Financial Literacy

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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.”

CHSC Winner

Dell Brooks and Geoff Noble with the Be BrainWise with Money Winner!

The BrainWise Program is proud to recognize thirteen outstanding Colorado High School Charter (CHSC) students who have demonstrated exceptional critical thinking skills during the 2010-2011 school year. The students were honored at an awards ceremony Friday, May 27, 2011 in the CHSC courtyard. The students were recognized for two events. First, nine winners of a school wide essay contest, Be BrainWise With Money and second, four students who won awards as Outstanding BrainWise Students

CHSC’s student body competed in a “Be BrainWise With Money” essay contest in which they applied the 10 Wise Ways to managing and saving money. BrainWise and the Rotary Club of Denver Mile High, with help from a grant from First Citizens Bank and Trust Company, held the competition. Students were asked to address challenges to saving money, including writing a one-page essay that described how they would use their thinking skills to address the following problem: “Your cousin scored tickets to a concert by your favorite group, but had to pay top dollar. He will sell you a ticket for $150.00. This concert is sold out and everyone you know is going. You don’t have any cash, and would have to pay for your ticket out of the $1,5000.00 you have saved for college. Write about how would you use the 10 Wise Ways to help you make your decision.”

Sixteen judges, composed primarily of Rotarians, reviewed the essays and determined the nine winners. The first prize for the competition, a check for $150.00, was awarded to Derrick Bunyon who came to CHSC after a teacher at his previous school recommended he drop out. Bunyon also applied and was selected to attend the Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) camp this summer. The second place award, a check for $100, was given to Ethan Casady. Two students were awarded third place prizes of $75, and five students received fourth place awards of $25.

The awards were presented by Dell Brooks, master BrainWise instructor at CHSC, who commended each of the winners for their knowledge and application of BrainWise skills. Brooks encouraged the students to continue using BrainWise throughout their lives.

Brooks also gave special recognition to four CHSC graduates, whom he had chosen to receive Outstanding BrainWise Student awards. To Jewell Chavira, Brooks awarded the first prize of $100 for “Excellent Demonstration of Critical Thinking Skills Among All Students at Colorado High School Charter.” Isaac Ruiz received the second place award, and a check for $75, Destany Villegas received the third place award, along with a check for $50, and Ruben Mendoza received the fourth place award and a check for $25.

BrainWise wishes to thank Michael Atkinson, senior vice president, and manager of Community Development for First Citizens Bank and Trust Company, and Karen White and Geoff Noble, President of the Rotary Club of Denver Mile High Chapter, for making this exciting event possible. Cyndi Bush-Luna, principal of CHSC, also expressed her gratitude and emphasized the positive impact that BrainWise has had on CHSC students.

Learning how to Be BrainWise with Money has paid off, literally, for five Eagleton students who submitted winning entries to an essay contest in which they applied the 10 Wise Ways to managing money.

BrainWise and the Rotary Club of Denver Mile High Chapter, with help from a Daniels Fund grant, held the competition in May for 50 Eagleton fifth graders. Students were asked to write a one-page essay on the topic, “You have won $100. Tell a story about how you would manage this prize by being BrainWise and using the 10 Wise Ways.” A team of Rotarians reviewed the essays and submitted the top twenty entries to Colorado Speaker of the House, Terrance Carroll, who volunteered to be this year’s celebrity judge.

The first prize for the competition was a check for $100.  As part of the first prize, the classroom teacher also received $100 for her classroom. Two students received second place prizes of $50, and two other students received third place awards of $25.

The awards were presented by Dell Brooks, a master BrainWise instructor at Colorado High School Charter (CHSC), who commended each of the winners for their knowledge and application of BrainWise skills. Brooks encouraged the students to continue using BrainWise in Middle School and throughout their lives. Next year, Brooks plans to hold a similar competition for his students at CHSC.

How do we engage fifth graders, some who learned BrainWise in lower grades, and others who may never BrainWise, to write an essay that applies the 10 Wise Ways to money?

BrainWise and the Rotary Club of Denver Mile High, with funds from a Daniels Fund grant, is holding a May, 2009 competition for 50 fifth graders attending Denver’s Eagleton Elementary School. Students will be asked to write a one page essay in response to this scenario: “You have won $100. Tell a story about how you would manage this prize by being BrainWise and using the 10 Wise Ways.” A team of Rotarians will review the essays, and the top twenty will be given to a celebrity judge to pick three winners. First prize is $100.00, second prize is $50.00, and third prize is $25.00. Additionally, the teacher whose student wins the first prize will receive $100 for her classroom.

We are not allowed to spill the beans on our judge yet, so be sure to check-in for an update here in the next few weeks as we can tell you more.

An exciting news up-date in recent BrainWise action:  A Be BrainWise with Money literary competition and an update on our first two Be BrainWise with Money classes for grades 4-9!


