New PhD opportunity at the CEN


A funded PhD studentship is available at the CEN, starting October 2022, to work on a project investigating the interconnected influences of DNA sequence variation and environmental influences on children’s development. The studentship is funded by the Bloomsbury Colleges scheme. If you are interested in applying, see here. Deadline for applications is: 19th June, 2022.

Project details: It is known that DNA sequence variation and pre- and post-natal environmental factors — and their interplay — explain individual differences in development and behaviour. Despite recent progress in the identification of specific genetic influences important for development, causal paths remain uncertain. In part, this is because environmental research often fails to account for the presence of genetic confounding, and in part because genetic research fails to incorporate mechanistically plausible environments.

The proposed studentship will build on recent theoretical and technical advances to better understand the causal paths of parent-child and child-parent effects, which will have important implications for personalised genomics, education and social policy.

Do researchers know what it’s like in the classroom?

Uncontrollable pupils in classroom acting out, frustrated teacher tearing a hair out.

Dr. Jessica Massonnié is a CEN alumnus who received her doctorate from Birkbeck in 2020 for her thesis on the impact of noise in the classroom. Jessica recently wrote an entry on ‘Perspectives on learning from neuroscience’, for the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Education (4th Ed). In her entry, Jessica argued that it is essential for educational neuroscience researchers to spend time in schools. As she says, ‘placements in schools and involvement in learning communities provide invaluable opportunities to gain insight into the objectives, constraints and challenges of educators.’

In this blog, we hear from one of the CEN’s co-directors, Prof. Denis Mareschal, who has combined his academic research activities with volunteering one day a week in a local primary school to teach maths. We asked Denis how his experiences in the classroom have helped to shape his research. Here’s what he told us:

“I started my volunteer work in an inner city London primary state school almost 10 years ago. While I had considerable hands-on experience of working with children in educational and recreational settings in the past, I had moved away from the front line of educational practice as my academic career had progressed. Although I very much enjoy the research topics that I work on, I also missed the direct impact that teaching has on children. I therefore approached a local school and offered a day a week of my time.

At first, my role was to support classroom teachers (much like a teaching assistant), especially Newly Qualified Teachers. However, after a few years, the school realised that I had advanced maths training and could deliver “stretch” sessions for the top performing students in Years 5 and 6. Alongside this, I have continued to contribute one-on-one literacy and reading support for children who may not get as much support at home as others. I do this for children from Years 1 through 3.

Probably the biggest lesson I have learnt from this work is the reality of the challenges that teachers face in the classroom. While we researchers tend to focus on detailed questions of learning (e.g., whole word vs phonics as the best way to teach reading), teachers face much more substantial obstacles to learning that often arise from outside the schools. Sociological questions about how regularly a child comes to school, how engaged those at home are with the school work, and what message they get from carers about the value of school all impact very substantially on the child’s educational achievements.

‘the role of basic research into the learning sciences is to ensure that, however small the “learning windows” when the child is at school and focussed actually are, their learning uptake is the most effective’


In the end the cognitive variables that we explore as scientists often feel very secondary given these much bigger issues. That said, I have also come to understand better that the role of basic research into the learning sciences is to ensure that, however small the “learning windows” when the child is at school and focussed actually are, their learning uptake is the most effective. In this way the child can benefit maximally from the time they are actually present in class.

A second point is that frontline primary teachers have to deal with a large number of directives and changing pedagogical frameworks that disempower them. The consequence is that they are often reluctant to take up any new approach. Consequently, as a research scientist who may wish to transfer my findings to practical classroom practice, I have to make sure that my suggestions are clear, easy to implement, engaging and empower the teachers to use their own judgement, experience and skill. This will maximise the likelihood that teachers actually take up the suggestions and integrate them within their own classroom practice.

Beyond the classroom environment, it is clear from my tutoring work with the children how much repetition forms the basis of learning. Unlike what theories of “insight learning” advocate, I have found that children learn new concepts by gradually and repeatedly dealing with relevant problems or tasks.

Once they have acquired a lot of experience or practice (and even though they may still not be able to explicitly explain how or why they do something), children of all ages can have moments of insight during which the information being taught “clicks” and they are able to provide an explicit explanation. This corresponds to a moment when the new information suddenly fits within their mental model of how other parts of (say) maths work. That said, children can also often have the feeling of an “insight moment” and still have a completely wrong reasoning process. Experiencing an “aha” moment… does not necessarily mean that they have the right answer or understanding!

In short, while my time in the classroom has not directly shaped the research questions that I have followed, it has helped me understand the large challenges that both the teacher and the learner face in a classroom. This has led me to think of solutions that are practical and practicable in the real world.

Most importantly, it has been fun — not a bed of roses everyday — but a chance to reconnect with why I am doing research in the learning sciences in the first place.”

Why has there been a rise in number of SEN children, especially in the early years?


