New PhD opportunity at the CEN

imgresA funded PhD studentship is available at the CEN, starting October 2022, to work on a project investigating the development of mathematical skills in individuals with Williams syndrome. The studentship is funded by the Bloomsbury Colleges scheme. If you are interested in applying, see here. Deadline for applications is: 22 February, 2022.

Project details: The proposed studentship project will involve secondary data analysis and collection of new data to examine longitudinal trajectories of mathematical development in individuals with Williams syndrome, as well as relationships to executive functioning, visuospatial abilities and language abilities. It will use data from the WISDOM project (see here) as well as involving new data collection. The project will take place in the context of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, a cross-institution research centre spanning IOE and BBK, which has an active research programme in linking the cognitive neuroscience of neurodevelopmental disorders with SEN pedagogy.

Learning and Reasoning Group

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The Centre for Educational Neuroscience is establishing a new working group to investigate the relationship between reasoning and learning in cognition.

Organised by Dr Selma Dündar-Coecke, Semir Tatlidil and Matthew Slocombe, the group brings together researchers from multiple disciplinary perspectives with the aim of elucidating the mechanisms of learning and reasoning and considering pathways to informing education and artificial intelligence.

Each month, the group will host an online seminar with experts in cognition, development, artificial intelligence and education. The seminars for November and December can be viewed below, and next term’s seminars will be published shortly.

To register for these seminars, please complete this form.

 

andreas-dWednesday 24th November at 4 pm (UK time)

Professor Andreas Demetriou
University of Nicosia

Causal Reasoning: Its role in the architecture and development of the mind

 

 

 

 

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Wednesday 15th December at 4 pm (UK time)

Professor Steven Sloman
Brown University

The Limits of Causal Reasoning in Human and Machine Learning

 

 

 

NeuroSENse launch event and teacher resources

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This week, the Centre for Educational Neuroscience launched a range of free ‘NeuroSENse‘ teacher resources to help raise awareness of neuromyths related to neurodevelopmental disorders and special educational needs.

The NeuroSENse resources were launched with an online twilight event attended by teachers, SEND specialists and school leaders. The event started with Dr Jo Van Hewegen discussing a recent study conducted by her lab on the prevalence of neuromyths in education and the general public. Dr Van Herwegen described that whilst the general public and educators rated similar numbers of neuromyths as true, neuromyths related to neurodevelopmental disorders were more commonly believed to be true compared to general neuromyths about learning.

Following Dr Van Herwegen, Matthew Slocombe described several focus groups conducted with teachers, SENDCos, teaching assistants, and school leaders to understand which neuromyths are common in education and what causes them. Based on the findings of these focus groups, Dr Van Herwegen went on to discuss several approaches schools can take to help address neuromyths related to special educational needs and disabilities.

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We then moved on to a series of short presentations from Dr Jo Van Herwegen, Matthew Slocombe, Prof Chloe Marshall, and Dr Rebecca Gordon, who described the new NeuroSENse blogs on common neuromyths related to ADHD, autism, deafness, dyslexia, and intellectual disabilities.

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Finally, Dr Jamie Gaplin from the National Association for Special Educational Needs and Prof Michael Thomas discussed neuromyths within the broader contexts of SEND support and neuroscience, highlighting the value of dialogue between practitioners and researchers for addressing neuromyths in education.

Visit the NeuroSENse page to access the teacher resources and keep up-to-date with NeuroSENse news and events.

NeuroSENse launch event

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We are delighted to invite you to our second NeuroSENse twilight session, ‘Addressing Neuromyths in SEND’, where we will be launching our new awareness campaign on neuromyths related to special educational needs and developmental disorders.

The twilight session will take place online on Wednesday 3rd November from 5.00 pm to 6.30 pm (UK time). We welcome all teachers, SEND specialists and researchers to attend.

To attend, please register for free here.

During the session, we will introduce our new free online teacher resources on neuromyths in special educational needs and developmental disorders. We will also have presentations and discussions on neuromyths in SEND and educational neuroscience from Dr Jo Van Herwegen (Psychologist at UCL Institute of Education), Prof Michael Thomas (Neuroscientist at Birkbeck, University of London), and Dr Jamie Galpin (Education Officer at National Association for Special Educational Needs).

For those unable to attend, we will distribute a recording of the event via the registration mailing list. The recording of our previous twilight session in June can be viewed below.