Dr. Patricia Gorman Barry, with Rotary volunteers Patricia and Terry Fiske, are teaching a five-session Be BrainWise with Money class to fifth graders attending Eagleton Elementary School, a low-performing, predominantly Hispanic school in Denver.  The fifth graders were taught BrainWise in the second grade, and are getting a reinforcement dose of the wise ways by applying them to financial concepts.


The course, funded by a grant from the Daniels Fund, reinforces the BrainWise program’s 10 Wise Ways by integrating them into key financial concepts, including spending, credit, saving, wants vs. needs, financial risks, impulse purchases, financial planning, and debt. 


The material builds on a financial course Dr. Barry and volunteers taught a few months earlier to fifth graders at University Park Elementary.  University Park fifth graders had been taught BrainWise in kindergarten, and the school, serving children in the neighborhood surrounding the University of Denver, piloted BrainWise for Grades K-5 in 1996.  University Park has been teaching BrainWise ever since, and provide a launching ground for Be BrainWise with Money and a way to reinforce BrainWise concepts by applying them to financial literacy.  This pilot project replicates findings from research conducted on Life Skills Training and other evidence-based programs, that showed giving students a booster of the program years later helps them retain the concepts.  We piloted the program in schools where BrainWise had been taught to fifth graders in earlier grades.  The purpose was two fold:  to have them practice applying the 10  Wise Ways to make good financial decisions and to help them retain and use their thinking skills as they move into middle school, high school, and adulthood. 


Applying the BrainWise concepts to finances adds an important element.  Even if the children have not had a formal financial education course, the activities and games introduce them to important concepts and show them how to use thinking skills to make financial decisions. The reinforcement activities and games we developed for the five sessions will be made available to all BrainWise instructors as a Be BrainWise with Money supplement to the BrainWise curriculum.  Pre and posttests developed by Dr. Lewis Mandel, developer of the Jumpstart National Financial Survey for High School Seniors, will be available to administer to the students.


 This new adaptation is exciting for the BrainWise team.  We are pleased with how well the children received the sessions, and were impressed with their ability to make good financial choices and connect them with Wizard Brain thinking, using their constellation of support, recognizing red flag warnings, staying low or off the emotions elevators, separating facts from opinions, identifying choices, considering consequences, setting goals, and communicating effectively. 


BrainWise was recently awarded a $25,000.00 grant from the Daniels Fund to develop Be BrainWise With Money, a project that integrates the 10 Wise Ways into financial concepts and teaches them to Denver Public School fifth graders and high school students in northwest Denver.  The grant will be used to develop a Be BrainWise With Money Guide and to pilot the program with 200 students at several schools: fifth grades classes at Eagleton and Cowell Elementary Schools, high-risk teenagers attending the Florence Crittenton School and the Academy of Urban Learning, and Colorado High School Charter an alternative DPS school for drop-outs and expelled students.

The Daniels Fund operates the Daniels Fund Scholarship Program and the Daniels Fund Grants Program in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.  The Fund was established in 1977 by Bill Daniels, a pioneer in cable television known for his kindness and generosity to those in need.  Visit for more information.

BrainWise is developing a ground-breaking, replicable model for teaching children and youth financial literacy. Classes at Eagleton Elementary School are reinforcing BrainWise concepts being taught in the school by teaching low income parents the FDIC’s bilingual Money Smart curriculum, and simultaneously teaching children finances infused with BrainWise concepts.  Bank Western has given the program two $5,000 grants to implement this in an after school program in Denver’s Villa Park community.

As shown by BrainWise research and work, it is not enough just to teach the concepts of a particular topic, such as the basics of finance, but to teach people how to use that information to make good choices. That is what BrainWise is about.

As Dr. Barry explained:

“In 2007, we were looking for topics we could teach that would give Villa Park families practice applying the BrainWise program’s thinking skills, called the 10 Wise Ways.  Previous discussions with parents had made us aware that they depended on check cashing services, did not use banks, and bought lottery tickets as a future investments.   I had always wanted to add a financial literacy component to BrainWise, and contacted a lower downtown Rotary Club to learn more about MoneySmart. Using the program, a bilingual BrainWise instructor incorporated the 10 Wise Ways into the instruction.”

“We continued to offer the sessions, and improved our delivery and method. In January, 2008, the Denver Mile High Rotary Club members and other volunteers (bilingual high school students and bilingual businessmen) concurrently taught three combined BrainWise and finances programs:  1)  a session for English speaking parents, 2) a session for  Spanish speaking parents, and 3) a session for the elementary school age children of the parents.  We used the MoneySmart curriculum for the adults and the National Endowment for Financial Education’s (NEFE)  High School Planning Program for the children.”

“The results have been encouraging and we will continue to develop this program and approach, knowing that the topic of financial literacy is critical for youth and parents.”