Updated: 3 days ago
In 2017, I started a program at the Boys and Girls Club that integrates neuroscience, technology, engineering, the arts, math, and music. I call it juku, after the cram-schools that prepare Japanese students for competitive entrance exams.
What we offer is a modified S.T.E.A.M program- an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics- that prepares children to compete and thrive in life-school which assigns each their own curriculum.
Adolescence is a period of profound brain structuring and reorganization. Infancy is the only other time during life where such dramatic brain changes occur. There is a period of global brain development from ages 1 to 6, a period of regional development from 6 to 11, and a further period of development in the visuo-spatial neurocircuitry from 11-12. The somato-sensori cortices develop from 13 to 14 and the executive frontal system matures in late adolescence (Huttenlocher, 1979; Hudspeth and Pribram 1992). In adolescence, the most profound changes occur in the prefrontal cortex (which organizes high-order thinking and is the seat of executive functioning), the corpus callosum (a thick bundle of nerve fibers that ensure that the left and right hemispheres can communicate with each other), and the amygdala (associated with the body's fear and stress responses). The habits and identities we adopt as adolescents often remain with us through adulthood.
We focus on training core competencies and attend to fundamentals: attentional regulation, response selection and inhibition, cognitive flexibility (the ability to shift between different tasks or goals in order to adapt to changes), impulse suppression, memory, and executive functioning (i.e., goal setting, planning, and critical thinking).
Classes begin with 10-45 minutes of attentional regulation and breathwork.
In the West, training children to reduce mind-wandering, multitasking, or reactivity is not explicit. Often, instruction is reactionary and sometimes punitive. A child who cannot regulate their behavior, for example, might be seated closer to the teacher, incentivized with rewards or disincentivized with consequences, or sent out for evaluation or counseling.
At most schools, there is no explicit training in attentional regulation, metacognitive monitoring, working memory, or executive functioning. On the contrary, losing track of tasks at hand, distracted concentration, divided attention, mind-wandering, multi-tasking, reactivity, lack of coherence of mind, poor metacognitive awareness, and poor working memory are common dysfunctions exhibited by school children in the West (Bissanti, Brown, and Pasari, 2020).
Attention is a skill we teach explicitly. We don't ask children to pay attention, we share the neuroscience and introduce protocols for improving focus. There are three distinct attentional systems that develop independently in childhood: the alerting system, the orienting system, and the executive attentional system (Posner & Petersen, 1990, 2012).
The alerting system refers to the "ability to prepare and sustain alertness to process high priority signals." The orienting system refers to sensory orienting, pattern recognition, and target selection. The executive attentional system refers to executive control, selective attention, and self-regulation over attentional systems. Each system has its own neurocircuitry. Selective attention, for example, is mediated by cooperation between the anterior cingulate cortex and the lateral posterior thalamus. The majority of inputs to the ACC originate from frontal cortex areas that govern goal-directed planning. The majority of inputs to the lateral posterior thalamus originate from brain regions that providing context such as location and spatial cues, information about movement, needs, and general information from senses (Zhou et al., 2022). Although focusing attention might seem like a matter of controlling the senses, the circuit pulls in a lot of other information as well.
Developmentally, most children by age 8 or 9 show "increasing control over selective attention and inhibition of task-irrelevant stimuli" (Plude et al., 1994). By 10, the ability to inhibit attention to irrelevant stimuli is fairly complete" (Passler, Isaac & Hynd, 1985).
In our program, we use Muse EEG headbands (electroencephalograms) to measure brain wave activity. Brain waves occur at the following frequencies (from slowest to fastest): delta (0.5–3 Hz), theta (3.5–7 Hz), alpha (8-–13 Hz), beta (13–30 Hz), and gamma (30–100 Hz). Brain waves are measured in hertz (Hz) or cycles per second. The more demands on the mind, the faster the cycling. These oscillations, from slow to fast, play a key role in attentional selection. These fluctuations occur several times per second. Researchers in Germany found that coupling lower frequencies of oscillations with higher ones allows for finer-tuning and is the basis for higher cognitive functions, such as selective attention (Esghaei, 2022). Slower rhythms, like delta, theta, and alpha modulate the strength of faster rhythms (beta and gamma). This is known as cross-frequency coupling. In our program, students learn different techniques to cycle the brain up or down. This is a degree of cognitive and attentional control not taught in schools.