Symposium on the psychological impact of poverty

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Michael Thomas, Director of the CEN, recently chaired a symposium at the British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience on psychological perspectives on poverty. The symposium was convened and sponsored by the British Psychological Society. All of the 12-minute presentations from the symposium are available to view below.

Over the last decade, there has been an increasing amount of work in cognitive neuroscience applied to poverty. However, differences in socioeconomic status are very much a social and structural phenomenon, and the contribution of psychology and neuroscience therefore needs to be carefully contextualised. Moreover, research into poverty takes place against the backdrop of an urgent need to alleviate the consequences of poverty, particularly on children’s development, and to reduce inequality in society (gaps which have been exacerbated by the pandemic). Therefore, research in this area must be considered in relation to government policy.

In this symposium, we hear from five speakers, considering poverty from multiple angles. Sebastian Lipina (Unit of Applied Neurobiology UNA, CEMIC-CONICET, Buenos Aires, Argentina) begins by providing an overview of contemporary evidence from neuroscientific studies of childhood poverty, including mediating factors and the impact of the first generation of neuroscientific interventions.

Michael Thomas (Birkbeck, University of London, UK) then discusses the relationship between socioeconomic status and educational achievement, addressing the role of executive functions as a potential mediating factor, and considering what policymakers should take from recent evidence that poverty is associated with differences in children’s brain structure.

In the third talk, Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington (London School of Economics, UK) focuses on decision making in the context of poverty, and how apparently poor decision making – with respect to long-term educational, financial, and health outcomes – may be seen as an adaptive response to the challenges of economic hardship.

In the fourth talk, Philip Murphy (Edge Hill University) addresses the relationship between addiction and poverty, considering the role of addiction in creating a cycle that sustains poverty, and how neuroscience insights point to possible interventions.

In the final talk, Sophie Wickham (University of Liverpool, UK) establishes the links to policy, considering how policy decisions over the last decade have led to a rise in child poverty in the UK, and how a mental-health focus in future policy making could improve outcomes.

Rebecca Gordon and Natasha Kirkham join the CEN management committee

The CEN is delighted to welcome Dr Rebecca Gordon and Professor Natasha Kirkham as new members of the CEN management committee.

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Rebecca Gordon is a Chartered Psychologist at the UCL Institute of Education where she is currently the Academic Head of Learning and Teaching. She also lectures in cognitive psychology, educational neuroscience, and research methods and statistics for the psychology undergraduate and Masters programmes at the UCL Institute of Education.

Rebecca’s research focuses on working memory and executive functions in children and adults as a means for understanding higher-order cognitive abilities and cognitive impairments. Her current work examines aspects of executive function and motor control as they apply to different curriculum areas, particularly mathematics and science learning.

natasha-kirkham-2Natasha Kirkham is Professor of Developmental Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. She is also Chair of Ethics for the School of Science at Birkbeck. In addition to her research, Natasha works on various projects, including public science communication events and SOFAR, a society dedicated to supporting women in science.

Natasha’s research focuses on the development of visuospatial understanding, cognition, and attention in infants and preschool-age children. In particular, her research addresses the questions of how infants learn about their visuospatial environment and what are the roles of attention and memory in young children’s learning and development. Over the past 5 years, Natasha’s work has been focussing on how the home environment, specifically noise and household chaos, affects the development of attention, and eventual academic outcomes.

 

New Podcast: Meet the education researcher

Listen to Michael Thomas’s new podcast with Neil Selwyn from Monash University, Australia, in Neil’s series “Meeting the Education Researcher“:

“Many people expect neuroscience to change our understanding of education. Michael Thomas (Birkbeck University) is director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience in London. In this episode, Michael talks about what educators need to know about how the brain works, avoiding ‘disciplinary wars’ between psychology & neuroscience, and the need to balance a ‘medical model’ of learning with societal concerns about education.”

