What is the focus of your research?
At the moment I am working mainly on my ESRC fellowship, which looks at how the early living environment affects stress and concentration abilities in babies growing up in socio-economically challenged households. We know that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to develop mental health problems later in life, and we think that early-life stress might cause this. But we understand very little about what exactly causes stress in infants. The project is looking at two areas – environmental noise (how physically noisy the living environment is) and stress contagion (how our stress levels are influenced by people around us).
What led you to this area of research?
There is a personal story behind this. A few years ago, my sister wanted to get two of her children into a good primary school that had a small catchment area – so she moved with her partner and her four children into a much smaller flat, that was all they could afford in the area. The effect on the children of moving from a more spacious to a much more cramped living space was, all the family felt, enormous – it seemed to affect their general stress levels, even when they weren’t at home, and their concentration. It was that that got me interested – because there is very little formal research in this area.
Could you summarise your findings?
It’s too early to know what our main findings are – we’re still collecting the data. But, based on other research, it may be that the picture that emerges is more complex than a simple case that ‘stress/noise is bad’. One big theory doing the rounds in developmental psychology at the moment is the orchids/dandelions theory – that some children (‘orchid children’) are more naturally sensitive, which makes them more sensitive to ‘bad’ things, such as background noise, but also makes them more sensitive when interesting/ memorable learning events happen. So being more sensitive is a double-edged sword. It may be that our findings fit in with this theory.
What do you think this means for teachers in the classroom?
I think there is a tonne of useful material for teachers here. First, the idea that the external environment – how noisy, chaotic and cluttered things are – can affect children’s levels of physiological stress – which, in turn, can affect their concentration. Second, the idea that some children might be more sensitive to this than others. There is also the idea of ‘stress contagion’ – that my own levels of physiological stress are affected by the people around me. And finally, the idea that not all stress is bad.
Could you give one tip to teachers, based on your work?
I think – ‘imagine what the world feels like from the child’s point of view’. Children naturally experience more intense mood swings than adults. As adults we have been highly trained at filtering out background distractions – so much so that we hardly notice them sometimes – but children find this much harder. Being a little child often feels like being a speedboat with a very powerful engine and a small rudder – you might know where you want to go but spin off uncontrollably in a different direction. And understanding this can help, I think, in how we interact with young children.
You can find out more about Sam’s work here: https://www.uel.ac.uk/staff/w/sam-wass