Chester school uses biofeedback to help kids reduce stress

    In the city of Chester, biofeedback is helping second graders handle stress by teaching them how to slow-down and focus.

    By: Jennifer Lynn
    email: jlynn@whyy.org

    Biofeedback is a type of therapy that uses computers to monitor body functions like heart rate and muscle tension.

    Some research shows the process of biofeedback is a clinically effective way to teach users how to manage stress through breathing and relaxation.

    In the city of Chester, this technique is helping second graders handle stress by teaching them how to slow-down and focus. The program was introduced in January and, so far, the results are encouraging.

    Listen:

    [audio:090603jllearn.mp3]

    A recent study at Cornell University links the emotional stress of poverty to learning difficulties in kids.

    Here at the Widener Partnership Charter School in Chester, most of the children face that hardship everyday.

    Calvert-Hirt:
    That’s a big stresser. Then you come from single family homes, the violence they encounter on a daily basis – or can. Just the families in general struggling and those are things that they bring into the classroom.

    A computer station with a biofeedback program ready to go for students.
    A computer station with a biofeedback program ready to go for students.
    Dr. Pam Calvert-Hirt is a clinical psychologist and Associate Director of the Biofeedback Center at Widener University. She’s behind a pilot program that’s brought biofeedback into the charter school. The program is for kids who wrestle with stress, a lot. They act out in class – argue with teachers…fight with others. But Calvert-Hirt thinks biofeedback can change that, by teaching kids how to monitor and control their responses to stress.

    The graph-paper readouts made popular in the 70’s are not what this program is about. Calvert-Hirt says this biofeedback helps children tune in and relax using interactive computer games.

    Calvert-Hirt:
    We often say this is sort of like body Nintendo. So they’re playing computer games but instead of little buttons for their fingers, they have sensors attached to their ear and they’re playing games with their heart.

    A small sensor (right) straps to a finger and monitors breathing and heart rate.
    A small sensor (right) straps to a finger and monitors breathing and heart rate.
    These games are cute and tame. One depicts a garden where everything is grey and lifeless, but as you breathe, plants turn green – animals appear. The games are easy to use, cost about $300 each, and can be played on a regular computer.

    A small sensor that clips to an earlobe or finger monitors breathing and heart rate. When a child is relaxed and focused, the game plays better, and a green bar-graph spikes.

    Eight-year-old Keyshawn is one of 6 kids in the program. In this game, he controls a hot air balloon that skirts above a desert, then mountains and fields.

    Keeshan: You have to make the balloon go around the world.
    Lynn: Now, are you making this thing float? How do you do that?
    Keeshan: You breathe.
    Lynn: It’s getting higher, isn’t it?
    Keeshan: Mmm-hmm.

    Janet Howsen assists 8-year-old Keyshawn, one of 6 children partaking in a biofeedback program at the Widener Partnership Charter School in Chester, PA.
    Janet Howsen assists 8-year-old Keyshawn, one of 6 children partaking in a biofeedback program at the Widener Partnership Charter School in Chester, PA.
    While playing, the kids who reach a level of calm, focused behavior -known as coherence – are asked to remember how good that feels. The hope is the child becomes self-aware of their body’s reaction and starts to recreate the good feelings.

    Maurice Elias is a psychology professor at Rutgers University. He says learning about self-regulation is one thing, but doing it is hard

    Elias:
    The children learn the skills with the equipment, but then being able to take that learning put it into practice in the schoolyard, playground, the staircases, buses, and other highly stressful situations, it’s extremely difficult in the absence of that equipment.

    Video: This biofeedback program displays an increased flow of light as the child relaxes. Click image to play.
    Video: This biofeedback program displays an increased flow of light as the child relaxes. Click image to play.
    Elias says many schools help kids cope through social and emotional development programs that are conducted school-wide and aren’t as narrow and equipment-based as biofeedback.

    At this charter school in Chester, educators feel confident biofeedback can complement other techniques like talk and play therapy. Teacher Allison Ostikovich says the school’s lucky to have these resources. Two children in the study are in her class.

    Ostikovich: I definitely do see them trying a little bit harder to calm themselves down…and not take it out on others or step away from whatever’s making them angry. I’m sure some of the children use what they’ve learned in the biofeedback when they’re out of school as well, when little brothers make them angry or their moms and dads as well, so it’s really good for the kids.

    Statistics such as heart rate and coherence score can be checked after a session.
    Statistics such as heart rate and coherence score can be checked after a session.
    The school is looking for funding to expand the biofeedback program to make it available to more children and to provide training for some of their teachers and counselors.

    Researchers are using the project to determine whether this type of therapy is best used one-on-one or in small groups. In the end, they say they want to “prepare” students for classroom challenges and daily life challenges.

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