New CEN paper: Stress and learning in pupils: Neuroscience evidence and its relevance for teachers

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The CEN has published a new paper in the journal Mind Brain and Education reviewing current neuroscience evidence on how stress affects children’s learning in the classroom. Focusing on primary age pupils, the main findings are:

  • Successful learning requires some stress – but too much stress may inhibit, and a positive challenge for one child may under- or over-stimulate another child and impact his or her learning
  • The complex relationship between stress and learning is highly individual across pupils, depending on multiple long- and short-term factors, as well as the child’s appraisal of the situation and their available coping strategies
  • We look at potential classroom stress management interventions for primary school children (7-11 years), including psychological and physiological approaches.
  • This paper aims to help teachers become aware of, and to begin to accommodate, children’s differing needs with respect to stress and learning

Here, lead author Sue Whiting discusses what our review of the evidence revealed:

“We are starting to understand the complex ways in which primary school children’s stress levels affect how well they pay attention and learn.

WHAT DOES STRESS DO TO CHILDREN?

We are all familiar with common symptoms of stress, such as a raised heart rate, excessive sweating and a dry mouth, which are part of the body’s ‘fight or flight response’. However, we now know that, in addition to these bodily changes, stress also associates with other, more subtle mental changes.

This complex relationship is highly individual for every pupil, depending on multifarious long-term factors (e.g., genetics, environment) and short-term factors (e.g., recent stress exposure before arriving at school), with some children being more environmentally sensitive than others.

Stress can increase children’s attention and learning capacities in some circumstances but hinder them in others. Because of these individual differences, a positive challenge providing optimal learning outcomes for one child may under or over-stimulate another child, thus potentially inhibiting learning. Furthermore, a child’s stress response to learning challenges may vary from day to day, or even during the same school day, depending on their appraisal of the situation and the coping strategies the child has available. A child’s perceived stress may not even constitute a valid stress from the teacher’s viewpoint.

HOW CAN STRESS BE REDUCED (OR HARNESSED) IN THE CLASSROOM?

The research on stress management interventions in children is still in its early days. Thus far, we are only able to outline potential classroom strategies for addressing the issue. The main psychological factors producing the strongest adverse stress response during motivated performance tasks are (1) an out-of-control feeling and (2) a social-evaluative threat (being judged).

Psychological approaches

Various psychological methods of reappraising stress have therefore been suggested by other researchers: e.g., by simply adding the word ‘yet’ to what would otherwise be a negative sentence ‘You haven’t done it, yet’ effectively diffuses the negativity by suggesting that the child will accomplish it a later date. Embracing-the-challenge (i.e. a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mind-set) can affect an individual’s stress response and may lead to more positive outcomes than worrying-about-the challenge (i.e., a stress-is-debilitating mind-set). Using the simple self-statement ‘I am excited’ may help reappraise anxiety as excitement about a new challenge. Practising mindfulness may also help, as may presenting learning tasks tailored towards children’s hidden talents and strengths.

Physiological approaches

Physiological methods such as breathing techniques e.g. nasal, slow-paced, deep, diaphragmatic breathing may be effective by altering stress-related physiology, e.g. by shifting it towards increased activity within the parasympathetic (rest, digest and repair) nervous system and decreasing the fight or flight response. A simple breathing exercise could be easily included in the classroom as an alternative ‘attention grabber’. Physical exercise may benefit children’s cognitive function by altering their stress-related physiology as well as providing other benefits (e.g. fresh air, light, social interaction, and taking a break). As a stressful event can adversely affect later learning outcomes (e.g. for a couple of hours afterwards) we speculate that breakfast clubs may serve a dual purpose in improving learning outcomes during the first two lessons for vulnerable children experiencing stress before school, by providing a longer time for delayed learning-suppressive chemicals to dissipate.

THE FUTURE

More research needs to be done to establish the most effective classroom interventions to not only prevent stress-induced impairments but also enable all children to achieve their full potential; however, raising teachers’ awareness of the inter-individual differences in their pupils’ stress responses will be an important step in accommodating the differing needs of children in their classrooms.”

Reference: Whiting, S. B., Wass, S. V., Green, S., & Thomas, M. S. C. (2021). Stress and Learning in Pupils: Neuroscience Evidence and its Relevance for Teachers. Mind, Brain and Education. First published: 28 February 2021. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12282

Funded PhD studentship in Educational Neuroscience available

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Applications are welcomed for a new PhD studentship in educational neuroscience, co-funded by ESRC UBEL Doctoral Training Partnership and Evolve. The studentship is to work on a project entitled “Evaluation of a child-centred intervention targeting wellbeing and
cognitive skills in primary age children” and is available to start in October 2021.

