May 2012

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The common language of BrainWise, otherwise known as the Ten Wise Ways, helps create a small culture in which coaching and mentoring can have an important impact on group dynamics, according to Matt Sena, a master BrainWise instructor and Community and Family Services Division Program Manager for Chugachmiut, Inc., in Anchorage, Alaska. Sena calls BrainWise “the most powerful doorway that I have found” for affecting peer and family dynamics.

Sena has taught BrainWise to adolescents and families since 1998, when he held a dual position as alternative education and vocational counselor for a dropout retrieval school in Grand Junction, Colorado. A colleague there had a copy of “Positive Life Choices,” an early version of the current BrainWise curriculum, which Sena began to use. He went through the lessons, and was able to teach himself, although he later received formal training through BrainWise founder and director Dr. Patricia Gorman Barry. Sena found immediate results in both the individual learning and groups he facilitated. “These were alternative students who had already dropped out, so they had a hard time with school and paying attention; but they were really working with me on BrainWise, following it, staying involved and reaping good benefits,” Sena explained. “My goal was to get them to move back into their area high school and be successful. Now, when I go back to Grand Junction, I still run into them and it is great to see they have succeeded in life.”

According to Sena, BrainWise is one of the most popular youth interventions that Chugachmiut, Inc., a tribal organization representing the Chugach native peoples of Alaska, employs. “Everybody we work with in the local communities has had exposure to BrainWise. We work with other public health initiatives too, and often combine strategies, but with BrainWise, people clearly understand the terminology.” For example, Sena explains that when he teaches about suicide prevention, youth and community members “get,” and retain, the term “Red Flag Warning” when referring to cues they would look for in suicidal individuals.

A consistent challenge for Sena as a practitioner in a community environment is to come up with strategies for adolescents from difficult home situations. As opposed to counseling adolescents in a group home environment that is highly structured, Sena works with young men whose family situations may not provide adequate support. “If you can create a small culture and have positive male role models, then that’s great. But, we don’t always have that,” Sena said. “I have a small circle of Alaska native boys who live in a mobile home park. There is no room indoors, so they are sent outside to hang out in a pack. I look at that as an opportunity to get them together and teach them some Wise Ways so they have skills to think through things on their own. The key is to positively affect peer dynamics so that the coaching and mentoring influences come through their natural peer group.”

In his work with families, Sena sees many types of struggles, including suicide, neglect, child abuse, and domestic violence. He points to a lack of relationship skills as a common thread to many of these challenges. Last summer, Sena handled a case in which the court had mandated separation of a father from his family due to charges of physical abuse and alcohol abuse. According to Sena, “This was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with. This family wanted to do well and be together, but they needed a vehicle to help them through.” With the family in his office, Sena observed the father’s frustration as his four children ages 3, 4, 5 and 8 began crawling under the sofas and being disruptive. “Their current relationship methods were unsuccessful, and they had to reinvent some strategies to change that,” Sena explained. “I needed to provide information that was relevant to a huge range of ages. BrainWise provided a really good way to integrate so many different intellectual levels in the room.” Over a course of several sessions, Sena worked with the family using the Ten Wise Ways as a structure for building relationship skills. According to Sena, “After learning the Wise Ways skills, they could use language to work through their issues.”

Sena credits BrainWise as being “really beneficial in my work with families. I think BrainWise is a very solid approach to doing prevention strategies not just with youth, but across the board. The Wise Ways work really well and you can customize them to the interests and needs of your community. Here in Alaska, a prevention strategy needs to be adaptable for an intergenerational population. BrainWise excels as that type of approach.”