Cannabis and the Learning Brain

As part of the Collection ‘Everything you and your teacher need to know about the learning brain’, Lana Vedelago has published an article explaining teenagers how cannabis affects the developing brain. In this interview, she shares her experience writing for a young audience, and she tells us more about her current area of research.

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Thank you Lana for taking the time to answer our questions. Why was it important to write an article for adolescents about cannabis and the learning brain?

 lana_picWe know that the teen years are a time when the brain is developing rapidly, so during this time it is especially susceptible to neurotoxins like cannabis. Because of the changing laws around cannabis and its various uses, teens are given a lot of mixed messages about the risks and benefits associated with its consumption. I wanted to summarize the neuroscience literature on cannabis use in adolescents in a way that is easily understandable and accessible to teens, so that they can be equipped with the information they need to help make the best decisions for themselves. I was especially excited to write an article for a Frontiers for Young Minds collection because the journal is open access, and I think it’s important for teens to be able to access quality information without barriers such as needing to pay for access.

How did it feel to write for adolescents? Did you learn any new skills, or did you adopt a new perspective on the topic?

Writing for adolescents was definitely something new for me! As researchers we are used to writing for other academics who are familiar with our area of research, so it was a really rewarding challenge for me to explain cannabis research in a way that would be relevant to an adolescent reading this article. I also wanted to find a balance between presenting the research in a matter-of-fact way but avoiding telling adolescents that they should be doing this or that. Adolescents are the experts of their own experiences, and I wanted to provide them with information so that they can make the best choices for themselves.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on finishing up my Masters degree in Neuroscience! My thesis looks at computer-based decision-making and impulsivity tasks among offenders in federal prisons, and whether these measures can tell us anything useful about their risk for reoffending. I published an article a little while back that reviews the literature in the field. I’m also very excited to be starting a PhD in Clinical Psychology this fall, so that in the future I’m able to help people who are experiencing problems with alcohol and drugs in a more direct and individualized way.

Thank you Lana and congratulations on this new position! This is a particularly strong example of how research can serve people’s wellbeing.

You can follow Lana @LanaVedelago

Frontiers for Young Minds – Neuro-myths in the classroom

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Professor Michael Thomas, Head of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, and Dr. Victoria Knowland wrote an article for primary school children to debunk three common neuro-myths:

  • Neuro-myth (1) ‘Intelligence is Fixed’
  • Neuro-myth (2) ‘Girls and Boys Think Differently’
  • Neuro-myth (3) ‘Some children are left-brained and some are right-brained’

By explaining why these ideas are wrong, the authors are encouraging children to believe in their own learning abilities, outside of ready-made categories.

This article has been published in Frontiers for Young Minds, as part of the Collection ‘Everything you and your teachers need to know about the learning brain’. This Collection aims at providing children with all the relevant knowledge about the brain to understand themselves and their learning processes better, and to equip them to distinguish myths and facts. All the articles are in open access.

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Our ‘Neuro-hit / Neuro-myth’ resources provides corresponding articles for adult readers:

An Interview with Jane Emerson – Speech and Language Therapist and Specialist SEN Teacher

janeJane, you’re a leading practitioner in the treatment of dyslexia and dyscalculia, and through your books “The Dyscalculia Assessment” and “The Dyscalculia Solution: Teaching number sense”.  You’re a Freelance SEN advisor to Independent School Groups. You’re also involved in Learnus, a think tank that supports the translation of educational neuroscience research into the classroom. What keeps you busy at the moment?

Currently, I’m informally assessing undiagnosed primary pupils, investigating evidence for diagnoses of dyslexia, dyscalculia and other related conditions such as dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder. For the undiagnosed pupils, my goal is to triage what are the best interventions given the spikes in their profiles and attainments, sometimes involving reports from educational psychologists, when parents need advice on where to go from these, and what interventions to select.

At the CEN, we’re really interested in how the characteristics of individual children link the best interventions to alleviate their difficulties. Based on your extensive experience, can I ask how you’ve addressed that challenge in your own practice?

Well, I taught many dyslexic pupils to read and spell and dyscalculics to achieve basic mathematical skills over the years, with many successes. I adapted my approach from an extensive toolbox to refine my approaches, depending on what I observed in the pupils. I was fortunate enough to teach most individually, so few compromises were necessary as would be needed teaching even two pupils or small groups. Classroom interventions tend to encompass a more scattergun approach, which might lead to some positive results but would be achieved more slowly.

I think a good starting point is always an analysis of what type of difficulty a dyslexic or dyscalculic pupil presents. In the past, I saw many pupils who could not read, or spell and so had the chance to really start from the beginning with the non-reader. Here’s a link to a resource describing different types of dyslexia put together from the blogs delivered regularly from www.readandspell.com, a touch-typing programme long used at Emerson House.