Meditation is one way to cultivate cognitive flexibility. We introduce the Attention Cycle model. The Attention Cycle model consists of 5 intervals. These stages involve 5 different neural networks that connect different nodes (or parts) of the brain:
1. Sustained attention (Executive network)
This helps us keep our attention on the object of focus (the object of focus could be the breath, a word, a thought, an image, a sound, a sensation).
2. Mind wandering (Default Mode Network)
This is the default, or usual, state of mind.
3. Awareness of mind wandering (Salience Network)
The salience network is involved in error processing. It is also responsible for switching between the default mode network and the central executive network (Goulden et al, 2014).
4. Letting go (Executive function) This is where we let go of whatever thought has distracted us- regardless of its intensity or emotional charge.
5. Re-orienting (Executive function)
We redirect our attention to the object of focus.
With practice, this switching or cycling from interval to interval leads to greater cognitive flexibility. This is a very helpful skill for an adolescent to cultivate as it may help them to disengage attention away from destructive, conditioned, habitual, or afflictive modes of thinking.
Another technique to dial brain activity all the way down is called yoga nidra. Yoga nidra (or yoga sleep) is a state of deep, non-REM rest. The brain falls into a delta wave state (<4 hz), consistent with deep, non-REM sleep, yet the practitioner remains conscious. There are 4 levels to the practice. Level 1 represents a state of deep relaxation. The brain is in an alpha state (8-13 hz). It may drop to a theta state (4-8 hz), Level 2, during the deepener practice. In Level 3, thought ceases, but awareness remains. We experience a deep state of rest, but remain aware of our surroundings. At Level 4, a practitioner remains in a simultaneous state of sleep and conscious awareness.
There are many profound benefits to this practice.
Benefit One: restores wakefulness.
A 30 minute yoga nidra session restores wakefulness and promotes performance and learning. Children who attend the after-school program at the Boys and Girls Club are often tired. This simple exercise restores them to wakefulness.
Benefit Two: improves attention, learning, and motivation
A 2002 research paper ("Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness," Kjaer et. al) found increased endogenous dopamine release in the ventral striatum during yoga nidra meditation. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that influences learning, attention, and motivation. Increases of as much as 65% were recorded after yoga nidra. It's like a mental reset. After yoga nidra, the brain is resourced for demanding cognitive tasks we offer, like programming and 3D modeling.
Benefit Three: reduced anxiety
In a 2018 study, researchers took 60 college professors, between 30-55 years old, and assigned them to different experimental groups. There were significant reductions in anxiety and stress levels in those who practiced yoga nidra (Ferreira-Vorkapic, 2018).
Benefit Four: improved memory, learning, and executive functioning
Time-of-day modulations affect performance on a wide range of cognitive tasks measuring attentional capacities, executive functioning, and memory (Schmidt, et. al., 2007). In their study, they found a variety of benefits: memory consolidation, preparation for subsequent learning, executive functioning enhancement, and a boost in emotional stability." Neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain's capacity to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience, occurs during sleep or deep rest.
Benefit Five: Improved metabolic function
Our circadian clock serves as a timepiece. It synchronizes our physiology. Specialized, photosensitive ganglion cells in the eye prime the suprachiasmatic nucleus to set the circadian clock. There are subsidiary clocks in other brain regions and peripheral clocks throughout the body. Each cell in our bodies contains a built-in timer, or series of clock genes (PER, BMAL, CLOCK, etc), that regulate cell function. These processes are entrained, or fixed, to light cycles. When our rhythms are entrained our cells function optimally. When they are disrupted, our hormonal schedules become dysregulated, our mood suffers, our health is compromised. Now imagine you're a hormonal adolescent again.
Unfortunately, children and young people today are not getting enough rest. The lack of rest and sleep is severely compromising their cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being. No drug is as beneficial as sleep is for health. Neither therapy nor pharmaceuticals will avail us much if our sleep is consistently compromised and our habits and sleep patterns are not addressed or corrected. A good night's sleep helps with memory and learning.
Instead of addressing lack of sleep, however, many children are being misdiagnosed with anxiety or A.D.D. and are being prescribed powerful psychotropic medications to treat symptoms but not root causes.
In an article by Eric Dolan, the author wrote:
The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development research project is a 10-year-long longitudinal study that launched in 2016 and has enrolled nearly 12,000 youth aged 9 to 10 at 21 research sites around the United States. The study found that “a lack of sleep in teens is associated with altered connections between and within two important brain networks: one is the dorsal attention network, which is mainly responsible for attention, memory, and inhibition control; the other is the default mode network, which has been shown to have an important role for facilitating general brain function."
