Mental Health Prevention Specialists Teach BrainWise in Elementary Schools

Posted On: May 24, 2018

Jefferson Center is a Colorado community mental health center that partners closely with schools and other community agencies to improve the mental health of children and families. In 2010, Jefferson Center adopted the BrainWise program as a key prevention initiative in Jefferson County, Gilpin County, and Clear Creek County schools.

Jefferson Center’s School Services Manager Amy Hansen, MA, LPC, as well as Prevention Specialists Laura Nichols, Gilexis Maldonado, Cierra Pierce, Marcie Synchef, and Alistair Hawkes talked about their commitment to teaching BrainWise. Each provides her services to between two and five schools. The following information shows why the Jefferson Center’s model is an example of an exceptional and sustainable program.


When the Jefferson Center forms a partnership with a school, the school agrees to follow set expectations about the role of the Prevention Specialist. Amy Hansen said, “Our goal is to facilitate the teaching of BrainWise and turn it over to the teacher. We identify BrainWise tools, emphasizing that for the students to really learn the curriculum, reinforcement must take place when Specialists are not in the classroom. We provide teachers with support and help them recognize that BrainWise teaches social and emotional learning (SEL). It works, and it is easy to implement!”

According to Laura Nichols, the specialists build rapport with the teachers. One of their strategies is to get on the school’s Professional Development schedule and create dual presentations with teachers about their integration of BrainWise concepts in their classrooms. “Asking teachers to share their personal stories of ways that they are using BrainWise not only recognizes their efforts, it provides an opportunity to share their ideas with others,” she said.

If teachers balk at using terms like Lizard Brain and Wizard Brain, Laura tells them to use “the prefrontal cortex and limbic system, or thinking brain and emotional brain.” Laura also encourages them to use the simpler terms, “because that’s what the students will remember.”


Gilexis Maldonado said it was easy to build excitement around BrainWise methods because “teachers are witnesses to improved classroom behaviors. They see their students using BrainWise language, which demonstrates that they are quickly assimilating the core concepts.” Likewise, teachers find that having this new common language with their students helps students understand that they have many self-control options. “The teachers become like us,” she said. “They communicate BrainWise not only in the classroom but in their personal lives and apply it to everything!”

She said that placing BrainWise posters throughout the school helps remind students to Stop and Think, and it helps teachers and other staff reinforce the 10 Wise Ways. Additionally, she uses the problem-solving worksheets to help students process their behaviors.


The specialists talked about how the 10 Wise Ways are easily integrated into books, songs, videos, and role- plays. Cierra Pierce demonstrated how she uses frog and lion puppets as teaching tools. “The children pay attention and have fun interacting with the different characters. It is fun and easy to engage them!”

Marcie Synchef agreed. “There are so many wonderful books to use!” she said. She showed two of her favorites: A Bug and a Wish by Karen Scheuer and No Biggy! by Elycia Rubin. Marcie explained that A Bug and a Wish teaches “I” messages and how to communicate effectively. “Students learn to say, ‘It bugs me when you take things without asking. I wish you would ask me first.’ We do Bug and a Wish role-plays and use little bugs and a magic wand. No Biggy! is great for teaching about small, medium, and big problems. “It has great examples that apply to many other Wise Ways,” she said.

The group also discussed how students of every age love to learn about the brain and mentioned two books. For children, Marcie uses Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak, PhD. “When I show pictures of areas where the brain is lit up, student can see how thinking is connected with building brain connections.” Many BrainWise instructors use The Brain by Seymour Simon because its beautiful photographs of the brain enthrall students of all ages.

Cup Building Activity used to Reinforce Goal Setting and Other Wise Ways

An activity that reinforces all of the 10 Wise Ways, but especially setting goals, uses plastic cups, rubber bands, and string. “You can organize it in many ways,” Alistair explained, “but the goal is for the team to build a structure out of the cups. Students can only use the rubber bands and strings as tools and are not allowed to touch the cups with any body part. It is exciting to see the students talk about the Wise Ways they used to successfully build the structure.”

Jefferson Center is a leader in mental health prevention and intervention services. A big thank you goes to Jefferson Center and their Prevention Specialists for their work teaching BrainWise to children and families and introducing a model program that can be replicated and sustained in schools

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