Identifying dyslexia types is intended to make treatment easier. Six are often distinguished: (1) phonological (problems breaking words into sounds), (2) surface (problems processing language when children move beyond the decoding stage, (3) visual (trouble reading and remembering what has been seen on the page), (4) primary (runs in families, more often in males and left-handers), (5) secondary / developmental (due to problems in early development, responds best to treatment such as targeted phonics work through computer programs), (6) trauma / acquired dyslexia (due to disease or brain damage).

The touch-typing (i.e. typing on a keyboard) used currently at Emerson House provides an opportunity to overlearn the spelling of common vocabulary and other words that reinforce sound-letter correspondence, and for dyslexic children to build achieve confidence in an academic environment, which may have been dented by their struggles in learning to read. It takes a multi-sensory approach, combining spoken words, visual words, and breaking each into their components during the touch-typing task.

Most dyslexics respond well to technology that breaks learning down into bite-size units. It allows them to proceed through a course at their own pace, learning one step at a time and repeating modules until they are ready to move on.

This type of overlearning is very helpful and can also benefit children with attention deficit disorder/ attention hyperactive disorder and other specific learning difficulties.

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Cuisenaire Rods

In the case of dyscalculia, it is essential to combine multi-sensory teaching of numerical quantitative approaches with the use of concrete materials such as counters, a Slavonic Abacus, Cuisenaire Rods, Base Ten Number Concept material to reinforce place value understanding, as well as other more advanced visual learning approaches. A useful reference here is the book of Tandi Clausen May, Teaching Mathematics Visually and Actively, for pupils 7 to 16 years.

Is the use of multi-sensory approaches best in disorders? Isn’t there a risk of confusion, of information overload?

I believe that the brain works as one entity with specialist areas responding more to different types of stimulations, and surely a brain that is wired differently in a dyslexic or dyscalculic learner, might then select and respond to which particular modalities makes sense. If you deprive a pupil from some auditory, visual or tactile inputs, then you might be removing the very modality that they can use to process information. Do you teach to strengths or weaknesses?

Some programmes target only weaknesses and leave the pupils struggling. Surely it’s better to follow strengths to develop compensatory strategies, but not to ignore weaknesses either. A combined approach is necessary.

In The Dyslexia Project at Stanford, Professor Bruce McCandliss found that Sound/Letter reading increases neural input activity in areas best adapted for reading. Apart from my own positive experience with it, the touch-typing approach may be worth evaluating more systematically to explore its effectiveness. It addresses phonics from the very beginning in terms of pure letter by letter correspondence which then develops into orthographic patterns (such as silent ‘e’ or split vowels) quite quickly. I have seen pupils with virtually no literacy, learn to read and spell almost on this programme alone, although they did also combine this with carefully selected reading books.

Are there any further programmes for dyslexia that you recommend?

I have recently trained for 4 days on one of the most up to date programmes, with the latest edition from 2018, called Sounds-Write. It is a highly structured programme that teaches pupils to precisely analyse the sounds in each word and then moves from the sounds to the written word. It is a reversible programme in that the route develops initially from the sounds to the letters for spelling, and then from the letters back to the sounds for reading.

Another current programme that I have found useful is Phonics Hero. I tried the beginning of this on my grandson age 4 years old, and I thought it was a well-designed and enjoyable programme. It is a phonic programme but adds in sight/red words such as ‘the/was’, right from the start, which I like. I count ‘and’ as a phonic word, but ‘the’ is particularly difficult because of the possible f/th confusion, as well as the voiced feature in ‘the’ versus voiceless in ‘thin’.

What is it you check, for in pupils to guide what work you do with them?

Going back to types of dyslexia, in my current work I tend to check if pupils can spell basic regular words that are phonically transparent, with success. This would include regular three letter words such as ‘cat’, up to complex triple blends such as ‘strap. I also see how they are getting on with alphabet names of the vowels as in ‘he/no’ and if successful, go on to look at ‘day/my. This is because many schools don’t teach the names of the vowels very early on, even though they are needed for basic word such as ‘day’, ‘he’, ‘my’, and ‘no’. Looking at these gives clues as to auditory analysis versus the first evidence of spelling with visual memory for ‘my’ rather than ‘mi for example. The words ‘moon’ and ‘look’ are always good ones to check as they are hard in terms of ‘oo’ and ‘k/ck’ choices as well as developing memory for digraphs ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ which are often confused.

Currently, in terms of diagnosis, I have been looking at spelling for the so-called classic dyslexics who have marked phonological difficulties, so can’t even spell basic words phonetically. This is in contrast to those who can’t visually recall basic words where there are orthographic choices to be make even with ‘sh/ch/th’, for example, as well as ‘k/ck’ choices as on ‘look‘ and ‘back. I have been calling these visual dyslexics who I see as having poor visual recall.

In my view, spelling is the avenue for quickly analysing where the pupil has got to and if they can be seen as phonological dyslexics or visual dyslexics.

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So you view spelling as telling you more about the child than reading?

