With students’ test scores soon to affect how federal aid to their schools is allocated and spent, educators are looking for whatever tools might give their students an advantage on high-stakes exams. Now, some 200 schools are using heart-monitoring software to help their students learn how to manage emotions such as anxiety and frustration so they can improve their performance during testing.

Students who experience extreme anxiety, frustration, or worry tend not to do as well on exams as they could, the software’s proponents claim.

“You want a little adrenaline because it gives you a little edge, but often anxiety goes over the edge,” said Jeff Goelitz, program developer for the Institute of HeartMath, a nonprofit research organization in Boulder Creek, Calif.

Goelitz and his colleagues at the institute developed Freeze-Framer, a software program based on more than 10 years of heart research that helps students manage mental and emotional stress and smooth out stressful heart rhythms.

“Emotion dictates where our attention is,” Goelitz said. “If your emotions and thinking brain are not in sync, then your ability to think straight is jeopardized.”

Different emotional states affect the patterns of the heart, Goelitz said, so HeartMath figured if people could learn to control their heart patterns, they could control their emotional states and perform better.

“What anxiety does is it creates a noise, a mental static, so it blocks our ability to retrieve what we know,” he said. “The worry overloads the brain circuits, the ones needed for retaining information.”

While sitting at a computer, students insert their finger into a pulse sensor that is plugged into the computer. The heart rhythms are then displayed in a graph on the computer screen, so students can see what their heart rhythms look like.

Students are asked to shift their focus to their heart and breathing, then generate a positive image and hold onto this state for five to 15 minutes while they watch their heart rhythms change. Throughout the exercise, students learn what positive emotions look and feel like, so they can train themselves to move their heart rhythms from jagged to smooth.

Once they’ve mastered that, students play three different games to practice their new skill. In one game, students use their positive emotional state to turn a black-and-white meadow scene into color on the computer screen. In another game, students move a hot-air balloon off the ground by holding a positive emotional image. If students lose their positive state, the balloon begins to fall.

“Freeze-Framer trains students to get in this optimal learning mode,” Goelitz said. However, “the critical part is taking that calm, focused learning state and applying it when taking a test.”

Twenty high school seniors from the Minneapolis Public Schools who had failed the state’s exit exam five times or more did just that.

They passed the Minnesota Basic Standards Test after using Freeze-Framer for three-weeks. Collectively, their math scores reportedly increased 35 percent and their reading scores improved a reported 14 percent.

“We found [the software] helped students feel calmer and more focused when they took the test,” said Stephanie Thurik, a reading specialist at Minneapolis Public Schools. “These were all kids who had struggled in school, but stuck with it and were able to pass.”

For the last five years, Diana Govan, a resource teacher at Carmel High School in Carmel, Calif., has been using Freeze-Framer at the beginning of the school year so her students can learn to shift emotions, anger, and frustration to a positive state. She said her class usually spends 50 minutes a day on the program for two weeks.

“It sets us up for the rest of the year to be much more optimal,” Govan said.

Most of her students have a history of failure in mainstream classes, as well as negative memories, emotions, and feelings about school. “It teaches them to neutralize their feelings and emotions about an upcoming test or assignment,” Govan said. “For most of my students, unmanaged emotion is their roadblock to success.”

Govan said Freeze-Framer was critical in helping one of her students graduate. The student was labeled with severe attention-deficit disorder, had a history of poor academic achievement, and had difficulty managing his anger.

“He learned Freeze-Framer instead of punching someone,” Govan said. The software “has nothing to do with academics, but it has everything to do with how successful he is going to be.”

Freeze-Framer is more effective at helping students achieve a calm state of mind than deep-breathing exercises, Goelitz said.

“You can be in a relaxed state of breathing, but if a strong emotion comes on, it still hijacks your brain,” Goelitz said. “Breathing is helpful, but the emotional component plays such an influential role in our thinking process.”

He added, “Attitude and emotion have an overriding factor.”

The Freeze-Framer kit costs $295 and includes a finger sensor, software, music, curriculum, and technical support. Site licenses also are available.

Links:

Institute of HeartMath
http://www.heartmath.org

Minneapolis Public Schools
http://www.mpls.k12.mn.us

Carmel High School
http://www.carmelhigh.org