Full STEAM Ahead!
Updated: Feb 18
In 2017, I volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club as part of a service learning project. I was then Director of Academic Technology at an independent school. The head of school allowed me to refurbish some of the laptops that were slated for the recycling center. I created a modified S.T.E.A.M program- an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.
Over the years, I continued writing grants. Executive Director Rob Mendes was instrumental in promoting the program and giving me the latitude to create and experiment. Senator Markey got wind of our program and provided additional funding to grow it. Start small, work hard, think big, fail fast, grow.
Three months ago, I joined the staff at the club to continue the work full time. I have done more in three months than I was able to accomplish in 12 years working in the private sector or 16 years in the public sector. No unnecessary committee meetings, no councils to court, no unions to barter with, no department heads with fragile egos to beg or bootlick, no bureaucrats to hinder progress; no red tape, no outside consultants, feasibility studies, or legal departments to delay action; limited funds are not siphoned away for unnecessary overhead expenses, executive suites or far-away retreats for senior staff; no golden parachutes or Cadillac plans to divert money away from our mission.
We're a scrappy team of 5 operating on a shoe string budget doing the work that everyone says needs doing, but few actually do. Drive is intrinsic.
It's in our DNA.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of America had its beginnings in 1860 with three women in Hartford, Connecticut - Mary Goodwin, Alice Goodwin and Elizabeth Hammersley. Believing that boys who roamed the streets should have positive alternatives, they organized the first Club. They didn't talk about it, they didn't complain or ask their government to fix the problem; they acted.
Mary Goodwin, Alice Goodwin and Elizabeth Hammersley birthed a movement. In 2022, we served over 4 million children and opened our 5000th club. Start small, work hard, think big, fail fast, grow.
Our club is the third oldest in the country. Ulysses S Grant was the 18th president of the United States when our club first opened in 1871. There were 37 states in the Union. The Civil War had ended only 6 years earlier and Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation 2 years before that.
Our club provided a safe haven for children during Reconstruction, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, two world wars, the September 11th terrorist attacks, financial meltdowns, a global pandemic, and other historic events. We've never let our kids down.
Club membership is about $4.16 per month! Membership is as affordable today as it was when we first opened our doors 150 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, $4 per month in 1871 is equivalent to $122 per month today. We're providing a real service to families, relieving some of the stress and financial burden associated with raising children. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average cost for childcare in Massachusetts is $20,000 per child per year. By comparison, annual membership at the Boys and Girls Club is $50 per year. No other youth organization provides the same value for so little. No other youth organization stretches a dollar like we do.
We could not exist without the goodwill, support, and generosity of our community. Generation after generation, good people stepped up to support the club. Many children found their purpose and passion here. Many grew up to become doctors, engineers, teachers, artists, law enforcement officers, public servants, entrepreneurs and parents, giving back in their turn.
The Science of Well-Being
Cardiologist Mike Rocha, MD, is a former club kid and serves as a member of our board. In 2014, he spearheaded the New Bedford Wellness Initiative (NBWI) which the club hosts. As a trained physician, he realized most patients would be healthier if they adopted healthier habits. Insurance companies, however, were not going to reimburse him for suggesting plant based or whole food diets, high intensity interval training or meditation. He wasn't going to be compensated for prescribing walks or kale/blueberry smoothies. But like Mary Goodwin, Alice Goodwin and Elizabeth Hammersley, he did the work that needed doing.
He literally walks the talk. Weekly, he gathers with patients and others at a local park to walk. When the weather is inclement, they gather at the mall. No excuses.
Start small, work hard, think big, fail fast, grow.
The NBWI offers classes in meditation, aerobics, smoking cessation, yoga, laughter yoga, and tai chi/qi gong. All classes are led by certified instructors and run every Sunday at the club. The NBWI also sponsors check-ups and screenings, vaccinations, CPR training and talks by physicians and leading researchers.
One of our presenters and collaborators is New Bedford native and Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos. In January 2018, her course titled Psychology and the Good Life became the most popular course in Yale's history. Her investigations attempt to answer life's fundamental questions: “What actually makes us happy?” "What fulfills us?" and “What can we do to achieve the good life?” Yale took her course online. The Science of Well-Being is one of the most popular courses offered through Coursera.