Yes I do. Of course, one can also analyse their reading and see if they have developed only phonetic reading or have also developed visual recognition skills for common and irregular words.

Reading conceals exactly how pupils are decoding as they may be able to read using strong oral language skills as well, or guess from the pictures. One can see exactly what a pupil has grasped from spelling, along with analysing errors precisely to notice if they are spelling phonetically, or by visual recall or a combination.

 I quite like the Ruth Miskin approach of calling regular words ‘green words’ and irregular words ‘red words’, as it seems to be a clear and simple guide for the pupils to predict what type of word it is.

I have seen many pupils who arrive at 6 or 7 who are applying only phonic decoding approaches and clearly have virtually no ‘sight’ vocabulary – that is, red words are difficult for them. I used to call these pupils ‘phonically constipated’ 🙂 These children need taking back to the beginning, to develop fluency from the start. So I do believe in including some basic red words from the start to achieve fluency more quickly.

The Sound-Write system supports the foundations of reading as a sound based system they call The Initial Code which is transparent, and moving on to the Extended Code involving the orthographic stages for decoding and encoding words that are not immediately transparent, such as ‘rain’ and ‘night’ for example.

I was never keen on ‘Tom ran up the hill to the red van’, which can be taught without much context whatsoever. Instead I always used some sort of story, to make things meaningful for the child from the start. This doesn’t necessarily mean using ‘predictable’ text but including decodable text from the start, with some meaning added in, such as pictures and characters names that carry through, rather than changing with the next book. This has led me to question what I mean by phonological dyslexics and visual dyslexics, as different specialists use different terms. In the past I thought that Uta Frith made the distinction clear with her work on the alphabetic (phonic) stage, followed by the orthographic stage.

Could you give us some more specific guidance in terms of how spelling errors map to dyslexia type?

One good source was the introduction to Sacre and Masterton’s The Single Word Spelling Test. It might be possible to buy it second hand now. I used this test quite a lot and am keen on it as it’s straightforward and yet gives complex analysis. Not only does it analyse spelling errors but also provides a teaching plan based on the errors found. In addition it is standardised so you might find it very useful as a basis of looking at spelling for research purposes. The authors looked at phonological errors versus visual errors. They see phonological errors in three categories: non-phonetic errors: ‘hit’ for ‘hot, phonetically simple errors: ‘mac for ‘make, and phonetically complex errors: ‘maik for ‘make.

As a matter of fact, I don’t categorise homophone errors ‘make/maik as phonetic errors, but instead visual/orthographic errors that involve visual recall skills in the visual dyslexic, who can’t proof read after they have written the word either. In my opinion, ‘make/maik’ are both phonetically accurate/plausible rather than wrong, as far as making visual recall choices. There’s a debate in the making.

Sacre and Masterton go on to classify visual errors as ‘ambiguous’, because it’s hard to know if it’s a phonological error or a visual error. I believe that plausible spellings such as ‘stashun’ for station are visual errors because the auditory processing has worked perfectly, but the visual recall has not. The pupils I see often have good visual recognition for reading, so read quite well, but very poor visual recall for spelling.

The Sound-Write programme would classify by error analysis which would indicate the needed revision of the Extended Code for the different ways of spelling ‘shun’ for example in station, mansion etc.

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Do you remember how you learned to read?

Well, I am not dyslexic and do remember learning to read, perfectly visually. The words ‘Peter and Jane’ were seen as ‘pictures’ of a word rather than sounds. I also spelt very well, as I could recall the appearance of the words very easily. I may have had some early alphabetic teaching but I can’t remember that at all. I certainly only became explicitly aware of phonics, and word patterns, when training on The Hornsby Course for specialist teaching of dyslexics.

What would your diagnostic tips be for reading, rather than spelling?

As far as looking at reading, I don’t usually use a test in order to analyse visual errors versus phonetic errors. I judge visual errors as confusing visually similar words and phonetic errors as making errors with the letter to sound correspondences, so that a nonsense word might be produced if the phonetic decoding of unknown words is poor.

Where can we find out more about current debates in reading research and teaching methods?

In order to see what is currently debated, I can recommend Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight from 2017 and Lyn Stone’s work from Australia, Reading for Life, from 2019. I am following the Australian debate via Spelfabet (where the topic is heated at present, with arguments about decodable versus predictable texts). Reading was thought by many in the past as a Psycholinguistic Guessing Game. The term ‘balanced’ teaching seems to be a no-go area now and the debate can still be polarised. I think the baby might be thrown out with the bath water, as it is perfectly possible to use many tools from a tool box without ignoring certain ones.

If you fit your teaching to the pupil in front of you, as an experienced teacher can, then that is the way to go, in my opinion. If binary arguments persist, then the fiery debates will continue without compensatory routes being considered.

