Critical Thinking and Decision Making for Children Critical Thinking and Decision Making for Children



Integration of Research

Research shows that the human brain is hard-wired at birth to react emotionally and immediately to the world around us. This reflex, referred to as the lizard brain reflex and which stays with us all our life, is important to our survival. It triggers us to pull a hand away from a hot stove, spit out something that tastes spoiled, or move out of the way of a spilled cup of hot coffee.

However, many times the lizard brain causes problems because it underlies behaviors that range from sweating the small things to being suicidal, and from texting angry or inappropriate messages to exhibiting road rage. Higher brain functions--social skills that override our tendency to react without thinking--must be learned in order to build the neural connections the brain needs to process critical thinking.

BrainWise helps replace the lizard brain's tendency to react with tools that redirect the brain to stop and think, consider consequences, or plan effectively. The following outcome research, conducted with K-12 students, parents, at-risk families, and homeless men who learned BrainWise, found that their decision making and problem solving abilities significantly improved.

Research Outcomes

Social Service Settings

2014 Control Group Research on BrainWise with Homeless Men. BrainWise was introduced to the intervention programs offered at The Crossing, a Denver facility serving homeless men and families. Steve Walkup, Vice President of Programs, felt the BrainWise Program complemented the required programs they already provided – counseling, relationship building, career skills, life skills, and Bible study.

Individuals involved in the BrainWise training received an intensive eight hours of instruction in BrainWise (BrainWise CPR) , taught by a senior staff member in two four-hour classes. All BrainWise Group participants received a personal copy of the companion book, How to Be BrainWise, for additional study and reinforcement.

To evaluate the program, University of Northern Colorado professor Marilyn Welsh, PhD, administered four different surveys to men who received BrainWise instruction (the BrainWise Group) and men who did not (the Control Group). Among other outcomes, Dr. Welsh tested executive functions in the men, i.e. behaviors that exhibit the individual’s ability to self-monitor the effect his behavior has on others; to task monitor or to keep track of one's problem solving success or failure; to shift with ease from one situation to another; to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task (working memory); to plan and/or organize; to inhibit impulses; and to control emotions.

The first phase of research was conducted on 43 homeless men in the BrainWise Group and 24 homeless men in the Control Group. Results across all four surveys found the BrainWise Group showed significant improvement in a number of areas, including their understanding and use of skills such as stopping to think, seeking help from appropriate sources, recognizing signs that warn of a problem, managing emotions, separating fact from opinion, asking questions, identifying all choices, considering the consequences of choices on self and others, setting goals and making plans to reach them, and communicating effectively.

In addition, the BrainWise Group showed significant improvement in other executive functions such as Self- Monitoring, Task Monitoring, Situation Shifting, and Working Memory.

The Control Group showed no change on any of the measures.

Additional research will be conducted, but the positive outcomes have lead to the expansion of the program at the Crossing and discussions on how to increase participation in the program and further reinforce the concepts being learned.

2011-2014 Research on High-Risk Families. Research conducted by the Jefferson County (Colorado) Department of Public Health and Environment on its clients found that high risk families, taught BrainWise by public health nurses during home visits, showed that the families had significant positive changes in their behaviors following this intervention.

All the families had a number of risk behaviors and health problems: the presence of more than one child, histories of child abuse, 75% being single parents with less than 12 years of education, and 61% being unemployed. The nurses made a minimum of four visits with the families and completed a Life Skills Progression checklist following each visit that measured parental behaviors. Data collected on 112 families found the families showed significant improvement on 39 of the 42 behavioral variables measured.

The results of this research, “Improving Health Decisions in At-Risk Families: Nurse Home Visits, BrainWise and Technology”, were presented at the 2013 City Match Annual Conference of Urban Maternal Child Health Programs and Leaders, in Savannah, Georgia.

Responses of Students

2013 Research Conducted by Colorado State University on K-12 Students. BrainWise trainer Christine Cerbana and her team from the Department of Psychology and Colorado Family Education, Resources and Training at Colorado State University measured cognitive outcomes on 164 students at three Colorado schools teaching BrainWise. They found the program positively influenced problem solving skills and decision making skills, as well as improving the students’ emotional reactions to problems. Their study was summarized in a poster: “The Use of BrainWise in Improving Cognitive Skills in Children K-12.”

