A growing education program in the Valley is teaching preschoolers how their brain works so they can focus on learning. The “Focused Kids” program is being taught to low income, mostly Latino kids, in a unique preschool. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, this new program is happening inside a school bus.
Inside El Busesito, a small group of students and teachers are playing games on the carpeted floor. It’s a comfortable space that doesn’t look at all like a bus. The seats have been removed to make way for books and toys.
The bus makes stops in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, offering free preschool to low-income families. It’s a needed service. According to a 2011 survey, less than one percent of poor immigrant families in the Valley have kids enrolled in preschool.
Part of the preschool lesson here focuses on the brain and how it works. Child therapist Kathy Hegberg created the program, “Focused Kids.”
"What we know is that children’s brains are growing faster between the ages of one and five than any other time in their life," she says. "Our goal is to help them learn how to build neuro-connections around focusing and calming down, so their brains are ready to learn."
Hegberg uses puppets in her lessons about the brain. An owl puppet represents the prefrontal cortex, where things are learned and problems solved. The hippocampus, where memory is stored, is an elephant.
"This is the guard dog, the pink dot on the brain, it’s the amygdala. And, he’s sort of the emotional ruler of the brain," Hegberg says.
The idea is to teach kids how to control an overactive amygdala, which can stymie learning, by breathing deeply. Hegberg uses a toy “breathing sphere” that expands and contracts.
Once the amygdala is calm, all three parts of the brain can work together and the kids can focus. Hegberg’s curriculum uses other tools too like a chime and movement.
El Busesito teacher Kenia Reyna says she’s seen the benefits of the brain instruction.
"In our group last year we had a little boy whose problems were really bad but, whenever he would come on the bus, he’d just go straight to the breathing sphere and he would just sit there by himself and calm himself down and say, ‘okay, I’m ready.’"
She says many of the students come from high stress homes, so learning how to cope is an important early lesson.
"They come from broken families, so this teaches them that they can separate themselves from that and go calm themselves down. They have say in their own lives - even though they’re five, they’re in charge of their own brain."
Elaine Grossman is with the Valley Settlement Project, the program behind El Busesito.
"We see Focused Kids as our social and emotional learning component of El Busesito," she says.
The Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning researches this kind of learning. They have found developing kids’ social and emotional skills is critical to being a good student, citizen and worker. And, it can prevent or reduce risky behaviors. Grossman says they’re tracking this kind of learning to gauge its success.
"What we’ve learned is that, if the brain isn’t in a place where it’s able to take in new information. If a child, for example, is hungry or afraid, their brain is less receptive to being able to take in new information and learn," Grossman says.
There are critics of Social-Emotional learning. A blogger for Scientific American wrote in 2012 such programs can interfere with a child’s innate self-regulator, the conscience thus, impeding his or her moral development and ability to learn.
Back inside the bus, the kids are wrapping up their lesson with psychologist Kathy Hegberg. She’s already taught the Focused Kids techniques to 100 kids and their parents and she anticipates teaching another 100 this school year. El Busesito is also expanding to Basalt and Vail.