• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Friday 11th April, 2008

Rock? Water? Strike a light!

The steady stream of UK initiatives aimed at children and families shows no sign of drying up, witness the accompanying squall of press releases from The Department for Children, Schools and Families – 65 so far this year, 23 in March alone.The announcements are as varied as they are many: ?235 million for children’s playgrounds (3rd April); ?400 million for the children’s workforce (ditto); ?218 million to tackle antisocial behavior (18th March); consideration being given to creating a children's DNA database (ditto); children in state care to get passports (26th March).But you have to look very hard for news of equivalent investment in research or reports about the effectiveness of new initiatives based on reliable evidence. True, money has been put into implementing proven models such as the Nurse-Family Partnership and Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care but they are getting lost in a sea of orders and planning arrangements.And altogether absent is any mention of the seepage into UK children’s services of programs that aren't supported by logic or evidence – but are no doubt paid for out of some of the money announced in those Government press releases.Yesterday Prevention Action carried extracts from an article about one such new arrival – Brain Gym – by Ben Goldacre, author of The Guardian’s much-praised Bad Science column. [See: Nice enough idea – shame about the “brain buttons”]A typical Brain Gym exercise teaches children to massage points either side of the breast bone to increase the flow of oxygen to the brain and describes the value of doing so in the pseudo-scientific language of educational kinesiology. There has been no evaluation worthy of the name, although Brain Gym is now promising research in the wake of Goldacre’s criticism, (which has been followed by a ritual mauling of the program’s US creator Paul Dennison by BBC2’s Jeremy Paxman).Worryingly, Brain Gym is not an isolated case. UK schools are necessarily interested in children's well-being. Indeed, their educational performance is measured in part in relation to the happiness and health of their children. Schools have their own budgets; no surprise then that head teachers should be susceptible to the claims of organizations selling apparently simple, pleasurable solutions to their problems.It is rather more surprising that Brain Gym should carry the tacit accreditation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families which references it on website pages about a Framework for Understanding Dyslexia. It also turns up on the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills site as part of the curriculum recommended to those teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).Another example is Rock and Water, which professes to examine "the tough, immovable rock attitude versus the mobile, communicative water attitude”. Developed out of a Dutch self-defense program for girls, Rock and Water is now being used to motivate boys. It involves some Tai-chi exercises, discussions on life goals and desires, “following an inner compass”, and completing 13 lessons on things like intuition, body language, and positive thinking.The journey between rock and water takes some odd turns. One primer from the program’s creators, The Gadaku Institute suggests that room lighting with 3000K warm white fluorescent tubes has a markedly more soothing effect on boys than the standard issue - as the light is “much mellower”. Well, maybe; maybe not… Who knows? Certainly not the Gadaku Institute. No sign of any meaningful evaluation there either. Government in the UK has been sponsoring innovation for a decade or more. Too much of it has involved compulsion; instructing reluctant and, all too frequently, poor children and families to improve their behavior. Too little has been about introducing models, properly trialled and proven to reduce impairments to children's health and development. Where effective programs have been put in place, there has been a lack of rigorous evaluation. Indeed the interest in evidence in this country has been largely cosmetic: decide what to do, then add the evidence to make it look better. More to the point, there's been no interest whatever in using evidence to decommission ineffective practice.Support for rigorous implementation for proven models is generally inadequate, and there is an all too free-and-easy attitude to putting in place only part of an effective approach. Some US program developers wince when they see what is being done to their work in the UK. All of this would be worrying enough without the appearance over the horizon of those “brain button” exercises. Instead of investing their resources in proven models such as Life Skills Training (LST) or PATHs, schools are voting for Rock and Water and heading for the Brain Gym.The die seems to be cast. Doing something is seen as better than doing nothing. Any program that comes with a manual must be good. Evidence is secondary. What really counts is the marketing skill of people selling the ideas. Random add-ons to existing practice are the flavor of the month. It’s all just one big buffet of possibilities.Or am I being too aggressive and too gloomy? Perhaps you'd better change all the light bulbs… just in case.

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