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MU research offers what parents need to know when assisting children with online school

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

Young children can’t as easily switch from an online class session to written assignments as their older siblings can, new research from the University of Missouri suggests.

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It has implications for how parents assist their children with learning online.

The research into working memory was conducted by Nelson Cowan, Curator’s Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences.

Working memory is the small amount of information you can hold in your mind and is even more limited in young children, Cowan said.



a man wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera: Nelson Cowan, MU psychology professor.


© courtesy photo
Nelson Cowan, MU psychology professor.

“There’s a severe limit to what we can hold in mind and it improves in the elementary years,” Cowan said.

Not exactly the same as short-term memory, which Cowan said can be used to remember where one’s car is parked, working memory can apply to remembering what you said at the start of a sentence in order to finish it.

Because working memory isn’t as developed in a young child’s brain, parents are needed to help their children to stay organized and provide structure for their child’s online education. It could include something like a written plan for the child’s day.



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Learn how you can help keep your child engaged as they navigate learning in this new world.

The 180 participants in his study were split into children ages 6-8, ages 10-14 and college students. They were shown a display of colored spots. Then, they had to respond to a signal when another dot was introduced. When they returned to the first task, they had to decide if a colored spot was part of the first display.

Most young children didn’t remember, but most college students did.

Younger children are responding reactively instead of proactively, Cowan said.

“They drop most of the items in their working memory,” Cowan said. “After the signal, they can’t remember the display.”

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It contrasts with how older students tackled the experiment.

“They coordinate the two tasks,” Cowan said of older children and college students. “They don’t lose the fact that they’re going to have to return to the initial task. They perform better on both tasks.”

It also applies to the concept of multi-tasking, Cowan said. Older children with more developed brains can do a better job at it.

He gave the example of a child doing a worksheet and a parent interrupting to find out what the child wants for lunch. The parent can phrase it, “I need to ask you something. Please remember where you’re at on the worksheet.”

“I don’t want to minimize the conundrums that parents face as they’re monitoring their children,” Cowan said. “It’s most important they’re able to assist the teacher in helping their child stay organized and motivated.”

Some parents have said they’re not trained to be a teacher, but one doesn’t need to be, Cowan said.

“It’s important that a parent can feel confident that they don’t need to be trained as a teacher to complete these simple measures,” Cowan said.

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With more students returning to school buildings, Cowan said the research will continue to be useful.

“I think it’s important in understanding young children both at home and in the classroom,” he said.”It might be important for teachers to think about.”

Adjusting tasks to the age and brain development of the child is important both for parents and teachers, he said.

“No matter in the classroom or at home, it’s important to understand the cognitive development of the child,” Cowan said.

“Developmental change in the nature of attention allocation in a dual task” was published in Developmental Psychology. Funding was from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: MU research offers what parents need to know when assisting children with online school

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Mamie M. Arndt