In past posts, I’ve highlighted the systemic problems in Virginia’s educational system — an industrial-era model laboring to keep pace with a knowledge-era economy. The problems run deeper than the bureaucratic, top-down funding and administration of our public schools, which answer to masters at three levels of government: local, state and federal. The problems run deeper than anything that giving poor kids vouchers to attend to private schools can solve. At its root, our educational system, public and private, pushes children through standardized curricula in age cohorts, regardless of the pace that individuals are capable of progressing.

There’s another problem facing American education today: the corrosive influence of our popular culture. I’m not talking about the usual suspects such as entertainment media drenched in sex, violence and vulgarity — as bad as that is. I’m talking about terrible nutrition, inadequate sleep and the debilitating effects of electronic media upon brain development. I explore these cultural epidemics in today’s column, “Brain Games,” based on an interview with Dr. Susan Hardwicke, founder of kSero Corporation, which operates a cognitive development center in western Henrico County.

The context of the article is Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s push for universal pre-K education. The logic behind the program, estimated to cost $300 million a year, is that ensuring children a year of quality pre-K education will improve their academic performance in later years, reduce the number of high school drop-outs, and yield financial rewards in the out years through a lower incidence of welfare, crime, drug abuse and other costly social pathologies.

I don’t have a problem with applying life cycle analysis to public policy, although I have yet to see numbers demonstrating a financial pay-off of pre-K to taxpayers, much less an analysis that takes into account the time value of money and the 10- to 20-year delay in generating a financial return.

What I suggest is that Virginia’s school children — and I’m not just talking about “at risk” kids — are facing more immediate problems. Nutrition is a disgrace. Childhood obesity, with an accompanying risk of diabetes, is becoming routine. The same nutritional regime that causes obesity also impairs brain development, and it increases behavioral problems — sugar rushes followed by sugar crashes — that make it difficult for children to concentrate and apply themselves in class.

Likewise, many children aren’t getting enough sleep. The temptations are omnipresent: for pre-teens, logging long hours on the computer, interacting with friends through instant messaging; for teens, partying into the night. Parents are increasingly unable or unwilling to enforce sleep discipline among their children. Yet sleep is necessary for the brain to consolidate learning. Lack of sleep also makes kids tired and less alert at school.

Finally, kids are overdosing on television, computer games and other electronic media, which are especially harmful to brain development in young children.

Here’s my question: If our concern is cognitive development, could $300 million be more effectively spent on educating children and parents about nutrition, sleep and electronic stimuli? Wouldn’t changing the self-destructive aspects of popular culture have a greater, and more immediate impact than teaching pre-schoolers to recite their A,B,Cs, which they’ll be learning in Kindergarten anyway?

(Disclaimer: I serve on the board of directors of kSero Corporation.)

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10 responses to “Brain Games”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    A really odd thing happened to my teenager this year. Even though her school teaches nutrition and we’ve looked over the calories, fat, sodium, etc. in fast-food, my daughter still enjoyed the occassional big mac and fries whenever she could talk someone into taking her to McDonald’s.

    A few weeks ago, a fellow student did a science report on the burgers at McDonalds. He evidently showed the actual contents of the food and what it looked like to your body. It sounded pretty gross as my daughter explained it. The strange thing is that after this one report from a fellow student, my daughter and her friends have forever sworn off McDonald’s. No more fast food for them except Arbys.

    I don’t know if the kid’s science report was just so gross or if it had to do with peer influence but we should be able to learn something from this…

    Something else to think about – why not ONLY serve healthy food in the schools? I know it’s up to the parents to control what their children eat but honestly, even if we do our very best to pack the healthy lunch bag, it only takes a few allowance dollars to buy those french fries and ice cream!

    We had a salad bar, a fruit bar, and only soy burgers when I went to school many ages ago. Why are the schools now serving fried this, fried that, and sugar blown everything? It just makes our jobs as parents even harder.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Anonymous, I sure remember the food I was served in school. It wasn’t very appetizing, and I didn’t always eat everything offered — but it was healthy. No french fries. Nothing loaded up with trans-fats. … Getting fat was NOT my problem.

  3. Groveton Avatar

    Jim Bacon:

    You sound like my Dad who (I am sure) sounded like his Dad who (I am sure) sounded like his Dad…

    There have always been distractions for kids. And McDonald’s didn’t open it’s first restaurant 18 months ago.

    I bought two pre-packaged brownies and a milk every day I went to high school for my morning snack. And that was after a big bowl of high carb Frosted Flakes with whole milk for breakfast. Lunch was a Double R burger and some fried chciken from Roy Rodgers (since no one at the school actually cared if the kids left the school we’d just drive there for lunch).

    One of my classmates killed himself when he pointed his father’s 45 at his head and pulled the trigger. He remembered to take out the clip but forgot the round in the chamber. His best friend was sitting next to him.

