manifesting yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start targeting these foundational brain skills.”
Each of your cognitive skills plays an important part in processing new information. That means if even one of these skills is weak, no matter what kind of information is coming your way, grasping, retaining or using that information is impacted. In fact, most learning struggles are caused by one or more weak cognitive skills.
Here’s a brief description of each cognitive skill, as well as the struggles your child could experience once they start school, if that skill is weak:
What it does: Sustained attention enables you to stay focused and on task for a sustained period of time. (There’s also divided and selective attention.)
Common problems (once your child starts school) when this skill is weak during school years: Lots of unfinished projects, jumping from task to task
What to do with your toddler now: Buy age-appropriate wooden puzzles.
What it does: While working member enables you to hang on to information while in the process of using it, long-term memory enables you to recall information stored in the past.
Common problems (once your child starts school) when these memory skills are weak: When memory is weak, they may have to read the directions again in the middle of a project, have difficulty following multi-step directions, or forget what was just said in a conversation. They may forget names, do poorly on tests and forget things they used to know.
What to do with your toddler now: Play age-appropriate memory match games.
“Although there are different types of memory, working memory plays an especially large role when your child enters preschool,” explains Mitchell. “That’s because it’s the age at which children expand their ability to follow multi-step directions.”
Logic & Reasoning
What it does: Enables you to reason, form ideas, and solve problems
Common problems (once your child starts school) when this skill is weak: Frequently asking “What do I do next?” or saying “I don’t get this,” struggling with math, feeling stuck or overwhelmed
What to do with your infant now: Show them a stuffed toy, then place it under a towel right in front of them. Then encourage them to find it, which will help their understanding of object permanence.
What it does: Enables you to analyze, blend, and segment sounds
Common problems (once your child starts school) when this skill is weak: Struggling with learning to read, reading fluency, or reading comprehension
What to do with your infant and toddler now: Read to them. Studies indicate that reading to infants and toddlers can promote thought development and help with phonemic awareness.
“Contrary to what many parents believe, letter knowledge is NOT the foundation to reading,” explains Mitchell. “Reading skills are built on phonemic awareness, such as sound blending and segmenting. In fact, studies show a 90 percent decrease in reading problems if children are first introduced to sound analysis activities. In addition to reading to your child, you can also build sound analysis skills by practicing rhyming, which forces the dissection of sounds.”
What it does: Enables you to think in visual images
Common problems (once your child starts school) when this skill is weak: Difficulties understanding what you’ve just read, remembering what you’ve read, following directions, reading maps, doing word math problems
What to do with your toddler now: When they get old enough to understand, tell them stories using descriptive words. Then ask them questions, such as, “What color was the dog in that story?”
What it does: Enables you to perform tasks quickly and accurately
Common problems (once your child starts school) when this skill is weak: Most tasks are more difficult. Taking a long time to complete tasks for school or work, frequently being the last one in a group to finish something
What to do with your toddler now: Add a timer to games and tasks that challenge cognitive skills, such as doing puzzles or playing the match game alone to see how fast they can find all the pairs.
Build a Smart Mom’s Toy Box for under $20
Stock your toddler’s toy box with simple, inexpensive toys that can build cognitive skills. A few ideas:
- A deck of playing cards for memory match: Just spread out all the cards face down and have them try to find pairs. If they draw two cards that aren’t the same number or face card, they go back in the same spot face down. Builds memory and attention skills. ($1)
- A geometric-shaped magnet set with board: Create a simple design and have your child replicate it. Builds logic & reasoning, visual processing and attention. ($5)
- Rhyming words domino-like cards: Use these double-sided cards with words and pictures to teach rhyming. Builds sound segmenting, rhyming and auditory processing. ($3)
- A wooden shape sorter: Encourage children as young as two to sort shapes. Builds logic & reasoning, visual processing and attention. ($9)
- A timer: Add a timer to any task then encourage your child to beat their own time. Builds processing speed. ($1)
“When cognitive skills are strong, learning is fast, easy, efficient and fun,” says Mitchell. “Toys that work these skills are a step toward creating strong learners.”
If you’d like to learn more about building a foundation of strong cognitive skills, contact your local LearningRx center.
We just ran across this study that used a raisin and a plastic cup to predict what 20-month-old toddlers’ academic performances would be at 8 years old. Although it’s certainly not set in stone, it might be fun to do with your toddler now to see how long they “hold out!”