Plan help based on the pupil, rather than pick a programme for everyone. However, the Sound-Write programme would be ideal for the less experienced as it has clear teaching protocols. Once the newly qualified become familiar with it, then judgements can be made, based on experience and designed to fit pupil profiles more precisely, depending on error analysis and the stage they are at in literacy.

Thank you so much for your time!

Jane was being interviewed by Michael Thomas, head of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience.

Useful Books:

  • Reading in the Brain by Stanilas Dehaene.
  • Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
  • Reader Come Home by Maryanne Wolf
  • English Spellings, A Lexicon by David Philpot et al. (Sounds-Write based)

 

Would you like to do a PhD in educational neuroscience?

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Applications are now invited for a PhD studentship in educational neuroscience at UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck, open to UK or EU students. This studentship is funded by the Bloomsbury Colleges scheme, for a project entitled ‘The relationship between executive function skills, technology use, and educational outcomes in a cohort of 6,000 UK adolescents’. The project is in collaboration with the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Imperial College London (project description below).

The closing date for applications is 10 May 2020.

For enquiries about the project, please contact Professor Andy Tolmie (UCL Institute of Education) or Professor Michael Thomas (Birkbeck).

To apply, visit https://ucl.fluidreview.com. (You will be able to see this studentship among the list of studentships once you create an account and log in.)

Project Description:

This PhD studentship project will involve secondary data analysis of the relationship between adolescent executive function skills, technology use (mobile phones and gaming), and educational outcomes. It will use data from the SCAMP (Study of Cognition, Adolescents, and Mobile Phones) cohort, a Department of Health funded project led by Mireille Toledano at Imperial College, on which Michael Thomas is a co-investigator, and to which Andy Tolmie is educational advisor.

The project will take place in the context of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, a cross-institution research centre spanning UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck, of which Michael Thomas and Andy Tolmie are both members, and in collaboration with staff at Imperial. Data have been collected at two time points on technology use, health, lifestyle data, and cognitive abilities of 6,000 11-14-year-old adolescents living within the M25 area. Sensitive measures of cognitive skills were collected for: cognitive control (“executive functions”), intelligence, speech processing, visuospatial attention, and focus/distractibility, skills that mostly continue to develop across adolescence. An application has also been made to the Department for Education for further data on the cohort, including GCSE results, within-school academic assessments, SEN information, and school attendance.

This will yield the largest dataset in this area ever collected for a young adolescent age group – a group that has been less studied compared to early and mid-childhood. Executive function skills, the main focus of the cognitive battery, continue to develop across adolescence and have been linked to educational achievement, both cross-sectionally and longitudinally. Differences in executive function skills are also linked to mental health issues, though the direction of causality remains unclear. Analysing the link between the existing SCAMP cohort data and educational outcomes will allow us to answer the following questions:

  • Does technology use make teenagers more distractible, impacting on educational outcomes?
  • Do smart phones serve as study aids, improving academic achievement?
  • Are early executive function skills a direct predictor of educational outcomes? Is this a general effect or specific to particular outcomes? Which tests are most sensitive, and therefore capable of providing a basis to identify children who need extra help?
  • Do early executive function skills predict later health behaviours (alcohol, drugs, diet, sleep), which subsequently impact on educational outcomes?

As well as receiving generic training in research skills in line with the UK Researcher Development Framework, the successful candidate will be offered training in the use of linear mixed modelling and structural equation modelling, to evaluate the relationship between the key measures of executive functioning, technology use, mental health, and educational outcomes, particularly focusing on technology as moderating or mediating factors. Analyses will explore the combination of large-scale cross-sectional and longitudinal data.

 

Working online: How to prevent information overload

Now that half of the world population is on lockdown, cell phones and computers allow us to be in contact with our relatives, to stay informed, work from home and ensure children’s learning. However, it is sometimes difficult to take a step back, prioritise information and reflect on our reactions to it.

In this blog, we share some tips to help being more mindful about our use of technology. They are inspired by Dr Anna Cox’s advice on successfully working from home and by the advice published by five French experts in Cognitive Psychology, Information and Communication (Dr. Gaël Allain, Dr. Caroline Cuny, Dr. Aurélia Dumas, Prof. Fabienne Martin-Juchat and Dr. Julien Pierre).

Identify where the information comes from, and give a clear function to each device

Defining which tool or platform to use for work, and which one to use for leisure, can help to regulate the flow of information we are receiving and ultimately keep a good work-life balance. Are we available on the phone, by text, email? All of them? Is that necessary? We have all received this text saying: “Have you seen my email”? This can be particularly stressful if we were about to use our phone to call a friend on the evening. A specific mailbox can be used for work, and another one for our private life (e.g. online orders and deliveries, family messages). Some people are lucky enough to have two separate cell phones; a professional one and personal one. If that is not the case, rules can be set up when using a cell phone for work – it might be that you would like to book an appointment to receive a call, or to use your phone only in case of emergencies.   