    Numerous kids from my high school died in car wreaks driving at unsafe speed with a belly full of “it’s legal at 18” beer. Seat belts were for plane pilots. Air bags taught classes.

    Today’s kids are no better and no worse than we were. And we were no better and no worse than our parents. And on and on back for hundreds of years.

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Groveton, one documented, empirically verifiable, statistically significant difference kids today and kids of yesteryear is that today’s kids are, on average, far more likely to be overweight. By general agreement the causes are (a) poor diet and (b) insufficient exercise.

  5. Groveton Avatar


    I am sure you are right although it seems to me that the whole country is getting fatter. I would imagine that there would be general agreement that the country is getting fatter due to (a) poor diet and (b) insufficient exercise.

    Why is this specific to kids?

    I really don’t think it’s because they serve unhealthy lunches in school and there are too many fast food restaurants. They’ve always served questionable food in schools and there have been plenty of fast food outlets since the early 1960s at the latest.

    So – why the increase in American obesity – at all ages (including children)?

    My only point is that I see this a society wide problem – not just a problem for kids.

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Groveton, You are certainly right — the obesity epidemic is society-wide. But poor nutrition also has other impacts than just weight. It impacts brain development, and its affects energy level. In my personal observation, young children are less able than adults to handle the sugar swings that result from eating sugar and carbohydrates. If you have young children, you’ll know where the phrase “bouncing off of walls” comes from — it’s what happens to kids who absorb too much sugar.

    We need to acknowledge that our diet can have behavioral consequences, and that can affect the ability to focus and learn in the classroom.

  7. Susan Hardwicke, Ph.D. Avatar
    Susan Hardwicke, Ph.D.

    Groveton is not aware of many facts, not the least of which is one of the primary causes of obestiy: high fructose corn syrup, which is now in “sweet tea,” white hot dog buns, Lance’s cheese crackers, soft drinks, and a myriad of foods we purchase. HFCS was not in the food supply in the 1950’s and 1960’s the way it is now. It certainly wasn’t in those brownies he mentioned. HFCS interferes with metabolism of glucose and is a major cause of obesity. Just because food looks the same as it did 10 years ago doesn’t mean it IS the same.

    The food industry is not about health.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    “If our concern is cognitive development, could $300 million be more effectively spent on educating children and parents about nutrition, sleep and electronic stimuli?”

    IMO more than a little of what we have come to call “attention deficit disorders” in children is caused by nutrition and electronic stimuli. When a child gets used to things happening instantly as in computer games or in 10 second intervals as in TV cartoons, then sitting down with a book for an hour of concentrated study is too much effort.

    I freely admit that I am of a different generation (early baby boomer); but I am floored by the number of well educated 30-something households that have numerous electronic toys – both for the kids and the adults – but don’t have a serious book in the house.

    Deena Flinchum

  9. Doris-seo Avatar

    The Weight Watchers plan is simple: all foods are assigned a “point” value. To compute points, start with the calorie count; add a bit for every gram of fat, and subtract a bit for every gram of fiber, to get what I will call “adjusted calories”. Fifty adjusted calories equals one point. (The point calculation is not presented as such, but rather as a mystical black box which takes three inputs–calories, fat grams, and fiber grams–and then runs them through a slide-rule-like gizmo, or a Weight Watchers calculator, to produce the point value.) Weight Watchers publishes books listing the point values for many common foods, as well as for common dishes at well-known restaurants. (Weight Watchers used to use a more complicated formula in which foods were classified in a manner similar to the American Diabetes Association’s Dietary Exchange Lists. This system was more precise, but also harder to follow; the result was more like being on the Zone Diet, which advocates a 40-30-30 percent balance between carbohydrates, protein, and fat.)

    Following the Weight Watchers plan involves determining the proper number of points that you should consume each day (actually a range of values, based on your current weight), and then tracking all the food you consume to ensure that you keep to that number. The exact number of calories you are allowed to consume will depend on how much fat and fiber you include in your diet, but it will very likely be less than you burn simply keeping your body running (the 167-pound man who burns 2000 calories at rest will likely eat fewer than 1500 calories on Weight Watchers).

    To encourage exercise, Weight Watchers plan gives you credit, in the form of extra points that are earned based on the duration and intensity of the exercise. This lets you eat a bit more, while avoiding the problem of overcompensating (“I ran for 15 minutes, so here goes a banana cream pie”).

    By contrast, the Atkins Diet does not worry about all calories, but instead only about carbohydrates. It’s simpler to calculate, since carbohydrate information is generally known, and there is no need to do any conversion to points.

    Initially, participants are restricted to 20 grams of carbohydrates a day. That is a very low amount: 1/4 cup of flour, or a single slice of typical bread. Eventually, this amount can be raised to 40 to 60 grams a day, depending on how much an individual can eat and still lose weight. Since many carbohydrate-rich foods (especially starchy vegetables) have important vitamins, participants in the Atkins Diet also take a multivitamin every day.

  10. davekion Avatar


    Dave Kion

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