Tutoring vs. Brain Training: Interventions for Students Who Struggle with Dr. Amy Moore and Sandy Zamalis

About this Episode

If your child or teen has every struggled in school, your first instinct might have been to enroll them in tutoring. It makes sense, as that’s the intervention most parents are familiar with. But there are two parts to smart: the knowledge you acquire (e.g., history facts or math formulas) and how we process that information (e.g., learning, memorizing, understanding how and when to apply that math formula). Brain training helps with the latter. Today, our hosts cognitive psychologist Dr. Amy Moore and board-certified cognitive specialist Sandy Zamalis sit down to explain how to determine which intervention might best help your student based on their specific struggles, as well as how cognitive skills training addresses the root cause of learning challenges. They also offer some insight to help boost cognitive skills at home, including some free resources being offered to listeners. Whether you’ve tried tutoring with little (or temporary) results or are just starting your research into interventions to help your struggling student, you won’t want to miss this important episode.

About Dr. Amy Moore

Dr. Amy Moore is a cognitive psychologist at LearningRx in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the headquarters of the largest network of brain training centers in the world. She specializes in cognitive training and assessment for neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, brain injury, learning disabilities and age-related cognitive decline. Her research has been published in peer-reviewed medical and psychological journals and presented at conferences around the country. She has been a child development specialist, education administrator, and teacher of teachers with a PhD in psychology and a master’s degree in early childhood education. Dr. Amy has been working with struggling learners for 25+ years in public, private, and government organizations, so she knows a little about thinking and learning. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Modern Brain Journal, a TEDx Speaker, host of the Brainy Moms podcast, a licensed pastor, and a board-certified Christian counselor. Dr. Amy is married to Jeff Moore, a retired Air Force fighter pilot now working as a surgical nurse. They have three incredible sons (ages 19, 23, and 25) and a very mischievous but soft Siberian cat. Originally from South Carolina, Dr. Amy has called Colorado home since 2006.

Website: www.AmyMoorePhD.com
Watch her TEDx talk, Lessons Learned from Training 101,000 Brains
Read her research: https://www.learningrx.com/brain-training-research/

About Sandy Zamalis

Sandy is a brainy mom of 2 who loves co-hosting our show! She’s a Board Certified Cognitive Specialist and the owner of LearningRx Staunton-Harrisonburg in VA where she spends her days improving the lives of struggling students through brain training. Her diverse background includes being a USA Swimming Coach, probation officer, homeschooling moms, and small business owner in 3-D printing and scanning. Sandy has been married for 26 years and is her passion is helping families understand learning challenges so that children can find success and confidence. Find Sandy on TikTok @TheBrainTrainerLady.

Resources from this Episode

Learn more about cognitive skills and brain training. Download the free ebook, Unlock the Einstein Inside: Wake Up the Smart in Your Child
Try some brain training exercises! Download the free Brain Training Game Pack
Find out how LearningRx might be able to help you or your child. Visit LearningRx.com

Listen or Subscribe to our Podcast

Watch this episode on YouTube

Read the transcript for this episode:

DR. AMY: Hi, smart moms and dads. Welcome to another episode of the Brainy Moms Podcast brought to you today by LearningRx Cognitive Skills Training Centers. I’m Dr. Amy Moore, and I am here with Sandy Zamalis. Good morning, Sandy.

SANDY: Good morning, Amy.

DR. AMY: How are you doing today?

SANDY: I’m doing really, really good today. I’m excited about our topic today.

DR. AMY: What is our topic?

SANDY: Yes. We’re talking about the question we get all the time: “What is the difference between tutoring and cognitive training and which one should I seek to get help for my child?”

DR. AMY: Yeah, I really love that question. And the reason we get asked that is because we work in the cognitive training space and so it appears when you walk in to one of our centers, it would look like a tutoring center when you first see it. And it isn’t until you’ve spent 10 or 15 minutes watching what it is that we do that you realize, “Whoa, this is nothing like tutoring.” And so I like to say that comparing brain training and tutoring is like comparing apples and lemons.

SANDY:  That’s totally different, right? Just different spheres, different strategies. So let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about it from a strategy perspective. What’s the difference?

