Neurofeedback as a Teaching Tool

Why is Play Attention Different?

Dr. Olafur Palsson, Psy.D. Associate Professor of Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and one of the NASA developers of similar technology, states, “The Play Attention system is in my opinion uniquely appealing because it simultaneously addresses three different factors that can inhibit healthy learning and concentration. It trains basic mental skills that underlie the ability to complete school-related tasks; it systematically monitors and reduces attention-incompatible behaviors; and it encourages the type of brain activity that is known from research to be associated with good concentration. This multi-faceted approach goes far beyond the scope of most brainwave biofeedback training. All of this is furthermore packaged into a training format that is self-esteem building for the learner and well suited for use in educational and home settings.”

Play Attention is a comprehensive teaching/learning system developed by a teacher for students struggling with attention problems and the cognitive deficits typically associated with focusing difficulties. In use worldwide and in over 300 school systems in the United States alone, Play Attention has quickly captured the attention of educators looking for an educational intervention.

Play Attention’s core teaching method is derived from neurofeedback. National publications like Discover, Time, and Newsweek have recently raised public awareness about neurofeedback – an exciting intervention for children and adults with attention problems. Neurofeedback is derived from the word, neuro meaning brain related, and feedback. Feedback is a teaching method used since teaching began. Feedback implies reporting information to the student to inform him if he is or is not performing as needed.  Clinical feedback using abstract games or graphs to teach control of attention and other autonomic functions has been around since the early 1970s.

The bane of the aforementioned clinical approach has been its difficulty of use and expense.  Clinical EEG equipment is complex, expensive, and directed toward changing brain wave patterns. The change in the brain wave patterns is supposed to indicate change in associated skills of concentration, improved behaviors, etc. Frequently, students practice on their own in the absence of a clinician and therefore have no behavioral guidance. Clinicians also have devised a myriad teaching methods (‘protocols’) using different frequencies and sensor locations. Most all of these ‘protocols’ have demonstrated success in training brain training. Virtually no neurofeedback programs or ‘protocols’ incorporated educational methodology and cognitive skill building which commonly resulted in a lack of transference or generalization. This meant that skills learned during the feedback training were difficult to relate to home or classroom activities. This fact greatly delayed its acceptance by the professional educational community and resulted in severe criticism of the technology by others in the field. A few significantly good practitioners like Dr. George Von Hilsheimer had the acute ability to coach well and get students to be successful at home and school.

Background information

In mid 1980’s, Peter Freer was teaching at an elementary school in the rural mountains of Appalachia. He faced significant numbers of students with attention problems. Most of these students were also discipline problems. Being a second year teacher, he did not understand their learning differences, and he felt inadequately prepared to teach these students. There wasn’t even a label for students with attention problems at that time. Upon speaking with his university professors, he implemented a token reinforcement system, repeated instructions as needed, shortened assignments, and moved these students closer to his desk. While these interventions succeeded slightly, Freer still believed more could be done over and above simply modifying student curriculum and environment. Once these children became adults and entered the job market, no employer would move them closer to his desk and give them trinkets to motivate them.

Over the course of his graduate work, Freer was trained on educational implementation of computer software and educational programming developed at MIT in a program funded by the National Science Foundation. Computers were proving to be intrinsically motivating to students. Freer quickly realized that computers could be used to teach attention classes or instruction in focusing, if he could devise the correct program. He began studying research being performed at NASA and integrated into their flight simulator program. It was apparent that the neurofeedback technology NASA had implemented was not appropriate for students. However, significant educational modifications could be implemented that would make this technology practical and educationally efficient.

He undertook the massive effort to totally revise neurofeedback into a pure teaching tool by founding Unique Logic and Technology in 1994. Freer immediately stripped out the active brain wave reporting component as his intent was not to change brain wave patterns. He did intend to help alter cognitive skills because after researching decades of studies on attention problems, he found that children and adults with attention problems seemed to have weakened networks of attention, time on-task, visual tracking, short-term memory, and discriminatory processing. In other words, these students were deficit in the skills they needed most to succeed – the core components of the learning process. So, instead of trying to modify brain waves, Freer thought it more important to develop deficit cognitive skills that would directly affect behavioral performance and educational outcomes. The US government awarded Freer three patents and one pending based on his strategic modifications.

After two years of restructure the program was ready to be tested. Dubbed, Play Attention®, Freer negotiated an agreement with a local school system to test the learning system under the guidance of the special education director.

This special adaptation of neurofeedback only monitored brain wave activity to make the student aware of proper focus. Students can actually control screen characters by mind alone in activities that directly teach students to stay on-task, visually track the teacher during a classroom lesson, follow multiple step directions by increasing short-term memory skills, and learn to filter out distractions. This was a significant modification of existing teaching and feedback technology as it focused on performance based outcomes that were measurable as opposed to the older method of brain wave change which provide no conclusive evidence of specific behavioral change.

The results of the study so impressed the special education director, that he purchased a complete system for every school in the district. But that was only the beginning for Play Attention as Freer placed sensors in a bicycle helmet and integrated a behavior shaping program to assist students in diminishing or extinguishing behaviors not conducive to learning. The helmet was ideal for students as they could quickly prepare it for use in as little as 90 seconds with no fuss, no gels, no mess. It was familiar to them as they wore helmets for biking, roller blading, and skate boarding. The helmet could also withstand the rigors of the school environment.

If a student fidgets or calls out during his Play Attention session, the screen characters become uncontrollable. This allows students to actually see a direct correlation between their behavior and their attention. The behavior shaping module bases it goals on the fact that students want to succeed but need to know why they are being asked to make behavioral changes. Most students with attention problems are unaware that they exhibit behaviors that distract not only themselves, but others in their immediate surroundings too. Awareness of the behavior makes shaping it easier as attainable goals can be set and reinforced through positive reward. Yet another patent is pending on this process.

The overall result of the advancement of feedback technology in Play Attention is simplicity. Play Attention is a comprehensive program but is not complex. Its interface appears as a simple lesson plan. Goals are easy to set in all of the five cognitive components. Results are graphed from the internal data that are collected for each student. Students are even encouraged to work on actual homework assignments while wearing the Play Attention helmet and operating the learning system. This is a unique way to teach them to finish homework within a proper time period promoting good time on-task. When students log out, a journal asks them to reflect on what they’ve learned that session, what they are proud of, and what goals the need to develop for the next session. This information appears at the initiation of the very next session to promote continuity, transfer, and generalization.

Knowing that parents, teachers, and other professionals have tight schedules and need to implement software quickly, he established a support program that allows everyone to be trained quickly and be adeptly supported by professional staff via telephone and the Internet. Tech support is also available free of charge for the life of the product.

The significant changes in technology and methodology stemming from a different perspective – an educational perspective – have enabled Play Attention to become a world leader in educational attention training with homes, schools, learning centers, and professionals using Play Attention from Beijing to Brazil.

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