Geinelis Molina took a deep breath and quietly stared at a computer screen, sitting very still. The third-grader was using her brain to control the movement of a fish, making sure that it swam all the way to the bottom of an ocean to earn points. But if she was distracted, the fish swam higher.
“It’s hard to focus when it’s starting, I’m not focusing,” she said, her eyes glued to the screen. “I think, think!”
Geinelis is part of “Focus for Success,” a new after-school program launched by second-grade teacher Brianna Jensen, who’s using NASA-inspired brain-training games to help first- to third-grade students at Emerson Spanish Immersion in Minneapolis boost their concentration and behavior. The program is the first of its kind in the Minneapolis School District.
“If there’s a natural alternative way to help them improve their focus and attention, I’m all for it,” Jensen said. “I hate to see so many young kids medicated.”
The program would normally cost $2,500 a student, but Jensen was able to offer it free of charge thanks to her father, Jerry Jensen, founder and director of the nonprofit Cedarbrook Center, who donated computers with “Play Attention” games, sensors and volunteered to help get the program running. She said her father’s nonprofit has been on a decadelong quest to change kids’ attention spans and has used the neurofeedback computer games to do it.
“The idea is that by participating in those activities, then the kids are slowly making changes to how their brain acts and how their body responds so that during the school day it will transfer to academics and into the school setting,” she said.
When the school announced the program in the fall, Jensen got an overwhelming response from parents who wanted to enroll their children. She planned to start with eight students, but she now has double that number.
The Jensen family raised about $7,000 to buy more “Play Attention” equipment and enlisted the help of her mother, who sewed Velcro arm straps to the sensors so that the kids can put them on themselves.
Twice a week, the students play brain-training games and try other interactive activities.
In one game, fast moving asteroids — red and white — approach a spaceship. Using the keyboard space bar, the students are supposed to eliminate the white ones when they draw closer. The red ones are harmless and can hit the spaceship to give it energy. Timing is key, and the student has to remain focused to refuel the spaceship.
In Jensen’s class, the boys seem to like the spaceship game better. Many of the girls like playing a colorful game where they can copy patterns. The fish game is the hardest. Throughout, the kids have sensors strapped to their arm that read their brain waves and detect whether the students are focusing.
On a recent afternoon, students in one corner took pictures of their colorful mandala drawings and Lego masterpieces and uploaded them to an application so their parents can instantly view them. At another station, kids scribbled in their journals before starting a “mindfulness exercise.”
Jensen, who is patient, soft-spoken and calm, coaches the students through different yoga poses and breathing exercises each day to combat after‑school fatigue. She goes around the room as kids take turns playing the games to see how they are doing.
At one point, Geinelis struggled to focus. Jensen hovered behind her and reminded her to breathe, whispering in her ear, “Swim down. Tell it with your brain to swim down.” In the end, Geinelis got an almost perfect score.
Overall, the youngsters are getting better, Jensen said, but it also depends on what kind of day they had.
“If the student is too tired, they can’t focus,” Jensen said.