The tick-tock of a metronome has long been used by pianists while practicing their craft. Research now suggests that students with learning differences who “stay on beat” can increase their focus, mental processing and cognitive abilities.
Rhythm and research
As infants, we very quickly develop a sense of rhythm. In the games we play and the songs we sing, rhythm is a way for children to learn about their bodies and their environment. For children with learning differences, activities using rhythm are increasingly being used as a tool to increase mental fluency, thereby improving the effectiveness of many brain and body functions. Growing evidence suggests a link between mental timekeeping and cognition and learning. Children diagnosed with dyslexia may have deficiencies in their timing and rhythm abilities, and some researchers believe the connection between time/rhythm and learning may be so significant that a student’s response time to a metronome beat may predict performance on standardized reading tests. Students have demonstrated significant improvements in broad reading and reading fluency, language processing, and even golf performance after participation in a program to improve timing. In addition, studies have indicated improvements in children with ADHD in the areas of attention, motor control, language processing, reading and ability to regulate aggression after intervention using a metronome. High school athletes, also after receiving metronome training, reported benefits such as, “I am in the right place at the right time,” and “I feel my body is more in sync with my mind.” The team participating in this training reported a significantly more successful year with improved team focus, synchronization and overall team execution. A child’s timing, the ability to feel and express steady beat, is fundamental to movement and music, and has been shown to positively correlate with an increase in mathematics and reading abilities, as well as overall school achievement.
For many children, rhythm develops naturally as they learn rhymes and hand games. For those with learning differences, some intervention may be needed to help build a sense of timing and rhythm. Children as young as 1 or 2 years can participate in activities: simple and fun musical clapping games, such as Patty Cake, can be played easily at home. As skills increase, more complex songs and hand gestures, such as “Say, Say, My Playmate,” “Miss Mary Mac” and Rock-Paper-Scissors, help hone a young student’s sense of rhythm and timing. Thanks to technology, there are many motivating games which will hold an older child’s interest as well as teach timing. Wii “Just Dance” and “Guitar Hero” are two good examples. Bop It is another exciting game requiring a response on beat. Playing musical instruments, such as the drums or piano, enhance a student’s sense of rhythm and can potentially improve cognitive function, as well. Rhythmic drumming groups are gaining popularity as a social and therapeutic activity.
Faster, more dramatic results may require a professional program to help a student increase cognitive skills. Two such programs are Interactive Metronome (IM) and LearningRx. Both target timing and rhythmicity, focus on the brain’s innate ability to change (neuroplasticity) and improve cognitive functioning. Typically, children age 5 years and older can participate in these programs, which involve performing motor activities to the beat of a metronome. Interactive metronome uses a computer, sensors, and headphones to measure and report the milliseconds a user moves before or after the beat. Activities may include clapping, stomping, tapping, or performing various other movement patterns to the metronome. These programs are just as successful for adults who want to improve their processing and timing, as well. IM has been used on professional golfers wanting to improve their game. Professional football player, Larry Fitzgerald, credits his skill in football to cognitive building activities he did as a child in order to help with his learning struggles.
LearningRx uses a traditional metronome, rather than a computer, and takes the physical procedures one step further by also requiring a verbal response to the beat, such as answering questions, reading, or recalling phonemic sounds or math facts. Once a student is performing the activity on beat, he may be asked to do something else at the same time. This requires the brain to work harder and results in the beat task becoming more automatic, for example, using a metronome and a 4-beat cycle. The student is asked to clap to the 2nd and 4th beat and stomp only to the 4th beat. Once this is consistently accomplished, the activity could be enhanced by having the student count by 2s or 3s on every 1st or 3rd beat or recite a spelling word one letter at a time. This procedure could be made easier or harder by varying the actions being performed and the frequency. To make gains in timing and cognition, the student should be working at a challenging but not impossible level.
We got the beat!
Chris is a 9-year-old student who stumbled over his words when reading and therefore had great anxiety about reading aloud. After metronome training, he went from reading at 60 beats per minute to reading at 120 beats per minute. He became much more confident as his auditory processing and rhythmicity improved, and was a more efficient and willing reader by the end of a 24-week program. Although he hated reading in the past, Chris now reports having a favorite author for the first time in his life.
Caroline is a 10-year-old student who struggled with processing speed, working memory, phonemic awareness and reading fluency. Because of Caroline’s significant processing speed weakness, her mom reported having to build in a 15-second delay while waiting for her daughter to respond to questions or requests. She said it didn’t help repeat the questions, since Caroline was still processing the information from the first request. After completing an IM program, Caroline no longer requires extra time to process her information. In addition, Caroline has improved in all areas of academic achievement, most notably reading and math. Caroline’s metronome trainer reports, “When previously asked to read, Caroline would not stop at periods and never knew where a sentence began or ended. She would pause in the middle of a sentence without indication and, therefore, had a hard time understanding what she was reading.” Caroline’s fluency greatly improved after metronome training. Test results showed that her auditory processing and sound blending skills each went up 14-15 years in 32 weeks. Caroline’s mother also reported that she was able to canter while horseback riding for the first time, previously a skill requiring more mental processing than she was able to execute.
The rhythm of time
The connection between time, rhythm and the brain has been observed for centuries. The sense of timing and rhythm comes naturally for most children. But for those who struggle with learning, skills that should come naturally may need to be taught. Activities that teach timing have been proven to increase learning and cognition skills. Best of all, these activities involve play and music, so learning timing skills can be fun! Whether your child just needs simple home exercises to help with timing or a higher intensity professional program, getting more “in sync” with the rhythms, movement and “beats” of academics can help ensure increased success in the classroom. Now, when you hear the beat of a metronome, either at someone’s piano practice or in a therapeutic class, you will know the powerful potential of performing to the beat!
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