DR. AMY: Yeah. So, Kim Hanson, the CEO of LearningRx, likes to say that there are “two parts to smart.” So there’s information that you know, and there’s how you process that information. And so tutoring focuses on information. Right? What it is that you know, and learning that. Cognitive training, or brain training, focuses on how we learn, how we process incoming information. And so, it’s how the brain engages different cognitive skills; memory, and attention, and reasoning, and visual and auditory processing, and processing speed. How the brain engages those skills, and how those interact with the incoming information, and that impacts how easily we learn or how difficult it is to learn based on the strength of those individual cognitive skills. And so we, we target those, right? So tutors focus on information. It’s typically reteaching information that was not learned initially in the classroom because of some sort of learning difficulty usually. And then what we’re doing is targeting and strengthening those individual cognitive skills so that students can learn.

SANDY: Yeah. In all capacities, right? So not just learning a particular subject area, right? Cause we’ll get calls for people who want a math tutor, right? Well, that can be specific, you know, what year, what content are they working on? But where I think cognitive training comes into play is how well do you have good number fluency? Like, do you understand number concepts?  How quickly can you engage with numbers versus understanding formulas or how to apply different math concepts as we go through all the different grades and ages, right? So a tutor can help you with, for example, algebra, right? But if you’ve been struggling with math forever, math has always been a struggle for you, then that might be a red flag that there’s something deeper going on cognitively. Correct?

DR. AMY: Absolutely. So you talked about using formulas in math problems. Well, if you can’t remember the formulas, then your struggle might not be that you don’t know how to use them. It’s that you can’t remember which formula goes with which kind of problem. And so that’s a memory issue. That is not a math issue.

SANDY: So is there any research that can kind of help a parent understand? Like what’s the best course? What’s the best way to go? 

DR. AMY: Yeah, so there’s interesting research on tutoring programs. And so I recently read a paper that had compared almost a hundred studies on tutoring. And they only looked at randomized control trials where they had tutoring as the intervention and then not tutoring as the control group. And so what they found was the most significant effects were in pre-K to first grade. But after that, they didn’t find strong results. And so what that says to me is that, well, there’s something called the Matthew effect. And the Matthew effect says that strong readers become stronger over time and weak readers become weaker over time. And you could apply this to actually, you know, math as well. And so in the absence of an intervention, that makes sense, right? If you are already weak. In an area and you do not get an intervention, but you’re in an environment where the information gets more difficult year after year, the amount of information is exponentially greater year after year, but you still have weak skills in that area, then that makes sense that just trying to reteach those skills or reteach that content to someone who has weak memory or weak attention or weak reasoning or weak visual and auditory processing skills, is like telling somebody with a cast on their leg to run faster.  “Hey, let’s just keep practicing. Just keep running faster.” Well, the leg is broken. Let’s work on fixing that first before we teach someone how to run fast.

SANDY: I always try to give parents the analogy of, really any school system, public education or even private education, it’s like a train that just keeps on moving, like never stops. The train just keeps going. And if at some point you fall off the train and you’re running, right, eventually that train’s just going to get further and further ahead without an intervention, because there’s no way to catch up. There’s no way to get back into, for example, grade-level reading if you were already a grade level or two behind without a specific intervention that helps get that reading up where it needs to be.

DR. AMY: Actually, yes, and, and we know that, you know, those early grades you’re learning to read and then the later grades you’re reading to learn. So if your auditory processing skills, for example, are weak as you’re learning to read, if you don’t master those, how will you be able to read to learn as that information is just coming at you like a train, right?

SANDY: Right.

DR. AMY: Yeah, and I’m not saying that tutoring isn’t a valuable intervention, because it is. There are, there are some situations where if you’ve missed this content because you’re either struggling in school, so you weren’t able to learn it the first time around, or let’s say maybe you had an accident or an illness and so you missed some school.  Situations like that are ripe for tutoring intervention, right? “Hey, they missed three months of school, they need to catch up, let’s get a tutor to help them.” That’s a situation that makes perfect sense. And we often tell families, who come for cognitive training, “Your child still may need a tutor later.” Because if they’re in fifth grade and they have struggled this whole time, and then come to us so that we can strengthen those underlying learning skills, those underlying cognitive skills, they still have to make up the missed information.