In this blog, our SEN expert, Dr. Jo Van Herwegen, addresses the causes of the recent rise in the number of SEN children in the UK, especially in the early years:

The government announced additional funding for supporting children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in schools during the autumn budget in 2021. However, recently we were contacted by schools who have seen a rise in number of children with SEN, especially in the early years, which may question if this additional funding is going to be sufficient to make a difference. Here, I explore the evidence about this and factors that could potentially explain changes in numbers. Before we get started, let’s explain some terminology:

SEN support refers to the children that require additional support often provided by teachers and SENCo but the child does not have an Education, Health and Care plan (EHCP).

EHCP refers to a pupil who has an EHC plan or statement of SEN where a formal assessment has been made. A document is in place that sets out the child’s needs and the extra help they should receive.

What does national data tell us?

Let’s start with what the national data tell us.

  • The number of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in England has increased for a third consecutive year to 1.37 million in January 2020. The percentage of pupils with an EHC plan has risen to 3.3% of the total pupil population1. Figure 1 below shows these changes.
  • Across England: SEN is most prevalent among boys at age 9 (23% of all boys), and for girls at age 10 (13% of all girls)2. In 2-year-olds, the proportion with SEN increased from 3.2% to 3.5%. For 3- and 4-year-olds, the percentage with SEN increased from 6.3% to 6.6%. Both the percentage with an EHC plan and the percentage with SEN support increased1.
  • Factors associated with SEN diagnosis: Those identified with SEN are more likely to speak English at home, are eligible for free school meals and related to ethnicity, SEN are most prevalent in travellers of Irish heritage and Gypsy/Roma pupils with 30% and 26% respectively. Travellers of Irish heritage and black Caribbean pupils had the highest percentage of pupils with EHC plans (4.5% and 4.4% respectively).
  • If we look at different types of primary need we see that: autism is most common need for those with an EHCP across all ages from 4 to 17 (for age 4, 37% of those with EHCP have primary need of autism), whilst majority of 4 year-olds on SEN support (59%) have a primary type of need of Speech Language and Communication needs (SLCN)2.

So, nationally, indeed there has been a rise in SEN, including during the early years and in preschool years. The most frequent SEN is autism for those with EHCP and SLCN for those on SEN support. There is evidence that the increase is larger in some authorities than others.

Figure 1 Percentage of children with SEN per year


Why is there this rise in SEN numbers?

There is not a great deal of research in this area. There are three main possible answers. The first looks to history, the second to changes in awareness, the third to changes in assessment and diagnostic criteria.

Historical events

From 2010 to 2015, there was a steady decline in numbers of SEN. The first drop between 2010 and 2014 has been argued to be a response to Ofsted report in 20103 related to the fact that SEN might have been over-diagnosed before 2010. The second drop seen from 2014 onwards has been linked to the launch of SEND reforms and the failure of many children to be transferred from the old system to the new system4. The argument in this case is that the steady increase we have seen in last few years is just the catching up of the system, with children now having been re-assessed appropriately and re-assigned to the appropriate level of support.

Greater awareness

SEN has been in the spotlight in the media. This means more awareness on what support children are entitled to. In addition, more teachers are now trained on SEN and thus are more likely to spot the early indicators of SEN. This would also fit with the observation that there is a rise in SEN in the early years. The new Early Years Foundation Stage Profile assessments at age five have large effects on the chances of an individual child being identified with SEND according to a new report5 by the Education Policy Institute.

When it comes to the different types of needs, there have been specific awareness campaigns for autism6 and for language development needs7. In our own research, we see that people endorse fewest neuromyths related to autism8 and we also speculated that awareness campaigns around autism may have helped this.

Assessment and diagnostic criteria

The prevalence of autism seems to be rising, with currently 1-2% of children in the UK receiving a diagnosis9. However, this rate seems to vary between countries. A number of explanations have been proposed for this increase, including more awareness, and changes to the diagnostic criteria (introduced in 2013) which broadened of the spectrum10. However, recent research has shown that the differences between those with a diagnosis of autism and those without one are becoming smaller11, suggesting indeed that autism might be over-diagnosed in some cases.

One explanation for why more autistic children are receiving an EHCP is a mismatch in how support is assessed: whereas schools (who make decision on SEN support) focus mostly on communication, language and literacy skills, local authorities (who assess for EHCP support) make decisions that are more aligned with personal, social and emotional development5.

Yet, we need to be careful with conclusions made about increases in specific types of needs categories, as diagnostic labels such as autism and language delay or SCLN are not always consistently applied, especially in the early years; and often language difficulties co-occur with other developmental disorders, including autism12.

Why differences between local authorities?

Some differences in rates between regions may be explained by differences in the composition of local populations, and therefore differences in the numbers of families with factors associated with SEN, including socioeconomic status and ethnicity, identified in government reports1, 2.

Regional differences may also be produced by the types of schools within a certain area. Parents sometimes are willing to move to certain areas to obtain provision. This was supported by a recent EPI report5: the chance of a child being identified with SEND was explained by the practices within a school rather than individual aspects of the child or the local authority.