Greater sleep deficits were associated with greater mental health problems, as measured via the Child Behavior Checklist, a widely-used diagnostic questionnaire. The relationship between sleep deficits and mental health problems was bidirectional. In other words, greater sleep deficits predicted subsequent increases in mental health problems one year later and greater mental health problems also predicted subsequent increases in sleep disturbance.
“Nowadays, teenagers are getting less and less sleep because of all kinds of excitations,” Wang said. “Unfortunately, this comes with consequences. One possible consequence is the harm to mental health, which may reciprocally impact sleep quality and start a worse-to-worse cycle. Another possible consequence is the change of brain connections. These consequences may last for a long time. Because the adolescent brain is still under rapid development, sustained sleep deficits may lead to permanent impairment to the brain and to the cognitive functions.”
“Getting good sleep back is crucial to teens’ brain and mental health. In extreme cases where sleep quality is difficult to improve, an alternative potential approach can be some intervention that can specifically improve brain function connectivity.”
Ours is a program that includes rest and teaches a skill to reset the brain to optimize it for learning. For neuroplasticity and learning to occur, attending to conditions like mental rest is important.
Two clusters of neurons help regulate the breath. One site is the pre-Bötzinger complex (preBötC) which generates respiratory rhythms (frequency and amplitude) to meet behavioral and metabolic demands- i.e, when stressed or calm, healthy or ill, moving or still, etc. These respiratory signals travel via the vagal nerve which branches out to most of the organs of the body. Within the brain, there is also a pathway that connects the preBötC to brain regions associated with emotion, arousal, and motivation. "The Pre-Botzinger complex appears to play a role in the effects of breathing on arousal and emotion," noted UCLA neuroscientist Jack Feldman. Indeed, by paying attention to the breath, we can detect signature patterns when stressed, angry, sad, calm, or excited... and do something about it!
We can also dial down the sympathetic nervous system, or "fight-flight-freeze" stress response with the breath. Diaphragmatic, rhythmic breathing improves vagal tone and turns up the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the "rest and digest" response. Scientists have found a frequency of 5.5 to 6 breaths per minute to be restorative, triggering the “relaxation response." It may take several minutes of controlled breathing to experience this. The more we practice, however, the faster and deeper we drop into relaxation.
The second site for breath control is the parafacial nucleus. The parafacial nucleus coordinates breathing and speaking and controls non-rhythmic breathing via the phrenic nerve. The phrenic nerve is a faster highway than the vagus. Breathing techniques mediated via the parafacial nucleus/phrenic pathway often produce immediate changes to the body and mind. Effects are felt within seconds, not minutes. With the Wim Hof Method, for example, students learn to induce a hypoxic/hypercapnic state, change their oxygen/CO2 levels, and adjust their ph balance in seconds. We use pulse oximeters for real-time feedback. They induce a hypoxic/hypercapnic state which they may experience as tingling, light-headedness, heat, etc. After the exercise, they experience a deep state of calm as ph balance becomes more alkaline; breath and heart rates slow.
Students learn to regulate stress top-down and develop a tolerance. By introducing mild stressors, students learn how to take control of their bodies and minds at the physiological level. There is also a close correlation between anxiety and our ability [or inability] to manage stress. This is a skill that can be trained. Learning to control the breath to regulate physiological and psychological responses is like learning how to hack into a computer at the assembly or machine level. Indeed, we can adjust baselines to stress and change our default settings.
We use HeartMath heart rate variability sensors to get real-time feedback. Heart rate variability, or hrv, is a measure of the beat to beat alterations of the heart. Clinicians use hrv to measure heart health. HRV is a biomarker for the health of the autonomic nervous system (ANS)- and the tone of the vagal nerve which mediates parasympathetic activation including the heartbeat. HRV is a key indicator of overall health, fitness level, and recovery status. HRV is also used as a marker for stress. Many variables affect HRV: diet, rest, and physical activity, for example. Psychological factors affect hrv as well like stress, fear, or anxiety. HRV, then, can offer an unparalleled window into our emotional well-being. The higher the hrv score, the more resilient the autonomic nervous system. We can use the breath to improve coherence, the orderly and harmonious synchronization of the cardiovascular and respiratory system and blood pressure rhythms.
