Marilyn Welsh, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Northern Colorado and a national expert on measuring Executive Functions, reports the following findings from the first set of data collected on homeless men receiving BrainWise. Thirty-five men completed pretests and posttests, and the demonstrated statistically significant improvements on the following measures: WASIK Problem Solving Scale: improved overall problem solving score; BRIEF (Behavior Research Inventory of Executive Functions): significant improvement on flexibility/shifting and self-monitoring scores; and BKS (BrainWise Knowledge Survey): improved ability to recognize, identify and respond to problems. Data on a control group are being analyzed. The men are part of the New Life Program at the Crossing, a residence for homeless run by The Denver Rescue Mission.
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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.”
Is BrainWise the missing link to success in academics and the job market? Tina Aaron thinks so. Aaron is the director of a community-based program that teaches work readiness in Jasper, Alabama. The program prepares participants for the job market through life skills, job skills, job ethics and more. While teaching the quarterly Employment Prep course, Aaron made a surprising observation. “About halfway through that class, I started seeing the same thing,” Aaron said. “People got off track at middle school.”
Aaron began to look for ways to incorporate thinking skills in the schools. “I’m dealing with the aftermath, so I thought, ‘Why not teach young people how to make decisions?’ I put a Powerpoint (presentation) together, and got a grant,” she explained. Aaron was doing research on decision making skills when she came across BrainWise on the internet. “BrainWise was doing essentially what I was doing, but better,” Aaron said. “I realized one session wasn’t enough for (participants) to retain it. When I found BrainWise, and it was a long-term program, I liked that. The whole thing was a godsend,” Aaron said.
Aaron worked with the Walker County Board of Education to provide BrainWise training to principals, teachers and school counselors. From there, the Walker County School system contracted with Aaron’s employer, Jasper Family Service Center, to implement a Parent Involvement District Initiative which has been providing BrainWise workshops to students and parents for the past two years.
While she now works more with BrainWise trainers, Aaron has fond memories of her involvement in the classroom. Out of her own money, Aaron purchased “goodies” that she used to reinforce lessons on the Ten Wise Ways. Some of the class favorites include “Smarties” candies and gummy lizards for the lesson on Wizard Brain Over Lizard Brain, glow-in-the-dark stars for Constellation of Support, stress balls for the discussion on Emotions Elevator, pins, t-shirts, pencils, CD cases and mirrors with BrainWise messages on them, and large magnets printed with “Stop and Think” for their lockers. As to whether or not the lessons have been retained by the students, Aaron says she still sees some of the kids she taught, and they still use BrainWise.
Aaron is confident that teaching thinking skills now will provide life skills later that will help people get and retain employment. “People need, but are not getting these life skills,” Aaron said. “BrainWise works. Anybody can use it. Anybody can teach it. Anybody can learn it,” She added.