Is there any evidence of misidentification of SEN in the early years?

The EPI report5 did find that summer-born children were over-represented with SEND, that is, an over-representation of children who were at the younger end of their age cohort and therefore slightly less mature. Moreover, the relative age effect appeared to be mediated through lower Early Years Foundation Stage Profile attainment for younger children. This finding suggests that assessors of the EYFSP fail to take into account the development that occurs in children over a 12 month-time span.

In sum

There has indeed been a rise in SEN, including during the early years and in preschool years. This may represent a ‘catch-up’ of the system following policy changes; it may reflect greater awareness of SEN amongst educators; or changes in assessment and diagnostic criteria.


  3. OfSTED (2010). The Special Educational Needs and Disability Review: A Statement is Not Enough. London: OfSTED.
  4. Curran, H (2015) SEND reforms 2014 and the narrative of the SENCO: early impact on children and young people with SEND, the SENCO and the school.In: BERA Annual Conference, 15-17 September 2015, Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
  5. Hutchinson, J (2021). Identifying pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Education Policy Institute.
  6. National Autistic Society. (2021). Professional development. Retrieved from
  7. Raising awareness of developmental language disorder.
  8. Gini, S., Knowland, V., Thomas, M. S. C., & Van Herwegen, J. (2021). Neuromyths About Neurodevelopmental Disorders: Misconceptions by Educators and the General PublicMind, Brain, and Education. doi:10.1111/mbe.12303
  9. Russell, G., Rodgers, L. R., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Ford, T. (2014). Prevalence of parent-reported ASD and ADHD in the UK: Findings from the millennium cohort study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(1), 31–40. .1007/s10803- 013- 1849- 0
  10. American Psychiatric Association (Eds.) (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. 5th edn. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  11. Rødgaard, E. M., Jensen, K., Vergnes, J. N., Soulières, I., & Mottron, L. (2019). Temporal Changes in Effect Sizes of Studies Comparing Individuals With and Without Autism: A Meta-analysis. JAMA psychiatry, 76(11), 1124–1132.
  12. Dockrell, J. E., and Hurry, J. (2018). The identification of speech and language problems in elementary school: diagnosis and co-occurring needs.  Dev. Disabil.81, 52–64. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2018.04.009


Advancing children’s STEM abilities through spatial reasoning


Spatial reasoning (also referred to as spatial thinking) is identified by research as a key contributor to mathematical learning. Prof Emily Farran, member of the CEN research group, has been collaborating with colleagues Sue Gifford, Cath Gripton, Helen Williams, Andrea Lancaster, Alison Borthwick (from the Early Childhood Maths Group), Kathryn Bates, Ashley Williams and Katie Gilligan-Lee to create a Spatial Reasoning Toolkit.

Spatial reasoning is now part of the statutory Educational Programme for children from birth to five years in England (DfE, 2021). In response to this requirement, the toolkit is designed to support the mathematical learning of children between the ages of birth and seven years. The toolkit, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, includes a guidance document, a learning trajectory, posters and explainer videos and is aimed at teachers, practitioners and parents alike.

Spatial reasoning involves perceiving the location, dimensions and properties of objects and their relationships to one another. We use spatial reasoning every day of our lives. Whether we’re packing a suitcase, organising furniture or stacking the dishwasher, our spatial reasoning plays a part. In recent years, the causal association between these skills and abilities in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) has been increasingly recognised.

In science, for example, we use illustrations to depict DNA sequences, we use spatial scaling to illustrate cells and even the solar system, and we rely on the spatial arrangement of the periodic table to gauge relationships between elements. In maths, we arrange numbers spatially and use graphs to visualise data. All of these require spatial reasoning.

In a recent survey led by Emily Farran, practitioners expressed that one barrier to implementing spatial reasoning in the home, nursery or classroom was limited training and subject knowledge. This has an impact on practitioners’ ability to support children’s spatial reasoning development. Offering teachers, practitioners and parents access to the Spatial Reasoning Toolkit will begin to address this need.

Spatial learning and training is clearly effective and has long lasting benefits in the fields of STEM and the structure provided by the Spatial Reasoning Toolkit will help practitioners to support children’s spatial reasoning skills in the early stages of learning.

To read more about the project, click here.

To access the Spatial Reasoning Toolkit, click here.

For information on the launch event for the Spatial Reasoning Toolkit on Monday 28 February 2022, see here.

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


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 and Semir Tatlidil, 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.

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






Wednesday 15th December at 4 pm (UK time)

Professor Steven Sloman
Brown University

The Limits of Causal Reasoning in Human and Machine Learning






Wednesday 16th February at 4 pm (UK time)

Dr Ciarán Gilligan-Lee
University College London

Learning and reasoning at different levels of Pearl’s Causal Hierarchy


NeuroSENse launch event and teacher resources


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.


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.


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


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


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.