August 10, 2015
The Australian
Natasha Bita

Chilling out in a technicoloured tent, Jaxx Milanovic traces the outline of a flower in red pencil. The eight-year-old Brisbane boy has dyslexia and struggles to keep pace with his peers in reading and writing.

Each week he attends the “brain fitness lab” at the Queensland University of Technology to do computer and paper-based cognitive exercises to strengthen the neural pathways in his brain. The tasks include “old school” skills such as colouring in, joining dots and creating patterns — features of the bestselling “mindfulness” colouring-in books that seem to be the latest de-stressing fad for adults.

“It’s helping his memory retention and his reading,” says the boy’s coach, Sheryl Batchelor. “It gets his eyes to focus on what they should focus on. We work on the neurological connections that need to occur in the brain for learning. When you keep going down a neural pathway it becomes like a highway; we need to create an off-ramp.”

The NeuroSpark Lab is at the frontier of 21st-century learning, integrating neuroscience with education. It’s an antidote to the busy schedules we continually put our kids through. Advocates predict such “brain health” training will become as common as exercise classes, and profoundly change the world.

Batchelor, who directs the lab, worked as a remedial teacher for 25 years helping children with learning difficulties and behavioural problems. “I was implementing evidence-based literacy interventions in schools but it wasn’t helping a lot of kids,” she says. “Now I know why. You need to work on the neurological connections that need to occur in the brain for learning. If kids are emotionally traumatised, they’re not going to learn.”

Batchelor explains to children that their brains have a “thinking part” and an “emotional part”, and teaches them techniques to self-calm — such as deep breathing or taking time out — when they feel stressed, frustrated or upset. “Once we explain to children how their brain works and that their ­behaviour is caused by parts of their emotional brain taking control, they can take a step back,” she says. “They can blame their brain, instead of themselves, and realise they can control it.”

Brain-training techniques have been embraced by a handful of Australian schools, which use the commercial program devised by Barbara Arrowsmith, author of The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. The Catholic Education Office in Sydney has trialled the Arrowsmith Program for three years at Casimir College in Marrickville, and the Holy Innocents Primary School in Croydon. Students spend 40 minutes, twice a day, on supervised cognitive exercises.

“It is absolutely amazing how it has changed young people’s lives,” says Kate O’Brien, assistant director of teaching and learning at the Sydney Catholic Education Office. “Every single student has changed the way they learn, even though they were unsuccessful at school, and had poor self-esteem which impacted on their emotional wellbeing. It’s extraordinary.”

One girl had failed every ­English test she was given until she started the Arrowsmith training in Year 9. Last year, she topped Year 10 English. Two Year 6 boys, who had never passed a maths test, achieved a 75 per cent pass score after the training.

Brisbane Girls Grammar School is promoting the health benefits of “mindfulness” in ­students, and even has three staff psychologists to help coach them in relaxation skills. Girls are ­encouraged to knit, colour in or meditate during their lunch hours to calm down and control stress.

QUT neurologist Selena Bartlett predicts that brain health ­programs will soon become as common as physical fitness regimes. In the 21st-century knowledge economy, she says, workers will be prized for their ability to work effectively, manage ­emotions and communicate.

“Emotions are not soft skills,” she says. “They are part of the brain, they’re hardwired and you can train them. The emotional brain can work in very unhelpful ways: taking that extra doughnut, thinking endlessly about how sad we are and being anxious about the future. Neuroscience, education and brain imaging are coming together to solve mental health and learning issues. It’s going to change the world.”

For adults, the QUT lab helps with recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism.

“I’m working with a 39-year-old tow-truck driver who attended a horrific traffic accident in Brisbane last year, which left him ­isolated and seeking refuge in alcohol,” Bartlett says.

“Alcohol dependence is a common reaction to trauma. But with strategies in place to retrain his brain, this man is now getting his life back in order.”

Pioneering neuroscientist ­Michael Merzenich — who featured in the ABC television series Redesign My Brain — met officials from Queensland’s departments of Education, Health and Police, as well as the Family and Child Commission, last week.

He insists that brain training can “turn on the lights” for children suffering trauma, or with ­attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism. Stress, he says, shrinks the brain networks.

“The emotional brain is something you can train,” he says. “When people stop blaming themselves and start blaming their brain, everything changes.

“Children need to understand their brain is plastic and they’re not stuck in a rut. Two weeks of training for 15 minutes a day can be enough to ‘turn on the lights’ and make kids more alert.”

Merzenich trumpets the importance of rest, relaxation and mindfulness for healthy brains, noting that experiments prove rats’ brains age faster when they are raised in “chaotic environments”. Bartlett agrees that “brains need down time”.

“People think if you need sleep you’re lazy,” Bartlett says. “But we clear toxins from the brain when we sleep. In this crazy world, you need to be able to focus your brain on one thing.”

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists says children require chill-out time. Nick Kowalenko, who chairs the faculty of child and adolescent psychiatry, says some kids cannot cope with busy schedules.

“Some kids are very susceptible to getting distressed,” he says. “I see a lot of adolescent girls who get distressed and they do benefit from old-fashioned relaxation techniques. One of the activities in mindfulness is all about breathing and being in the moment. This is known to relax people and reduce stress.”

Kowalenko says sleep is vital for healthy brains.

“Adequate rest is needed to learn and consolidate learning,” he says. “Downtime, in a sense of children not being too hurried and not doing tasks all the time, is very important. Kids will say to me they just want their parents to be in a room with them watching a DVD or out kicking a ball around. They want to spend time just hanging out.”

Batchelor is convinced that technology and busy schedules are sabotaging children’s emotional health — as well as their learning.

“They don’t do enough play, or dancing, or clapping,” she says. “It sends the emotional brain crazy if there’s no downtime, no coming back into ourselves to calm ourselves down. Anxiety is through the roof. Kids are always trying to live up to other people’s expectations, and girls in particular get ­depressed when they can’t meet them.”

Handwriting and colouring in — skills that are slowly being lost to attention-grabbing technology — are important for cognitive ­development. “We’ve crammed so much into the curriculum,” Batchelor says. “Children need to get back to the basics at school — writing, laughing, playing and being kind to each other.

“Kids can’t sit still, but that’s ­because when you’re five years old you’re supposed to be playing. Play is important right across the lifespan. We all need it.”