Yale psychiatrists build education program

C8-Kids aims to strengthen cognitive abilites in elementary students.
C8-Kids aims to strengthen cognitive abilites in elementary students. Photo by Jinxia Dong.

C8-Kids, a program designed by Yale psychiatrists, is teaching students to focus across Connecticut and throughout the world.

Part computer program and part physical activity, C8-Kids aims to strengthen cognitive abilities like memory, focus and attention, concetrating on elementary school-age students whose mental tools are underdeveloped due to socioeconomic status or ADHD. But Yale psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Wexler, who founded the program, said all students should be able to benefit from the cognitive abilities C8-Kids develops. C8-Kids has previously yielded successful results in Beijing, New York and Connecticut, and, since launching its sale of personal C8-Kids programs Monday, the company plans to expand to individual users and other school districts — perhaps including New Haven.

“It’s an unconventional product. It’s not one of the routine shopping list of education products,” said Ken Coleman, the CEO of C8 Sciences, an education program company which sells C8-Kids. “So what we’re doing is breaking new ground, finding people who think of themselves as leaders in education, looking for new opportunities.”

The program involves sitting in a computer lab and performing activities like clicking on the correctly colored ball as it bounces across the screen and sorting numbers using a butterfly game, or imitating dance moves in the gym. Although the students enjoy the program, said Wexler, they also strengthen their brains’ executive functions through external stimulation.

“The degree to which our brains are shaped after birth from stimulation from the environment is more true in humans than any other animal,” he added.

The brain strengthening is especially important in the case of children who come from poor backgrounds and subsequently struggle in school, said Wexler. The difference between children who have grown up in a nurturing environment and those who have not is visible when the two brains are viewed under an MRI, said C8 Director of Operations Matthew Fitzpatrick. But although the program may help disadvantaged students “more dramatically” with their learning, there is evidence to suggest that gifted students would benefit from the program as well, Fitzpatrick added.

The first pilot study was launched in 2010 in Beijing under the direction of Professor Jinxia Dong, who designed C8-Kids’s physical activity component and is the director of the Research Center for Sports Studies and Society at Peking University in China. Soon after, in the summer of 2011, a small group of students trying C8-Kids were studied in New Haven, followed by the administration of pilot studies in Hamden and Bristol, Conn. in fall 2011.

Ethel Berger, who ran one of the first versions of C8-Kids through the Elm City summer program New Haven Reads, said despite having a “lot of bugs,” she was “incredibly impressed” with the program. She added that two students who could barely sit through the program in the beginning could easily sit through C8-Kids by the end, while another student’s ability to focus while reading was dramatically enhanced following daily 20-minute use of the program.

These results were replicated in Hamden and Bristol, where students enrolled in the program outperformed students in a control group on cognitive function tests and standardized tests. Students enrolled in the C8-Kids program in Bristol more than doubled their working memory while their peers not involved in C8-Kids increased their working memory by only 26 percent. Similarly, 58 percent of students in the C8-Kids program raised their reading scores on a standardized test by more than 10 points while only 33 percent of students in the control group raised their reading scores by more than 10 points.

After the success of the test programs, the C8 program began charging schools for their services last spring, charging about $5000 for every 100 students enrolled in the program. Two additional school districts — in Harlem and Brooklyn, N.Y. — have adopted the program and use it during school hours, said Fitzpatrick. Broward County Public Schools in Florida, which is the 6th largest school district in the country, will almost certainly be implementing the program this year, Wexler added. On Monday, C8 executives began selling C8-Kids to individual families for a listing price of $400, but the product is currently on sale for $199.

Wexler also said he hopes this program expands to New Haven, one of the first cities that Wexler and his team reached out to for a pilot study, Wexler said. Because of a combination of budget and implementation issues, New Haven was not one of the original pilot districts, he said, but added there has been recent discussion about using this program with a small group of students form New Haven.

“I certainly hope the Yale-New Haven partnership on this, which is something I looked forward to as soon as I conceived of this, will expand,” Wexler said, “But in the meantime, I’m very excited to see the real service to help schools like those New York City who face major challenges.”

New Haven’s class of 2011 had a 64.3 percent graduation rate.

Correction Oct. 17

A previous version of this article misstated the name of C8-Kids multiple times. It also misspelled the name of Dr. Bruce Wexler.

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