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Make this organisation explicit to your colleagues and friends

People will then know how to reach you. This is only one part of the story because setting up a timeline is as important as setting up devices. When can people expect a response from you? Instant messaging can make us feel that we are “late” if we don’t reply immediately. Specify within which hours, and which days of the week you can reply, and pay attention to your correspondents’ own organisation. Some prefer to work outside of typical working hours (e.g. early in the morning or late in the evening). Others prefer to take more breaks during the week and work on the weekend. Being clear about each other’s organisation can help setting up clear expectations, and smoothen communication.

Dedicate specific times to reply to emails, and turn off notifications when engaged in “deep work”

It is difficult to ignore a message once we heard it coming. Mailbox and messaging applications also often display a preview of what we have received. Reading this preview makes us process the content, and anticipate our reply. Even before noticing it, our current train of thoughts is interrupted. You might want to decide: (1) For which platform notifications are necessary, (2) Which type of notification you want to have. A colour patch, for example, is less distracting than a preview because it does not indicate the content of the message. The overall idea behind such management is to limit interruptions.

We lose, on average 30% of our time dealing with interruptions. This percentage can reach 50% when we are focus on an activity that requires to keep multiple pieces of information in mind.

This loss of time is caused by: (1) the interruption itself and our response to it (e.g. replying to the email that just popped in or even just thinking about it); (2) The need to focus back on what we were doing before. Cognitively speaking, interruptions challenge our working memory, by adding to the amount of information we need to keep in mind and process at the same time. Furthermore, we don’t really multi-task (e.g. do two things at the same time). Instead, we constantly, and quickly switch between one activity and another. The more interruptions we have, the more we need to switch.

Process information sequentially

Instead of trying to process everything at the same time, we can plan and organise our work to do one thing after another. This is true for the multiple tasks we need to do, as well as for the multiple emails we need to respond to. A first step might be to go through your tasks and messages, and consciously decide which ones are the most important. Identifying a group of messages with similar content can help making links between the different pieces of information, thereby reducing constraints put on our working memory. Labels can easily be set up in most messaging services.

Respond, not react

Online communication is cognitively, but also emotionally stringent. By taking some time to process information, we can avoid getting caught in a constant escalation of emotional reactions, take time to reflect on our and others feelings, and ultimately respond in the most appropriate and adapted way as possible. Stress can lead us to react quickly, intuitively, without considering alternatives or weighting the pros and cons of our behaviour. This is why it is important to stop and think. In other word, to respond, and not only react.
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Adapt your organisation depending on your current objectives and on your current situation.

Some days, we need to engage in deep work and achieve a specific objective (e.g. planning a lesson, writing an article). Some days, we mainly need to adapt. Now more than ever, important changes are happening every day and require us to adjust quickly. For example, in previous weeks, we faced the interruption of face-to-face teaching and closure of schools. It would have seemed unreasonable, in this situation, to completely shut down our emails and keep focusing on preparing a teaching session that would have needed to be modified anyway. However, regulating online communication does not mean being oblivious or dull. Even, and maybe especially in time of crisis, mental health services recommend to take “information breaks” in order to appropriately process the information, and take time to “respond”, not “react”.

Finally, taking time off from the screen gives some more freedom to our thoughts and helps to reorganise what we have processed. Activities such as cooking or listening to music, can all help to get back to our senses and release stress. At the end of the day, good sleep will help to reorganise what we have learnt and prepare us for another challenging day!


For more information about mental health and wellbeing, follow @UCL_Wellbeing


Written  by: Dr Jessica Massonnié

Dealing with the Covid-19 crisis: Evidence-based resources

The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed our living, working, and learning habits. It is sometimes hard not to feel overwhelmed by the constant flow of information we receive on the virus. We have selected below a few resources from partners and experts, with the hope that they will support you through this crisis.

Mental Heath

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News coverage

Learning resources


We hope you have found this useful. If you would like to suggest another resource, please contact us on centre4educationalneuroscience@gmail.com or @UoL_CEN


Please consider contributing to research on the psychological and social effects of Covid-19 – www.covid19study.org. The study is being run by UCL and is open to all people over age 18 in the UK. More information about the survey is available here.

Our brain on coronavirus

A couple of days ago, the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky gave some good advice about coronavirus and how our brains make decisions.

The coronavirus means we have to make lots of decisions – Should we go into work? Should we panic buy toilet paper?

The brain makes decisions by running thought experiments, to decide what to do, imagining how things might turn out and how different outcomes would feel. The rational and emotional parts of the brain work together to do this.

But with the pandemic, we’re under stress. We feel stress because of a lack of control, or predictability of what’s going to happen, a lack of reliable information; because we have no outlets for our frustrations, and because we may lack social support.

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We can make bad decisions under stress because our limbic systems (where are emotions are based) affect the rational decision making parts of our brains (the cortex) in certain ways.

