January 2010

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Ask a first grade student at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County to draw a picture of a Red Flag warning which shows he is beginning to feel angry, and he might produce a representation of his face, colored in red. This exercise may seem simplistic, but it creates and reinforces complicated neural pathways in the child’s brain that help him recognize signals he is feeling inside so that he engages his thinking skills before he responds.

Recognizing Red Flag Warnings is one of the Ten Wise Ways skills from the BrainWise curriculum which is taught to students in grades 1-6 at Edgewater Elementary. The school itself has red flags that could impact student behavior and level of performance. Located in a predominantly low-income neighborhood, Edgewater is a bilingual school whose 2008-09 population was 79 percent Hispanic, with close to 90 percent of students on the Free and Reduced Lunch program. Many of the students must learn to speak English at school, as it is not spoken in their homes. According to school psychologist Silvana Gorton, “There are lots of stressors that our kids face. I feel they need to develop skills to deal with their problems.”

While Edgewater has a positive behavioral support program, called “Time to Teach” that is designed to address issues such as disruptive behavior, Gorton was looking for a way to teach critical thinking and decision making skills to the students. “BrainWise is the perfect complement to Edgewater’s discipline program,” Gorton said. Edgewater did a pilot program in the spring, followed by a more comprehensive program in the fall. Gorton explains that, “At the beginning of the year, I presented to faculty about BrainWise and what I told them was, Time to Teach tells kids what they need to do and BrainWise tells them how they need to do it.”

Gorton teaches five BrainWise classes per week to students in the first through sixth grades at Edgewater. Additionally, five classes per week are taught by an Intervention Specialist from the Jefferson County Health Department. In all, approximately 325 students will have taken BrainWise by the end of the 2009-10 school year. Class sizes are small compared to most public schools, with no more than 20 students per class, so Gorton can tailor the BrainWise curriculum to meet student needs.

Extension lessons are offered to those students who got the curriculum last semester. “A 30-minute block isn’t enough to do more than one activity, so the extension allows them to go deeper into particular concepts,” Gorton said. For instance, in one class, students were asked to choose a calming strategy, and then the students went into deeper discussion on this skill as a class.

Teachers participate in the BrainWise lessons, and then carry the concepts forward during the week. Feedback from the teachers has been very positive. According to Gorton, “BrainWise is easy to reinforce and the big concepts are very useful day to day. The teachers have accepted the BrainWise terminology such as ‘Wizard/Lizard Brain,’ ‘Emotions Elevator,’ and ‘Constellation of Support,’ and have made it part of their vocabulary with the kids.”

At the end of the program, each student receives a completion certificate. As part of a final review, students complete a survey in which they are asked what they liked best about the BrainWise program. Gorton reported that, “The whole curriculum is really solid from beginning to end, but the favorite parts for the kids are the lessons on ‘calming strategies’ and ‘Exiting the Emotions Elevator.’ It really helps them with managing the stress that they have in their lives.”

For Gorton, the true measure of BrainWise and its partner program Time to Teach comes when someone sees the school for the first time. “Visitors to the school frequently comment on how well-behaved our kids are,” she says, “That tells us we are providing students with these healthy concepts and they are acquiring these skills. BrainWise really works.”