The student will work on a collaborative project between the Centre for Educational Neuroscience and Evolve, a social enterprise, to carry out and evaluate a trial to improve wellbeing and cognitive skills in primary age children in the Doncaster area. The PhD student will be involved in delivering the intervention in the academic year 2021-22, evaluating the trial’s outcome, and exploring the underlying mechanisms of any improvements. The student will gain training in the interdisciplinary field of educational neuroscience from the academic partners, and experience with Evolve in the operation of a social enterprise developing educational interventions of potential societal impact. See here for further details. Applications can be made via the UBEL portal or direct to Professor Andy Tolmie providing a CV and a statement of interest in the project.

Deadline for applications is 5 March 2021.

Teenagers with autism preparing for university – does research inform cognitive training to improve planning skills?

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The CEN received an enquiry from a parent whose 17-year-old daughter has autism and is preparing to move to university. The daughter is bright but has executive functioning difficulties in ‘not being productive’ and being ‘slow at everything’. Executive functioning is the technical term for processes of cognitive control, including attention, task selection, and planning. It also includes working memory: keeping information in mind and manipulating it to achieve current task goals. The parent enquired whether current research points towards any specific structured programmes designed to develop executive functioning skills that would benefit their daughter.

We asked Dr. Petri Partanen, one of the leading researchers in planning skills in children with learning difficulties, based at the Mid Sweden University, who offered the following advice.

“I will try my best to answer the question, considering interventions that can be managed at home and that might bring improvements in executive functions. This is general advice that might not be suitable in the specific case, since that would require more background information – particularly since there are many different cognitive profiles underlying the diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). As I have been working as a practitioner with children and youth with learning difficulties, I will also share some thoughts from that perspective.

To start with I would say that there is scarce evidence of specific methods for improving executive functions, including planning via training protocols implemented outside the school context, for children and youth with ASD.

I am hesitant to recommend working memory training, even though there are some studies with children and adolescents with ASD showing positive effects (see for example, this study by Weckstein et al., in 2017). The dilemma here is that such training regimes build on the idea of training abilities separated from the content and context. Thus, they require the child to process far transfer. Far transfer means when learned knowledge and skills are extended from the taught context to another dissimilar context. Far transfer still needs to be proven, in my humble opinion.

There are some pilot studies which indicate that combining such cognitive stimulus training programs with metacognitive strategy coaching might increase the effects of such interventions on executive functions (see for example this study by Macoun and colleagues published in 2020). Metacognitive training teaches children explicit strategies about how to apply their current knowledge to new situations. For example, in the aforementioned pilot study, 6-12 year old children with ASD were taught metacognitive strategies using a 5-step script: (1) identify the issue/difficulty, (2) state the reason for the issue/difficulty, (3) select and implement a strategy, (4) evaluate the outcome of the strategy, and (5) once a strategy works, celebrate success (i.e., provide positive reinforcement).

On the other hand, the CogMed working memory training program can be managed at home quite easily, and in combination with a raised metacognitive awareness it can stimulate the adolescent to apply cognitive functioning in different situations – for example through a discussion about important strategies that can be used in studying. Sometimes this discussion can be dealt with by parents, sometimes it has to be someone else, a counsellor or educational psychologist following this. I do think there is ASD support organised at universities in UK, which will be very important. In Sweden there are centers at each university, and I have followed several cases of adolescents with ASD that have been successful, so there are grounds for optimism.

I am particularly interested in interventions that help adolescents become metacognitively aware and help them to find good academic self-regulation strategies, and hopefully together with raised awareness among teachers, implement the study strategies.

As an experienced practitioner, I would say that this would be one of the important keys to success, and help the soon-to-be-adult to plan their studies, try out strategies that fit them, and develop some planning skills. I think finding opportunities as a parent to discuss these questions with the adolescent will be important. This could be very helpful for an adolescent taking the step to university studies, and clearly the adolescent besides challenges has a lot of cognitive resources and strengths.

If we instead look at intervention protocols addressing more specific subject skills for children and adolescents with ASD, there is much more promising research. Particularly, Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) is well-researched and includes planning facilitation in different subject areas like reading, writing, and mathematics (see, for example this systematic review of writing instruction by Asaro-Saddler published in 2016, and this meta-analysis on reading interventions by Sanders and colleagues in 2019). However, the SRSD protocol is meant to be implemented by teachers and not parents. These protocols still might inspire what to focus on in the support, even in the role as a parent.”