Special Needs Students. Wesley Spectrum Services School in Pittsburgh teaches BrainWise to 160 children and adolescents with significant psychiatric problems. In 2009, the school’s physicians, therapists, and teachers presented a poster, “Integrating New Brain Research Into a Special Education Setting” at a Washington, D.C. conference, The Creative Brain: Using Research and Creativity to Improve Learning. The curriculum was integrated into their therapeutic setting and measured by assessing the change in students’ impulse control by comparing the number of restraints and points on behavioral charts before and after students received BrainWise.

Research on Executive Functions Conducted on Elementary, Middle and High School Students. There is substantial interest in understanding the executive function skills (e.g., planning, impulse control, self-monitoring) of children and adolescents, as well as the degree to which “thinking skills” intervention programs can facilitate their acquisition and application in everyday contexts.

University of Northern Colorado professor Marilyn Welsh, Ph.D. conducted an evaluation with 5th grade students, middle school students, and high school students who were taught BrainWise, using the Tower of London-R instrument (to test executive function) and the Stroop test (to test impulsivity).

The findings showed that 82% of the students demonstrated improved performance on at least one of the measures and 47% demonstrated improvement on both measures. These findings suggest that knowledge of the critical thinking skills promoted by BrainWise is related to self-reported executive function skills in daily life, and that exposure to a school-based BrainWise curriculum may contribute to improvements in executive function.

The findings are published in “The BrainWise Curriculum Neurocognitive Development Intervention Program” published in Adolescent Psychopathology and the Developing Brain: Integrating Brain and Prevention Science, Daniel Romer and Elaine Walker (eds), Oxford University Press, 2007.

For a copy of this paper contact us at:

Middle School Students. OMNI Research and Training used standardized measures and focus groups to evaluate at-risk 7th graders in a control who were taught BrainWise and students in a comparison school who had other programs, but not BrainWise. Results found that BrainWise students showed a statistically significant decrease in reports of physical aggression and feelings of sadness, loneliness, and being upset.

BrainWise students also demonstrated an increased awareness of and use of Information gathering and communication, conflict de-escalation and negotiation, assertiveness and honesty, obtaining of outside help, understanding of consequences, and avoidance of lying, fighting and disrespecting others.

For a copy of the OMNI paper contact us at:

In addition, content analysis of hundreds of post course drawings by students showing themselves before and after the course further validates these findings. In the drawings, program graduates state and illustrate they are "less aggressive", more "calm", "less lonely" and that they feel "happier", more " in control", "smarter", "friendlier" and "nicer". Some students reported that BrainWise helped them get through difficult situations, including suicidal thoughts and peer pressure to participate in drugs and violence.

Click here to see the actual pictures drawn by these students



Growth of BrainWise

Another indicator of the program's successful outcomes is its "word-of-mouth" growth over a fifteen year period. Because many instructors are committed to the program, they are instrumental in integrating BrainWise into their school, district or agency, as well as recommending the program to others.

The program's growth also demonstrates its universal appeal and application. BrainWise is taught throughout the United States, as well as in Mexico, Singapore, and China. The program has been translated to Spanish and Chinese and reports from instructors are positive. In China over 400 people were trained in the program and, in one application, BrainWise is being used to give illiterate rural girls the skills to resist sex traffickers.

Validation of BrainWise

Interviews conducted with BrainWise instructors include stories about former students who report, years after graduation, that BrainWise skills helped them improve their lives by attending college, getting out of gangs, building better relationships with their families, and learning how to get along with others. Both the instructors and students give credit to BrainWise for helping them make more positive decisions and improving outcomes in their lives.

The foundation for the BrainWise Program combines information about our "hard-wired brain" with other research that includes:

  • A growing body of data on the brain's functions and a characteristic called "neuroplasticity", which demotes the ability of the brain to be flexible and reactive in its development;
  • The corresponding identification of teaching methods for important skills which build neural connections to higher brain functions; and,
  • An increased understanding that cognitive skills not used are lost--the "use it or lose it" mantra or performance excellence.