I was onboard when Dr. Rocha launched the NBWI in 2014, organizing weekly meditation classes. In 2019, I facilitated an 8 week course on the Science of Well-Being. The objective of the course was not just to learn what research said about fulfillment, but to put those strategies into practice. If worked, these strategies were designed to rewire the brain structurally. The mind colors moods, marshals thoughts, directs attention, influences perceptions, directs behavior, and orchestrates our very lives. If we wire with intention and wisdom (by wisdom, I mean through study, research, evidence, and experimentation), we can create a more robust neural architecture than can respond to modern day challenges. In other words, we can build a more pliable brain. With a more responsive brain, we can build a healthier body from the cell up, from the organelle (mitochondrial biogenesis and efficiency; optimizing the 3 energy systems) to the organs (pulmonary capacity, improved VO2 max, improved cardiovascular endurance) to the organism itself. We do this choice by choice moment by moment. We assume responsibility for our perceptions and the actions which spring from them, examining perceptual inputs, reframing them, rerouting them to build a more resilient brain that can handle life's vicissitudes.
The course starts by questioning our assumptions and challenging norms. Dr. Laurie Santos introduces the G.I. Joe Fallacy. The G.I. Joe Fallacy refers to the misguided notion that knowledge alone is sufficient to overcome a bias or inertia (Santos & Gendler, 2014). It's based on G.I. Joe- a 1980's cartoon that ended with a public service announcement and the tagline: "Now you know, and knowing is half the battle."
It isn't enough to know. We must act. There are no secrets to happiness and fulfillment. "The main things are to commit to some simple behaviors," asserts Dan Gilbert, "meditating, exercising, getting enough sleep, altruism... and nurture your social connections."
Indeed, most of the rewirements Dr. Santos lists are quite obvious: exercise, sleep, kindness, social connection, gratitude, meditation, savoring (a kind of mindful attention). Working signature strengths is the only item on the list that was not as intuitive. A signature strength is a character strength. They are grouped into 6 main classes: wisdom & knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, transcendence. Signature strengths points to our deepest values- for one it might be curiosity, for another honesty, for another social connection or teamwork or prudence. My top signature strengths are curiosity, love of learning, gratitude, self-regulation, and perseverance. Daily, I search for ways to exercise these strengths. My work as an educator, for example, leverages my innate curiosity and love of learning. You can identify your signature strengths by taking the survey.
Dr. Santos puts forth a second premise suggested by the research: we're invested in collective misconceptions about happiness. The scientific findings may be new, but the knowledge is ancient. “The good and the pleasurable are two different things," wrote the author of the Katha Upanishad in the 5th century, BCE. "They motivate a person to pursue two different goals. The one who embraces the good meets with auspiciousness. But the one who embraces pleasure is lost.”
The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get affirmed Dr. Robert Lustig MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology. There are biological correlates to this. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps nerve cells communicate. Dopamine is an important chemical in the brain's reward system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with seeking, motivation, drive, and reward.
Dopamine is excitatory. The brain functions optimally when it is tickled with it, not when its bludgeoned or flooded with it. Too much leads to dopamine depletion. To protect themselves, neurons down-regulate the dopamine receptor such that we need bigger hits or rushes to get the same effect. Chronic excess reward interferes with contentment.
The good is one thing; the pleasant is another. We're a dopamine nation, a nation of rats running the hedonic treadmill chasing the next dopamine hit. The hedonic treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation) is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them.
We're trained in this ethos at an early age. Educators around the world tell impressionable children that if they study hard they will get good grades; if they get good grades, they will get placement at a good university; if they graduate from a good university, they can get a good job or start their own company; if they get a good job or start a successful company, they will make a lot of money; if they make a lot of money, they can buy a nice car and house; if they make a lot of money they can live comfortably and support their families.
This may be the path to comfort, but it may not be the path to fulfillment. In planning & preparing for an imagined future state of happiness, we miss the beauty, wonder, peace and fulfillment that could be enjoyed in this present moment. Eventually, we must contend with hedonic adaptation. We studied hard and received excellent grades. Now what? We were admitted to a top university. Now what? We got the promotion, the new car, the designer shoes, a weeklong vacation on Turks and Caicos. Now what? We may get comfort and convenience for our efforts, but not necessarily well-being or peace of mind. Indeed, the mind becomes very agitated and disturbed if desires are not met. Cravings and aversion upset the unstable mind. Craving for more, we often sacrifice the very things that contribute to a more fulfilling life: relationships, exercise, sleep, health, mindful attention, stillness of mind.