The rational part becomes less able to constrain the emotional part. We become impulsive, less reflective, we make decisions with tunnel vision. We fall back on routines and automatic choices. We take out our stress on others, we can be aggressive. And we can narrow the circle of people who we count as “us” and who deserve empathy and consideration. We end up making more egotistical, selfish moral decisions.

So the advice is, be on your guard against the brain’s worst tendencies when under stress. Stop and think, make sensible reasonable decisions, in the best interests of everyone.

Blog written by: Prof. Michael Thomas

MeeTwo – An app to promote teenagers’ wellbeing and mutual support

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Suzi Godson has been The Times sex and relationships columnist for 16 years. During her psychology PhD at Birkbeck University, she began developing an app that would allow teenagers to get sensible, anonymous support and advice about issues that were difficult to talk about. In 2017 Suzi and her co-founder Kerstyn Comley launched MeeTwo, an app that combines peer support and preventative mental help tools within a safe social media experience. In this blog, Suzi explains the rationale behind the app, and tells us the story of its development.

One in four fourteen year old girls in the UK suffers from depression, a mental illness that diminishes their quality of life and limits their prospects for the future. One in five UK teenagers self harms and this single act means that they are 17 times more likely to die by suicide. Despite a 40% increase in the workforce, the number of young people referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services has risen by 98% since 2013. The threshold for a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services is now so high that it is widely known that a teenager has to have made an attempt to take their own life before they can get seen. Mental health provision in the UK is so stretched that 76% of teenagers with mental health issues never get any help at all. It is no coincidence then, that the leading cause of death for young people in one of the richest countries in the world is suicide.  

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The 1-2-1 counselling model is unsustainable and young people in the UK deserve better. Much better. In 2016, I began thinking about ways to provide safe support, at scale. I thought about what it might feel like to be fourteen and depressed, what the barriers to support might be, and what might make it easier to overcome them. Then, because I am not an expert on being fourteen, I asked lots and lots of teenagers what they thought. I learned that what young people wanted was some sort of early intervention that would enable them to address their problems before they reached crisis point. 

I’m not a tech expert either, so I teamed up with Kerstyn Comley, an education technologist with twenty years experience in development, product and business management.  A medical engineer by training, with a PhD from the University of Cambridge in bioengineering, she had just finished setting up a free school – as you do – and was looking for a new project to get her teeth into. Both Kersyn and I are polymaths and our broad skillset has proved to be an invaluable asset to our tech start up. I had started my career as a graphic designer before switching to journalism. By 2016, my day job was, and still is, writing a weekly sex and relationships column for The Times newspaper and having completed my psychology masters at Birbeck, I was also embarking on my PhD. 

Kerstyn and I designed and built a very rudimentary webapp which we piloted in three UK secondary schools. We learnt a huge amount but we needed serious money to build our minimum viable product (MVP)  In my first term, a fortuitous email from Birkbeck alerted me to a call for entries from the Business Enterprise Department at Birkbeck. They were looking for entrepreneurs within the university and we were picked to represent Birkbeck in the Santander Universities Awards. Getting to the finals and winning an award gave us the confidence to raise the money we needed to build the MVP. We invested £20,000 of our own money and got a small grant of £5,000 grant from the School of Social Entrepreneurs, but it wasn’t enough. We knocked on door after door, but for some reason no one was too excited about investing in a tech start up with an entirely altruistic mission. We were two women, developing a product that we planned to give away for free, because we wanted it to be accessible to the poorest and most vulnerable kids in society. That meant there was the small problem of a missing ‘revenue model’.  After 18 months we were on the verge of giving up when an anonymous philanthropist gave us the financial parachute we needed to finish the build. 

meetwologoMeeTwo launched in September 2017 and we haven’t looked back. The app now supports 25,000+ people from across the UK. Most significantly, 42% of users are male, compared to 17% for the UK’s biggest national children’s helpline. It costs us roughly £25 to support a young person for an entire year. Our funding has come from a mix of grants, prize money, philanthropy and one ‘friends and family’ investment round. We are also launching MeeTwo Connect, a new ‘paid for’ service which provides schools and universities with a portal within the MeeTwo directory. The portal allows students to connect to campus services and make appointments with school or university counsellors from within the app.

Like most really difficult problems, the solution we finally arrived at seems blindingly simple now. MeeTwo is an app that combines peer support and preventative mental help tools within a safe social media experience. It teaches young people how to help themselves, by helping each other. It allows them to turn their own difficult life experiences into useful support and advice for others. And because every new user is a new counsellor, it provides a uniquely scalable solution to the current mental health crisis. 

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MeeTwo is safe because it is 100% pre-moderated by humans who check every post and reply before they go live. Moderation begins at 7.30am and continues through to 11pm at 30 minute intervals. Moderators are paid, and they work remotely, so it’s a great job for people who have barriers to employment, or disabilities.

MeeTwo is anonymous so that young people can be completely honest about what is bothering them. Within the app, they shake their phone to generate a random three word name which is unique to MeeTwo. No personal information or identification is allowed, but users can @username to notify each other. 

