BY: MARA LEE
HAMDEN — — A boy clangs a cowbell with a drum stick, and the sound echoes satisfyingly off the high ceiling in Westwood Elementary School’s gym. It’s his reward for being part of a winning team of five children in an after-school program.
The children aren’t being recognized for running faster than other teams. In these games, teams win when they have fewer points taken away — for not following directions by jumping the gun on a new exercise, for talking out of turn, or for bumping into each other while running a lap.
Twenty kids from across Hamden, some with attention-deficit disorders, some not, are part of a National Institutes of Health study to validate an enrichment program that combines computer games with physical tasks — like bouncing a beanbag off one foot or walking an obstacle course while balancing a tennis ball on a racket.
The combination of the exercises and the computer drills — even for kindergartners not yet able to read — improves children’s self-control and ability to stay on task, even when there are distractions.
Staying on task, organizing priorities when there are many competing pressures, and keeping multi-step instructions in your head are all part of working memory. Children who have ADHD have problems with this, and children who grow up in poor families are more likely to have problems than children with more advantages.
“Working memory is the scratch pad of the mind,” says Ken Coleman, CEO of New Haven’s C8 Sciences, a company that aims to commercialize the program, designed by Yale pediatric psychiatrists.
“Working memory is a better predictor of school success than IQ.”
C8 Sciences, founded a year and a half ago, has raised $680,000 from angel investors and $350,000 from ConnecticutInnovations, the state-supported agency that nurtures technology firms.
With five full-time and one part-time employee, and the expenses of flying to different states to introduce the program, they have enough money to last four months. C8 Sciences has about $15,000 a month in revenues.
“In any business at our stage, raising the money to continue growing is very difficult,” Coleman said.
They are in negotiations with CI for another infusion of cash, which would also require more money from private investors. That round could be as small as $1.5 million, though Coleman would like to solicit $2 million or $3 million. He projects they’ll reach the break-even point a year from now.
Schools that have tried the program have been impressed.
“I think it’s a fantastic program,” said John Ryan, who was in charge of a 20-student pilot program in Bristol last school year. “It wasn’t la-di-da computer games, where they hijack the kid with fun and computer graphic . The kids have to concentrate and work, that’s evident.”
He said one first-grade teacher saw how a boy who was enrolled became calmer in class, and told him this summer that “she hopes that program’s coming back, because it really helped this boy out. She really thought it made a big difference.”
But Ryan moved to another school district this year, and Bristol did not decide to buy the program from C8, at least not yet.
Sue Moreau, a Bristol’s deputy superintendent, said she would consider incorporating the program into after-schoolprograms someday. “I was actually quite surprised with the achievement data, but I don’t know whether we have enough data with a large enough group to know whether it is something that would be of long-term benefit,” she said.
A Jacksonville, Fla., school that piloted the program for free also did not continue with it this year.
But two of New York City’s lowest performing elementary schools, which used it for all children in the first three grades, have signed up again, and C8 sold into two more elementary schools in the district this fall.
Dr. Bruce Wexler, the Yale psychiatry professor who created the computer programs, said selling into schools has been slower than he expected.
Coleman said this summer, “We’re having discussions with over 100 schools.”
Now, the company is launching a program for parents, with an introductory price of $150, but it would eventually cost $400. It competes with a more established competitor, CogMed, in that arena, but that program doesn’t include any physical activities.
Coleman says now: “We’re not expecting the school revenue to explode, we’re expecting it to grow steadily.” He said selling to parents, who may be steered to the product by psychologists, will help the seasonality of school revenue, and, he said, “My hope is it a lot more rapidly scalable.”