There's a cost to this. In America, 40 million people were diagnosed with anxiety; 27 million people suffer from depression; 9 million people have a major depressive disorder; 40,000 people commit suicide annually.
There's a medical school axiom that speaks to this: "if 100 people drink from a well and 90% get diarrhea, you can treat the symptoms, or you can treat the water." As Doctor Rocha observed from his work on the front lines, we're treating the symptoms. More than 1 in 5 Americans takes at least one drug to treat a psychological disorder, from anti-depressants like Prozac to anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax. "We prescribe antidepressants at 400 times the rate that we did 20 years ago," asserts Dr. Santos.
I've observed the same uptick from my work on the front lines as an educator. There's been a 100% increase in children under age 10 taking antipsychotic medications. The statistics are alarming:
Is Mother Nature really wiring so many children with chemical imbalances?
Maybe it's time to treat the water.
Full STEAM Ahead!
Today, new and unprecedented challenges face our great nation, our beautiful planet, and our community. We remain resolute and focused on our mission and core values. We’re evolving, adapting, and responding to challenges. We're still guided by our mission, and are still providing a safe haven for all children.
Any attempt to address these challenges must be holistic. Offering a course in robotics solves nothing if a child is hungry, if her parents are stressed, if the air they breathe is polluted.
We are evidence-driven. 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.
In our STEAM classes, 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). A self controlled mind is reflected by stable mental processing (Kleinert et al., 2022). Executive control, moreover, is a better predictor of future success than high I.Q. We're also focused on fundamentals: nurturing social connection, promoting kindness, exercise, rest, nutrition, new experiences, self-discovery, exploration and play to help children discover their signature strengths.
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).
In 2017, we introduced closed loop brain training with neurofeedback. We were using heart rate variability sensors (HRV), electroencephalograms (EEG), functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), and virtual reality (VR) headsets to train the mind.
Today, we offer a stand alone, research based, brain training/neuroscience course. We are also integrating these modules with existing programs. Many of the tech programs, for example, begin with self-regulation/brain training.
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.
Learning to drive and shift the brain up or down a gear has utility in its own right (e.g. downshifting to optimize sleep or shifting up to a higher gear- beta or gamma- to handle more cognitively demanding tasks like programming or engineering). But, we can take this skill even further and make it demonstrable. We can re-imagine EEGs to work as MIDI devices. A MIDI device is a computer interface or peripheral that can be set to control audio software. In other words, we can teach children to create music with their minds. The brain is the instrument.
This program is in beta.
We began using functional near infrared spectroscopy to train executive functioning. fNIRS detects changes in the brain's local blood flow and oxygenation in response to neural activation, which allows for much more efficient and precise neurofeedback training. This biofeedback tool trains executive functioning which is responsible for focus, working memory and organization. Research shows that these trainings are effective interventions for anxiety, depression, and attention deficit disorder. According to Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child, "executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses. When children have opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills, individuals and society experience lifelong benefits. These skills are crucial for learning and development. They also enable positive behavior and allow us to make healthy choices for ourselves and our families."
Cognitive demanding tasks leads to exertion which leads to cognitive fatigue. Attention and energy fluctuate as the day progresses. We experience peaks and troughs in cognitive performance. When depleted, we experience cognitive fatigue.
Cognitive fatigue has a neuro-metabolic correlate. Excessive thinking leads to high glutamate concentration and glutamate/glutamine diffusion in the lateral prefrontal cortex (Wiehler, 2022). At the experiential level, exerting cognitive control requires more effort and feels like exhaustion. At the molecular level, potentially toxins are recycled and circulate.
One 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.
I launched a brain training program that uses virtual reality to lead children into this delta state.