The app is designed to look and feel like social media but it is completely gender neutral. All visual hierarchies are stripped out and profile images are a simple coloured circle, which users can change. By creating an app that looks ‘cool’ and actively avoids all ‘self-help’ stereotypes, we have created an app that boys will engage with. At last count, 42% of our users were boys, which is an extraordinary measure of success.

MeeTwo is inclusive. Within the app trained ‘super peers’ ensure that every question gets a reply and no one is left out. Super peers are our secret weapon because the last thing we wanted was for a young person to pluck up the courage to post and then find that they were ignored. Super peers are largely psychology undergraduates and it’s a great role because it counts as work experience, so they get course credits from their university. Our wellbeing measure shows that being a super peer boosts self esteem by 30 percentage points.

Behind the scenes a team of experts pick up young people who are in crisis and help them to access real world support.  Our experts come from a range of disciplines but are all mental health professionals.

Educational resources are developed in response to pertinent issues that are being discussed in the feed. Articles by authors and academics, as well as personal stories from users are also published within the app. We are currently running articles from The Lancet and Time Magazine as well as an interview with the UK’s top psychiatrist, Sir Simon Wessley.

pic_posterCreative expression is an integral part of MeeTwo and our users can have their artwork published within the app. In 2020, the billboard advertising company Clear Channel will run a digital exhibition of MeeTwo artwork in UK shopping malls throughout the UK.  

In 2018 we briefly diversified into print. After a year or more of helping users to access support services we had identified a number of great helplines, apps, books, YouTube videos and Ted Talks that we thought our users would benefit from. We knew that schools often struggled to find ways to help students who were having a difficult time, so we decided to collate them all into a book. We added personal stories from our users, and interviews with the top adolescent mental health experts in the UK. We crowdfunded the printing and distributed 2,500 free copies to UK schools. In 2019, The MeeTwo Teenage Mental Help Handbook won the British Medical Association Health and Social Care Book of the Year Award. We are now in the process of building  the directory from The MeeTwo Teenage Mental Help Handbook into the app. This will allow users to search the directory by topic and populate their feed with resources which help with a specific issue.

Our user base has grown steadily, but we have had to scale carefully. In the early days we didn’t have the funds to hire enough moderators and experts to manage more than a couple of thousand users. In 2018 MeeTwo was approved by the NHS and it is now part of the NHS apps library. The NHS asked us to drop the age range from 13 to 11 so that we covered the entire secondary school period. At the same time, we were noticing a lot of university students using the app. We realised that the extended spread of ages could be problematic, so we introduced banding. Now, individual users are exposed to posts within a specific age range, so a 13 year old will see posts from people aged between 11 and 15 and a 16 year old will see posts from people aged 14 to 18. This has proved to be a very successful solution.

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In terms of funding, our biggest challenge has been how to measure the benefit of prevention. It’s hard to measure an outcome that hasn’t yet happened, but case studies of our data show that MeeTwo users feel more supported and seek professional help sooner. In the short term, this improves their quality of life, but in the long term, it optimises their life chances. Research is very important to us and our data is providing unique insights into youth mental health. We are currently collaborating on research projects with the Anna Freud Centre at University College London, the Department of Data Informatics at Sussex University and the Centre for Population Health Sciences at Bristol University.

MeeTwo has won a number of important awards and has been endorsed by the NHS Apps Library, Digital Health.London (NHS), Teach First and The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, MeeTwo was recognised as one of the 100 most inspiring education innovations in the world by HundrED. The MeeTwo app will represent British social enterprise at the next world fair EXPO2020.  

  • 2019 British Medical Association Book Award for The MeeTwo Mental Help Teenage Handbook 
  • 2019 Connected Society and People’s Choice in the Tech4Good Awards
  • 2019 UK Medilink Awards, Innovation 
  • 2019 Innovation Award, Mayor of London Medtech Business Awards
  • 2019 Social Impact Award, London Business Awards
  • 2017/18/19 HundrED – 100 most inspiring innovations in education in the world
  • 2018 EXPO Live – 100 best social enterprises in the world showcasing at the next world fair
  • 2018 Digital health London Cohort
  • 2018 Technology Playmaker Awards
  • 2018 Techpreneurs Awards
  • 2017 Teach First Innovation Award
  • 2016 Santander Universities Award representing Birkbeck, University of London

Learn more about MeeTwo on the project’s website and on Twitter @meetwohelps

Seminars cancelled

Due to the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 virus we have decided to finish the current seminar series now. So the seminar scheduled on 26th March 2020 will not take place. We will reassess the situation after the Easter break, with the hope that the CEN seminar series will be able to run again next term, and will keep you updated.

The Whole School Send Review

Today, we have the pleasure to meet up with Margaret Mulholland again. Margaret is a SEND Inclusion Specialist and the Project Director of WHOLE SCHOOL SEND REVIEW, an exciting and timely new research project to help mainstream schools rethink SEN Support. We asked Margaret for some insight into why it’s so important for mainstream schools.

