Over lunch in Pokhara, Nepal, some three years ago, Alissa Antle and Leslie Chesick – strangers both from Vancouver, connected through a mutual friend – discussed the challenges of teaching at the nearby girl's school.
Ms. Chesick, a trauma therapist and board member of the not-for-profit Nepal House Society, which runs the school, spoke of the difficulty of connecting with the young girls. They had come from poverty, and most had suffered multiple traumas and had great difficulty focusing and relaxing in the classroom.
Ms. Antle, a professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Interactive Arts and Technology, had recently concluded a stint teaching software design at a private school in the country and was looking to future projects.
By the time lunch was over, the two had agreed to partner on a new project. Last fall, Ms. Antle returned to Pokhara with Mind-Full, an Android tablet app she built that uses neuro-feedback to help traumatized children relax and focus enough to learn. She ran a 20-week study, engaging girls under the age of 10 with the app.
"The results were just through the roof," Ms. Antle said in a recent interview at Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus. "There was huge behavioural change around being able to calm down, being able to manage attention in the classroom."
The app works like this: A student wears a headset that reads her brainwaves, transmitting the data to a tablet that a teacher or counsellor can monitor. On a separate tablet, the student plays a series of games that incorporate aspects of the body and movement, which Ms. Antle calls "embodied interaction."
For example, by breathing deeply and holding a relaxed state, a student can make an animated pinwheel spin. Doing this successfully five times, at five seconds each, advances her to the next game, which requires her to maintain a relaxed state for a longer period of time.
The teacher or counsellor with the other tablet can adjust the threshold as needed – lowering it, for example, if a student has had a particularly rough day.
Notably, every illustration in the app was designed with the girls in mind. For example, the child's hand holding up the pinwheel has darker skin, to reflect their own. A second game depicts paragliders against the backdrop of Mount Machhapuchhre – a familiar sight for the girls.
Comparable systems exist for adults with attentional and anxiety disorders, but Mind-Full is set apart for its simplicity and ease of use.
The study found that children who used the app for six weeks ultimately fared better on a number of behavioural measures than those in a control group. They were better able to calm down, could talk about difficult issues in therapy and follow instructions in class, for example.
"We also looked at their game performance over time and their brain-wave data over time, which are much more objective measures," Ms. Antle said. "We looked at the trajectory of change and saw that the kids were actually changing over time in their ability to play the games."
The games have resulted in shifts in behaviours and could possibly change the students' brain function, Ms. Antle said.
Ms. Chesick said the app was fascinating not just because of its effect on the children, but for what it taught the therapists.
"You got to see a bit more of what was happening inside the kids' heads, literally," she said. "Kids that were very quiet … [therapists] could get an idea of whether they were distressed and quiet, or calm and quiet."
Ms. Antle is now working on a similar app for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.