This information, together with decades of scientific-based research in the fields of education and the social sciences, was used to develop and measure BrainWise. Included in this research were findings from studies on youth development, strategies for changing behavior, and techniques for effective teaching. Field tests of the program were conducted over three years with high-risk students, and the feedback from faculty, staff, students, administrators, and parents was used to refine the curricula's content and structure. The result is a program whose design allows for easy replication and fidelity to its content.

Learning how to stop and think, control emotions, and make good choices are skills that underlie success. Research findings and the experience of teachers and students show that students who complete the BrainWise Program are making better choices and better decisions, which allow them to live happier and healthier lives.

The BrainWise Research Team

Driving and refining the growth of the BrainWise Program is a research team comprised of master BrainWise instructors, public health professionals, and academicians with expertise on brain functions and neurobiology. They are champions of BrainWise, and their expertise has helped us identify that intense teaching of the 10 Wise Ways with added reinforcement is an effective approach to achieve positive outcomes.

BrainWise is being taught, to children, teens, and adults in rural villages in Alaska and China, and in schools and agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada. Its thinking skills are being field tested, taught, texted and integrated interactively online. Our partners include Rotary, universities, social service agencies, mental health providers, school districts, justice programs, and health workers. They recognize the valuable outcomes of teaching individuals skills that help individuals control impulse, process problems, and respond responsibly.

The following professionals contribute their expertise to BrainWise CPR by conducting research, providing consultation and writing grants and presentations/reports. This committed and exceptional team donates their time and expertise to help BrainWise gain recognition and reach more people. They include:

  • Patricia Gorman Barry, Ph.D., R.N., Founder, The BrainWise Program
  • Marilyn Welsh, Ph.D., University of Northern Colorado
  • Christine Cerbana, M.S., Colorado State University
  • Martha McDonald, M.S., Research Consultant
  • Rebecca Persing, D.N.P., RN, Public Health Consultant
  • Matt Sena, M.S., Doctoral Candidate Family Counseling, University of Alaska, Anchorage
  • Mary Cazell, Ph.D., R.N., Cook Children's Medical Center, Fort Worth, Texas

Click here for more information about The BrainWise Research Team.

Research References

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs. NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Bartlett, E.E. (1985). Summary of findings of the school health education evaluation: Health promotion, effectiveness, implementation and costs. Journal of School Health. 55, 8, 316-322.

Beck, A.T. (1967). Depression: Clinical, experimental, and theoretical aspects. New York: Harper and Row.

Barry, P. and Welsh, M. (2007). The BrainWise Curriculum: Neurocognitive Development Intervention Program. Adolescent Psychopathology and the Developing Brain 420-440: Oxford University Press.

Benson,Herbert (1975). The Relaxation Response. New York: Avon Books.

Burns, David (1980). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: New American Library.

Dennison, Paul and Dennison, G. (1986). Brain Gym. Ventura, CA: Edu-Kinesthetics.

Ellis, A. and Harper, R.A. (1975). A New Guide to Rational Living. CA: Wilshire Book Company.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books.

Jessor, R. (1993). Successful adolescent development among youth in high-risk settings. American Psychologist,48(2), 117-126.

Perry, B. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and "use-dependent" development of the brain: How 'states' become 'traits.' Infant Mental Health Journal, Winter, 16,4:271-291.

Schwartz, J. and Begley, S. 2002. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: Regan Books.

Seligman, M. 1991. Learned Optimism. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Seligman, M. 2000. Positive psychology: An introduction.American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

Sternberg, R. and Davidson, J. 1989. A four-prong model for intellectual development. Journal of Research and Development in Education. Spring, 22, 3, 22-28.

Sternberg, R., Wagner, R.K., Williams, W. and Horvath, J. 1995. Testing common sense. American Psychologist, 50, 11, 912-927.

Sternberg, R. 2001. Why schools should teach for wisdom: The balance theory of wisdom in educational settings. The Educational Psychologist. 36, 4, 27-245.

Critical Thinking and Decision Making for Children

Critical Thinking and Decision Making for Children

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