SANDY: We got to fill that knowledge bank, right? We’re still missing pieces of knowledge, even though maybe the brain has the capacity now to handle that information more efficiently. 

DR. AMY: Yes, that’s a perfect way to describe that.

SANDY: Okay. So who makes the best ideal choice for a tutor? If a parent is looking, they think they just, a tutor might be a great place to start. Because like you explained, it’s just been like a, you know, we were out for a while. Maybe the child was sick and they just need sort of a content refresh. Who is the best choice for tutoring for children?

DR. AMY: So the research shows that teachers actually make the best tutors. There’s a challenge with that though, right? Teachers are teaching whole classrooms. And so, unless a school offers tutoring in school by teachers, then that’s not a scenario that is probably going to be available. So then paraprofessionals are the next most effective tutor, according to the research. And so, those who are specifically trained in teaching strategies, instructional strategies, who use a tutoring curriculum that’s scripted or structured, that would be the next best option. The research shows that volunteers don’t necessarily get the best results. 

SANDY: Because they don’t necessarily have the background knowledge maybe themselves?

DR. AMY: Absolutely. I mean, I, I love the, you know, reading grandmothers, you know, programs where they pull kids out one on one and read to them. I think that’s so important for young children to be read to and to read with someone one on one. But when you’re in a situation where your child needs significant remediation, that is not going to fix the problem. 

SANDY: Okay. So that’s a good transition to a question that we got in one of our TikTok videos or from the last attention episode we did a while back. We had a special education teacher ask, “Well, how do I build cognitive skill? It is my job to get the child caught up.” But what I’m hearing you say is that really teachers, paraprofessionals, they kind of sort of fall in that tutoring bucket, right? So they’re going to be really tutors and they may or may not have the skills to address the cognitive weakness part, which is where a cognitive trainer would need to come into play. Can we talk about that a little bit? Cause we do get that a lot of the time in our questions and messages. Teachers want to help. How do they address cognitive skills? And we will always say, that’s a tricky question to answer because it’s different hats. So I’ll let you jump in.

DR. AMY: Yeah, I actually love the question, Sandy. And interestingly, that question is the reason why I became a psychologist. So I was a teacher. I was an educator and a curriculum specialist. And I said, “Gosh, what are we missing? What is it that we are missing in the classroom that is keeping kids from reaching their potential?” And so I wanted to become a researcher so that I could help figure this out. And so I get it. I get that helpless feeling, you know, of being an educator and saying, “Why can’t I get this kid to where they need to be?” The reality is that there are limitations to what we can do in the classroom, simply because you are teaching 25 to 30 kids all at once. And so spending an hour to 90 minutes one on one with each child isn’t realistic.

SANDY: That’s almost impossible, really.

DR. AMY: Absolutely. It isn’t the way that school systems are set up. It’s not the way they’re designed. It’s not the way they’re funded. That isn’t the model. And so while teachers are They are educated professionals,  right? They are professionals. That doesn’t mean that they can do everything. And so I kind of like to use the analogy that your family doctor is a physician, went to medical school, right? Professional. But if you need brain surgery, the family doctor cannot do brain surgery in his office. You have to send that person to a specialist who can do brain surgery in an operating room. And so cognitive skills training is a specialty.  And so it’s an intervention that is best delivered, and most realistically delivered, in a clinic or a learning center outside of the school system. So it’s a supplemental education provider.  It’s an intervention. And so that isn’t something that you can do in a classroom. Now, you can help kids engage their cognitive skills by providing board games that help them with reasoning skills, with memory skills, with visual processing skills. You could absolutely help kids engage their cognitive skills. But remediation is going to require an interventionist.

SANDY: Right, because you need intensity. You need that repetition. You need more time to help build and develop the skill than you would have in a classroom setting, for example, or even in a small-group setting, because you can’t necessarily provide that immediate feedback. You still have to rely on the child to work a little bit independently, right, and to engage in the task. Let’s talk about motivation. We’ve kind of alluded to motivation in some previous podcasts that we’ve done, but I don’t think we’ve really addressed motivation for kids and how important that is. So, during the school day for kids who get, for example, pulled out of their class to go work on reading skills or math skills, what does that do to their motivation?