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 can restore those who learn this skill 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. Sleep deprivation doesn’t just alter brain activity, it also changes the connection between neurons. Both changes have a significant effect on working memory and cognitive performance (Nitsche, 2023). 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 can measure oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter. Initially, I had plans to buy them, but decided it would be much more engaging to have students assemble, program and configure their own with a module that uses internal LEDs to bounce light off the arteries and arterioles in the finger's subcutaneous layer and sensing how much light is absorbed with its photodetectors. This is known as photoplethysmography. This data is passed onto and analyzed to a biometric sensor hub which applies its algorithms to determine heart rate and blood oxygen saturation (SpO2). SpO2 results are reported as the percentage of hemoglobin that is saturated with oxygen.
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 and responsive 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.
I ran an informal 3 year study with over 100 children in grades 3-5 and found a statistically significant correlation between hrv and affect (behavior, impulsivity, and anxiety). The lower the hrv score, the more anxious, distractible, or impulsive the child. In a follow-up study, I found that HRV could be improved with training. I came across a 2020 meta-analysis that supported these findings. Researchers found that heart rate variability biofeedback training could improve symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, anger and performance.
I ran a 10 week pilot at the club to determine if hrv could be trained. The screenshot above is a record of hrv scores from 3 students recorded over 20 sessions. The average hrv score for Student A was 3.376; the average hrv score for Student B was 1.223; the average hrv score for Student C was 1.772. Behaviorally, Student A was a model student. He was internally regulated, attentive, not easily distracted. He could focus on cognitively challenging tasks (we were programming in multiple languages). Students B and C, by contrast, were intelligent but internally dysregulated, easily distracted, and exhibited ADHD-like symptoms. Student C, however, took these practices home. By the end of 20 sessions, his hrv scores were as high as those of Student A. His behavior had also changed dramatically. He was more focused. He stopped spinning around in his chair. He requested fewer brain breaks. More importantly, he learned a skill to bring body and mind into coherence.
Teaching self-regulation this explicitly does an adolescent good. In a recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers found that targeted interventions that addressed impulsive behavior in early adolescence may help to prevent the development of antisocial personality disorder and alcohol use disorders later in life. Early adolescent impulsivity directly predicted middle and late adolescent antisocial behavior and alcohol abuse.
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.
Presently, we offer 4 music programs:
Band class with instruction in guitar, bass, ukelele, drums, and singing
Private piano lessons
A digital music class that integrates programming and engineering (e.g. programming, music production & audio engineering). Our program includes:
Introduction to Garageband, a digital audio workstation (DAW), that allows them to sequence, layer, and edit sounds. On
Introduction to Sonic Pi, a Ruby-based programming language, to code. Music is produced and coded line by line. In the process, students learn about music theory, programming, the physics of sound and how electronic sounds can be engineered, filtered, and produced.
Introduction to Scratch, a graphic programming language that interfaces with other peripherals including micro-controllers which allow us to build/engineer our own instruments.
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, altruism, monitoring self-talk, teaching empathy and compassion for self and others, leveraging the child's inclination toward play, teamwork and collaboration, 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.
I respect Nature's design and appreciate each developmental stage. Lessons must be age appropriate, but I respect children too much to dumb things down. If a 4th grader can find their home state on a map, they can find the brainstem in a diagram. If a 3rd grader can understand how electricity moves through a circuit, they can understand. the basics of neural circuitry. If a first grader can understand a simple logical if-then statement- e.g. if it's cold outside, then wear a coat or if it's raining outside, then bring an umbrella- they can understand basic programming constructs.
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.
Getting Back to Fundamentals
The habits parents or children develop at home is outside our circle of influence, but there is much we can do to influence cultural norms and change behaviors.
Meditation, a good night’s sleep, a balanced exercise routine, and a nutrient dense diet are some of the habits that promote not only physical well-being, but mental clarity, improved concentration, and emotional balance. Whether these habits are reinforced at home or not is outside of our control.
...but we have 2 gyms, a dojo, outdoor playgrounds, a dance studio, and a commercial kitchen. This winter and coming spring, we're offering classes in machine learning, programming, dance, music, soccer, basketball, brain training & neuroscience, Tae Kwon Do, painting, vector art, boat building, boating, camping, volleyball, birding, kayaking, 3D modeling, rigging, and animation, videography, cooking, and more. We give kids choice and a degree of autonomy. We're leveraging all the influence we can.