21st Century Skills
Our program focuses on neuroscience, applied mathematics and programming, technology, music, and art. Art and music are the drivers. Few adolescents would be interested in attending an after-school program promising to "enhance attentional regulation and cognitive control." Nor would most be interested in a class promoting mathematics, physics, logic, or other abstractions. They want to play, to create, to connect. Music, art, and tech are the draw. Animations, video games, and 3D models are the products.
Our art program uses an open source vector art program called Inkscape. We take our designs and create stickers, t-shirt designs, or import them into CAD software to create 3D models. We also use a Java based processing language called Processing to code art.
Our music program begins with an introduction to Garageband, a digital audio workstation (DAW), that allows them to sequence, layer, and edit sounds. We also use Sonic Pi, a Ruby-based programming language, to code. Music is produced and coded line by line. In the process, students learn about the physics of sound and how electronic sounds can be engineered, filtered, and produced. In the code below, students modify a sawtooth wave. They slice and phase it, add reverb, assign a root chord, octave, and a chord type. They modify envelopes and cutoff values. They create variables to pan the sound and detune it. There are rudimentary elements of artificial intelligence in the code that allows the machine to choose a start and end note. Panning and detuning are also randomized.
with_synth :dsaw do
with_fx(:slicer, phase: [0.25,0.125].choose) do
with_fx(:reverb, room: 0.5, mix: 0.3) do
start_note = chord([:b1, :b2, :e1, :e2, :b3, :e3].choose, :minor).choose
final_note = chord([:b1, :b2, :e1, :e2, :b3, :e3].choose, :minor).choose
p = play start_note, release: 8, note_slide: 4, cutoff: 30, cutoff_slide: 4, detune: rrand(0, 0.2), pan: rrand(-1, 0), pan_slide: rrand(4, 8)
control p, note: final_note, cutoff: rrand(80, 120), pan: rrand(0, 1)
The content we teach is secondary, however; the core competencies are primary: cultivating resilience, attentional regulation, adopting a growth mindset, increasing frustration tolerance, failing forwards, monitoring self-talk, leveraging the child's inclination toward play, and cultivating joy.
To guide a 10 year old here, we encourage a growth mindset. They know they will make mistakes and get runtime errors every few lines. How they approach errors matters. If they approach syntax errors with the same matter-of-factness as they would a puzzle, in the spirit of play, or as a challenge, they will grow. We leverage the child's propensity for play. We learn specific techniques, like reframing or cognitive reappraising, to train the ability to recover from negative events.
Programming is challenging. A high frustration tolerance and a stomach for failure promote learning. It's a matter of reframing error. This can be explicitly taught and encouraged. After acknowledging the complexity, we invite students to approach errors the way they might look for Waldo in those illustrated puzzle books. Programmers call the process debugging. My students use kid language.
During one coding session, I checked in with students.
"No," one girl replied. "I'm still Waldo-ing. I can't find the Waldos."
The children learn to search line by line for the bug. If they associate this experience of failing repetitively with something good, they will receive a dopamine hit when they solve it. Often, I see arms shoot up in the air in victory. "Got it!"
In programming, the end goal- a game, an app, a utility- must be compelling enough to push them past frustration. If they are passionate about the idea they want to bring into physical form, they will work past frustration. The projects, therefore, are often open-ended. We show the how, but they must provide the creativity.
We pitch instruction to what psychologist Lev Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development. As in Goldilocks, the lesson can neither be too hard nor too easy. Research suggests an 85:15 success to error ratio is most effective. Instruction is short and sequenced. The goal is to leverage frustration so that they can drill deeper into learning.
Errors are gateways to plasticity. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with focus and attention. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with alertness. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with pursuing goals, motivation & reward. If all three neuromodulators are present, accelerated learning can occur.
We focus on what matters. By prioritizing student well-being, we do not compromise rigor. When we put first things first, we strengthen the core competencies- meta-cognition, attention, memory, emotional management, and executive functioning. Cultivation of these soft skills sustains life-long learning, resilience and grit, and passion.
We are providing children from all backgrounds with a rigorous and holistic program that rivals anything offered at K-8 private schools in the country. The upgrade was partly paid for with the people's tax dollars and was built in my spare time. Every child deserves a quality education regardless of their circumstances, not just those born to families with means. Social and economic mobility rely on an educated citizenry. Educated citizens are necessary for the maintenance of a healthy democracy and a competitive economy.