DR. AMY: So, if you are publicly identified as someone who is weak in something or struggling in something, how does that make you feel?  Right? Kids are smart. Even if you name your reading groups, the red group, the green group, and the blue group, within a week, kids know which group is the weak reading group. Right? It becomes very obvious and so it’s discouraging to a child, right, to be called out to get their remedial instruction.  And so when you’re discouraged, that is going to decrease motivation for learning. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is not across the board. Some kids are like, “Yay, I get to get out of the class!” But the problem with pulling them out of class is that then they’re missing the instruction and whatever is happening in the class. And so then they return to class. They’re midway through another activity. They don’t know what’s going on and that’s discouraging. And so the model just isn’t there to motivate kids to learn when they’re struggling.

SANDY: Okay. How does cognitive training come at that a different way? 

DR. AMY: Yes, so Clinical Neuroscientist Dr. Christina Ledbetter at LSU has a hypothesis about that. And so she thinks that children who are struggling to learn walk through the school doors and are immediately reminded of their weaknesses. They’re immediately reminded of their struggle and their failures. And so that really decreases their motivation to learn and their overall mindset. But when they’re driven to their appointment at an external learning center, an appointment that they have with their very own cognitive trainer who is going to engage them in really fun mental exercises with lots of encouragement and high fives, just, and just motivating them. That’s very different. It’s a very different scenario, something that they get excited about. Right? And then the happy chemicals are coursing through their veins at that point as they get excited. You know, we talk about the impact of chronic stress on the brain and learning and how when you have increased cortisol coursing through the vein, your veins, how it shrinks the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory. I mean, there are lots of impacts on the brain and learning from chronic stress. And arguably, when you are struggling to learn, when you have a learning disability or a learning struggle, you are chronically stressed. And so, to give you something to look forward to, to give you something that’s your very own, and it’s an environment where you receive a ton of encouragement, right? Lots of one-on-one modeling and encouragement. It’s just a different environment. It operates differently. It’s a different. It’s a lemon, not an apple.

SANDY: So, okay. So a parent is trying to think through, “Do I get a tutor for my child or do I get a cognitive trainer?” Or maybe we are getting, we’re recording this in March, but we’re thinking about this in the summertime, right? Let’s talk about what to do over the summer as an intervention or strategy to help your student. Cause a lot of times during the school year, everybody is just sort of spent. You’ve got sports, you’ve got activities, you’ve got school, but we want to maybe attack something in the summer to try to help the student, especially because of the principle of summer slide, right. Where we learn or we lose skill. Let’s talk about that for a second. What is summer slide? What does that look like for students? 

DR. AMY: Yeah. So, the summer slide is when you lose proficiency in skills. We see it more in math than we do in reading, but it does happen in early readers. So where you lose proficiency in skills over the summer, because you’re not engaging those skills. It’s as simple as that. And so summer programs that are educational, that keep children engaged, and using those skills really help to minimize any of that summer slide that we might typically see.

SANDY: So camps or even sometimes schools offer, you know, tutoring, right. Extra tutoring over the summer just to keep skills fresh. I would think cognitive training would be a great thing to try over the summer. If it’s something that you’re really interested in because there’s not all the stress of the day-to-day responsibilities and you can, you know, Kind of dig a little deeper and see if cognitive training is the right fit for your family. So, in terms of things parents can do, let’s talk about, you know, how would we look for a tutor, or how should we look for a cognitive training center to kind of help? 