Firing up the kitchen and reworking the garden will be the most impactful programs we offer. We're not quite there yet. We're starting small, working hard, thinking big.
The research is clear. And my role as an educator is also clear. I am ethically and morally bound to share this information and promote it in action- not just with words and data.
The foods we eat affect the milieu of our gut flora. This microbiome plays a vital role in both our physical and mental well-being. 95% of the information received in the gut goes to the brain; it’s not the other way around. What we eat, in other words, affects our concentration, energy levels, and moods for better or for worse.
Our gut has its own nervous system, sometimes called the enteric brain. It has over 100 million neurons and 35 neurotransmitters. Our bodies are home to trillions of bacteria. They outnumber our own cells 10 to 1. They’re spread across the digestive system. Most live in the intestines and colon, commonly called the gut. This community of gut bacteria is called the microbiome. The gut microbiome not only regulates digestion, vitamin supplementation and metabolism, but affects brain function, neural development, immune function, pain perception, and mental health. The gut microbiome appears to play a role in temperature regulation. Temperature gives us important information about the body's inflammatory and metabolic state. It also plays a key role in the stress response.
Recent research suggests that the gut microbiome’s influence extends far beyond the confines of the abdomen. A healthy gut microbiome drives the motivation to exercise, promoting better health. The motivation to work out is triggered by neurochemical changes in the brain... and that is influenced by what happens in the gut. Microbiome-dependent endocannabinoid metabolites in the gut stimulate TRPV1-expressing sensory neurons which elevate dopamine levels in the ventral striatum during exercise (Thaiss & Betley et al., 2022).
Gut bacteria produce neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes which affect learning, memory, mood, and by extension behavior. 90 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin, for example, is produced in the gut. Serotonin, sometimes called the calm molecule, influences both mood and gastrointestinal activity. When serotonin levels are elevated, we feel a sense of contentment and calm. Serotonin inhibits the amygdala, which plays a role in threat detection. Now It's the serotonin secreted in the raphe nuclei of the brain which modulates mood. But how well it performs in the brain is impacted by what happens in the gut.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin. Foods like whole wheat, potato, lentils, oats, pumpkin seeds, eggs, spinach, and beans, adaptogens like ginseng, nutmeg, or St. Johns wort, and supplements like 5-HTP and SAM-e increase serotonin uptake. To promote sleep or rest, I’ll usually time these foods for later in the day.
Gamma-Aminobutyric acid or GABA is another inhibitory neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation. One doctor called it the chillax molecule. Fermented foods like sauerkraut or yogurt, almonds, walnuts, cherries, brown rice, potato, oats, lentils, navy, and lima beans and supplements like vitamin B6 are some foods rich in glutamic acid.
Research has shown that the gut microbiota modulate gut and brain functions. “Gut microbes can communicate with the brain through several routes, for example by producing metabolites, such as short-chain fatty acids and peptidoglycans, neurotransmitters, such as gamma-aminobutyric acid and histamine, and compounds that modulate the immune system as well as others,” said Dr. Melinda A. Engevik, assistant professor of regenerative and cellular medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Nutrient dense foods provide the body with the macro and micronutrients the body needs. The integrity of the nerve cells in the brain depends on fats, amino acids, and other nutrients which we get from the foods we eat. When the body's dietary needs are met, the brain signals satiety. We experience fullness. To support healthy brain metabolism, our brains require at least 30 micronutrients. We eat until we reach our amino acid threshold. One reason Westerners tend to overeat is precisely because the foods are so nutrient poor. We get the macronutrients we need (the fats, sugars, carbohydrates), but not the micronutrients (minerals, vitamins, and amino-acids). As a result, we eat more to supply the brain and body with the nutrients we need. And we often choose the wrong foods.
Good nutrition can be preventive medicine. And the prescriptions could be delicious. But its on us to research and advocate for our children. I plan to turn the kitchen into a classroom.
It’s my responsibility to share the facts. A doctor can save a life and extend the days of her patient. And a teacher who encourages his students to adopt a healthy lifestyle can be a partner in preventive care.
I came across a disturbing study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics on the doubling of pre-diabetes in children 12 to 19 years old. Pre-diabetes is a condition marked by high blood sugar levels that have not yet crossed the diabetes threshold.
