Good Idea: Brain training helps pupils develop better concentration

A former karate champion and his business partner help young people train their brains as part of a new programme which uses neuroscience to improve behaviour and concentration.

Provider: The Mind Training Company

Name: Mind Clubs

Mervyn Etienne, a world silver medallist in karate, set up The Mind Training Company with Michael Harris to help young people improve their concentration and mental health using computer games and brain sensors called brain-computer interfaces (BCI).

These devices monitor a person's brain activity and use the readings to affect how they perform in the game. They combine this technology with the use of "neurofeedback", whereby the player can see their own levels of concentration and relaxation onscreen and try to improve their performance in the game accordingly.

Last year, the pair began a pilot project called Mind Clubs in Church End, Brent, in which they worked with young people with mild attention deficit disorders, depression or anxiety. Through a range of different games, the young people were encouraged to improve their concentration and behaviour. "We noticed a real change in the kids we worked with," Harris says. "The games helped them learn how to overcome obstacles and improved their motivation."

At the beginning of this year The Mind Project began working with 14- to 16-year-olds in four Ealing schools as part of a programme to help young people at risk of becoming Neet. Every week for four weeks, the students attend two-hour sessions where they play games using BCI and neurofeedback technology.

Improving students' motivation and concentration relies on repetition of the tasks, so Etienne and Harris knew they needed to design a programme that would keep young people interested.

"I have childlike qualities myself," Harris explains. "So I knew that if the games were fun and competitive, young people would enjoy them more."

The training can be preventative, in terms of developing good concentration skills early on, or it can change embedded behaviours.

The young participants in Ealing play two games – the first, a tug-of-war where their concentration levels control their avatar's strength, and secondly a parkour game – where the player navigates a figure through a street-scape – that rewards good concentration and relaxation with improved performance.

The scheme has so far been a success. "We've had a good impact - the kids are happy and the teachers are happy," Harris says. "We can already see some improvement in their behaviour."

The use of BCI and neurofeedback to improve brain function is still relatively new, but research has shown that it can lead to lasting positive mental effects. Etienne is currently researching the use of BCI and neurofeedback for developing emotional regulation and attention span as part of a PhD at Birkbeck College, London. The Mind Company's Brent project is currently the only one of its kind, but they are keen to extend it to other boroughs, and hope that the method will become more widespread.

"We'd like future programmes to offer more," Harris says. "The longer the programme, the better – what you want is permanent change, so the brain doesn't revert to old behaviour."

The pair believe that their programme offers a new solution to behavioural problems in young people. While there is a cost for investing in the technology, they believe it could save society money in the long run.

"The government wants to cut spending on behavioural management in schools," Harris says, "but before they can lower the costs of dealing with these students they need to improve the behaviour. We believe that mild disorders that worsen later in life and can lead to prison sentences and job loss could be dealt with early on through programmes like ours."

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