DR. AMY: Yeah, so again, you want to look at what the struggle is. Okay. And so, if it’s an algebra or geometry struggle, then a tutor is what you want. And so, you know, there are tutoring centers that use set curriculum. And so talking to them about, “Hey, how would you help my child who, you know, is behind in one of those higher level maths?” And then look for them to show you that the curriculum, the tutoring curriculum that they use aligns with the outcomes from the public school system that your child is attending so that you make sure that that content that they’re behind in is going to be covered by that tutoring center. So for early readers, for kids in elementary school, that’s a little bit different. Again, you would want to pick a tutoring center that has a curriculum that follows the science of reading, that follows the idea of structured literacy and that instructional technique to ensure that those building blocks are being met. Those early reading skills, and so, you know, phonological awareness and phonics. But if you’re seeing a struggle across subjects, so it’s not just a reading struggle, but it’s a reading struggle, a math struggle, a social studies struggle, a behavioral struggle, struggle in the classroom, then that’s a red flag that it isn’t content related. That says to me, there might be a cognitive skill weakness and so that would be the time where you would want to go to a cognitive skills training center, like LearningRx, to be evaluated, right, to get an assessment of, “Hey, how are you functioning in attention and memory and processing speed?” And if those are low, that’s great news. You have the reason for the struggle.  And when you have the reason for the struggle, then the intervention makes sense, right? Cognitive training to remediate a cognitive skill weakness, those fit. 

SANDY: So what I’m hearing you say is if you have a child who’s weak, maybe the last thing you should do is take a break over the summer. Like that is actually a time where we need to play some catch up. 

DR. AMY: Yeah. So I think a week off is perfect. “Hey, it’s the last day of school. Let’s take this week to rest and decompress and be together as a family and then let’s get you some help so you don’t struggle so much.” That is the greatest gift that you can give to a child who is struggling. An intervention that can relieve some of that struggle. That’s an amazing gift.

SANDY: Is there anything you want to wrap up this episode today with anything we forgot to talk about that’s kind of hanging out in your mind, Dr. Amy?

DR. AMY: No, I think I just, I just want to kind of recap that tutoring addresses content that was missed, content that might be a little hard for some kids and that that content is addressed best by a tutor who is trained to use a curriculum that directly matches that content that needs to be retaught.  But if you see your child struggling in multiple areas, then that might be because their cognitive skills are weak. And so my encouragement is, get an assessment, see if that’s the reason. You know, a lot of times it’s harder not knowing what the problem is, the knowing what the problem is, right? Like that’s super stressful as a parent to go, “I don’t know why, what the problem is. I don’t know why they’re struggling.” And so to know then gives you the information that you need to move forward. And so LearningRx is all over the world. We’re all over the world. So even if there’s not a LearningRx center in your city, we train over Zoom. We have peer-reviewed research in medical and psychology journals that shows the effectiveness of cognitive training and the effectiveness of doing it over Zoom as well. And so call us. We love to help.

SANDY: We love to help families figure out the why. It really is our passion.  And we love to see that confidence grow for kids who are struggling. And that’s really the number one thing I would say that we see or that we get feedback from families is that increase in confidence, because that’s going to help that motivation to grow, right? It’s going to help your child walk through the doors of their school and feel like they can conquer the world. It opens doors, it opens opportunities for them. The more confidence they can have in that learning process. Well, that is all the smart stuff that we have for you guys today. Thank you for joining us here on the Brainy Moms. You can find us on all of your favorite podcast hosts. So look for us there. Please subscribe. We love having you listen and join us each week. You can also follow us on social media. We are everywhere.

DR. AMY: At the Brainy Moms.

SANDY: You can also follow me. I’m Sandy Zamalis, I am the Brain Trainer Lady on TikTok. We have a Brainy Moms’ TikTok account as well. We love to hear your feedback. So you can message us in those social media apps, or you can email us. Amy, help me. I always forget the email address.

DR. AMY: [email protected].

SANDY: Oh, I should remember that. That would be easier. I think I need my own cognitive training program.

DR. AMY: And we also have a couple of free things for our listeners.

SANDY: Awesome. Those will be in our show notes. So, the first one is a game pack. It has some great suggestions for you for things you can do at home with your family. It’s just a couple games that you can play. We give you some parameters and ways to make it more engaging and more fun and more challenging. And then we also have a free PDF of a book from our founder, Dr. Ken Gibson, it’s called “Unlock the Einstein Inside.” It talks more about cognitive skills and why they’re so important. It also has some helpful things that you can do in there as well, but just for general understanding, that’s a great resource for you.

DR. AMY: Yep. And if you want to learn more about cognitive skills training, you can go to LearningRx.com. All of our published research is there. Lots of information about the types of clients we work with, what it is that we do, how we help. Or you can call 1 866 BRAIN 01.

SANDY: Thanks for joining us today. Have a great week.

DR. AMY: See ya.