"If we do not intervene, the children who have pre-diabetes have a higher risk of developing diabetes and also have a higher risk of all cardiovascular diseases," study author Junxiu Liu said. Type-2 diabetes, in turn, accelerates aging, cognitive decline, and other forms of neurodegeneration (Antal et al., 2022).
A 30 year study which tracked 1244 children aged 7-15 in 1985 found links between cognition and fitness later in life. Those children who were more active and fit performed better on cognitive tests than those who were obese in early childhood (Tait et al., 2022). Obesity, by contrast, is linked to poor brain health in children. Researchers observed structural brain changes in children with higher weight and body mass index (BMI) scores. Areas of degradation included the white matter of the corpus callosum, the principal connector between the brain’s two hemispheres, and tracts within the hemispheres that connect the lobes of the brain. Resting-state fMRI images revealed that increased weight and BMI scores were associated with decreased connectivity in the functional networks of the brain that involve cognitive control, motivation and reward-based decision making.
“Increased BMI and weight are not only associated with physical health consequences but also with brain health,” Simone Kaltenhauser, who led the study at Yale's School of Medicine, said. “Our study showed that higher weight and BMI scores in 9- and 10-year-olds were associated with changes in macrostructures, microstructures and functional connectivity that worsened brain health.”
Unfortunately for kids, many adults have abdicated their responsibilities and power. Some shamelessly market garbage to children. Others wallow in guilt and shame or make excuses for poor choices. Many educators approach nutrition as if they feared offending some multinational conglomerate or hurting a caregiver's feelings with facts. Nutrition is a third rail.
I compromise my integrity and violate my oath to families if I withhold truth.
Consumers must be informed and self-advocate... even a 12 year old diagnosed as prediabetic. Such are the norms of the times. If a child is suckered by false advertising into buying an energy bar and vitamin drink marketed as sugar-free from a school vending machine and becomes diabetic, it's her fault, or we blame her parents. We don't examine poor policy, the educational curriculum, misleading ads that affect consumers' perceptions, or corporate complicity.
According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, the leading causes of death in America- heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cirrhosis, and high blood pressure- are largely preventable and could be avoided with the right diet, exercise and lifestyle. Complications related to poor health from osteoarthritis to respiratory impairment to the cognitive decline that accompanies old age have also been linked to lifestyle choices and diet.
Obesity rates are driven partly by sedentary lifestyles and the consumption of cheaper, processed foods. As an educator, I'm concerned with the trends I see on the ground. Childhood obesity is epidemic in America. Roughly ⅓ of children and adolescents are obese. Over the past three decades, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2-5 years and adolescents aged 12-19 years, and more than tripled for children aged 6-11 years. In the inner city, where I started my career, the statistics are worse. The disparities in obesity prevalence are higher for Latino and Black children.
Good health is a wellspring of intangible wealth. If I could encourage students to be good custodians of their health and well being, I could spare them and their loved ones the misfortune of ill health, both physical and psychological.
Food affects mood. In a recent study, researchers found that "young men with a poor diet saw significant improvement in their symptoms of depression when they switched to a healthy Mediterranean diet" (Bayes, 2022).
Change your diet, change the way you feel. Many studies have found improved mood regulation and reduced irritability and explosive rage, including in placebo-controlled randomized trials of children with ADHD (Rucklidge aet al., 2017) and mood dysregulation (Johnstone et al., 2021).
We are providing children from all backgrounds with a rigorous and holistic program. 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. We are delivering on our promise to provide every child who enters our doors a caring, supportive environment and top-tier educational opportunities for $50 a year. I challenge any reader to find an organization or school that provides the same quality and value for $50.
I am exceedingly proud of our staff, our volunteers, the members of our board, and those in our community who support us. We're in the trenches, doing the work that needs doing. No excuses, not a lot of talk, lots of hard work. We give with love and get love back from our community. We've reaped what we've sown.
We are open 7 days a week and sponsor events for families, support community groups, host tournaments, and continue to be a safe haven for kids and the adults they grow up to become. Our team is made up of the grittiest, most compassionate and generous people I've ever had the honor to serve alongside.
If you would like to get involved, volunteer or support our club financially, please visit:
First published 2/25/2022