 

Why get involved in the Whole School Send Review?

There is no shortage of discussion around the current state of the SEND system. For many, it is in crisis. In every school now there is an increasingly difficult dynamic between the ability to offer the right provision based on pupil needs and the need to satisfy academic targets. At the most basic level, declining year on year funding is limiting adequate resourcing and lowering teacher confidence about how best to meet holistic and academic needs of pupils with complex profiles. These are now familiar challenges that need good thought.

The Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) has been working with the National Association for Special Education Need (NASEN) to roll out the SEND Review Trial. It’s a valuable research project to examine actual issues that schools face in delivering SEN support, and there is an opportunity now for mainstream secondary schools to get involved.

What is the Whole School SEND Review?

whoschoolsendThe Review process was originally designed by the London Leadership Strategy (LLS) led by school leaders and itself born out of London Challenge. It has been rolled out by leaders and Local Authorities with very positive results. The EEF see it as a ‘good bet’ because it gets to the heart of addressing the dynamic of balancing additional support for pupils with SEND with designing a positive whole school strategy. In principle it provides a framework that helps school leaders evaluate the effectiveness of current SEND provision through a structured self-evaluation and peer review with another school. It’s an important study as there is a need for more evidence of the impact of a whole school approach to SEN.

Currently, tools for improving the progress of pupils with SEND often focus heavily on interventions and ‘catch up’ strategies to improve pupil attainment. These interventionist approaches operate at a pupil level and EEF has produced useful guidance to help schools judge the most effective of these; evaluating both quality and value for money. However, for pupils who are struggling to make sustained progress, whole school change is also needed and sustained through the most important contributor – great teaching.

The process is based on the premise that excellent teaching for pupils with SEND is excellent teaching for all.

The process is based on the premise that excellent teaching for pupils with SEND is excellent teaching for all. There is some evidence to indicate that teacher confidence in teaching pupils with SEN is low, and this needs to be addressed. The SEND Review is a tool that can help schools to see the value and mechanisms to build teacher confidence and strengthen SEN provision.  Manchester Metropolitan University will evaluate the impact of the WSS review through a randomized control trial that will focus on improvements for pupils with SEND determined by academic, well-being and behaviour outcomes.

Why is this project so necessary? 

According to the EEF, the SEND Review is of particular interest because the impact of SEND on academic attainment is closely related to the EEF’s focus on economic disadvantage. 27% of pupils with special educational needs are eligible for free school meals compared to 12% of pupils without special educational needs. The process signposts schools to the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit when looking for evidence-based interventions to meet their needs and promotes well-evidenced approaches such as metacognition.

eef-logoHowever, the evidence base for specific SEND interventions is weak in secondary schools, because very few high-quality evaluations have been conducted with this age group. The project seeks to address this gap.

This is positive on a number of levels. The recognition that good teaching is central to progress is well understood. Understanding that good teaching is key to effective inclusivity is less so. Other factors, the recognition of individual difference, the fact that disadvantage is not only shaped by ethnicity or socio economic status also play a role. Fundamentally, pupils with SEN continue to experience the unintended consequences of comparative accountability. Where pupils are categorised by assumptions of average, below average and gifted pupils, the danger is that students with SEND are too readily associated with below average. Their work is dumbed down and expectations are reduced. And teachers themselves can lack the confidence to recognise individual difference and to adapt teaching to provide a clear path to the curriculum. It’s time to bust myths about pupils and how they learn. EEF is feeling increasingly clear about the value of looking at how evidence can support understanding of ‘what works’ for ALL, not just for the majority of pupils. This willingness to focus on SEND is an exciting opportunity for the use of evidence that informs change; a change in teaching and in school culture.

SEN Support is about removing barriers to learning.

The term SEN support describes how needs will be met for pupils who have an identified special educational need but who do not have a statutory Education Health Care Plan. If there is evidence to show that a pupil with SEN is not making as much progress as they could be, then the school will put the pupil on the SEN register for ‘SEN Support’ sometimes referred to in schools as the ‘K’ list.

The Code of Practice tasks schools with removing barriers to learning for these pupils and putting effective provision in place. It makes specific recommendations about ‘how’ this should happen over a four-part cycle through which earlier decisions and actions are revisited, refined and revised with a growing understanding of the pupil’s needs and of what supports the pupil in making good progress and securing good outcomes. It’s called the graduated approach. It draws on more detailed strategies, more frequent review and more specialist expertise in successive cycles in order to match interventions to the strengths and needs of children and young people.

It’s an exciting development in a mainstream environment as it offers an approach to good teaching for all pupils rather than one we adopt only for pupils with SEN. As Dylan Wiliam has shown us, small steps formative assessment is key to good teaching.

What will the schools gain from involvement? 

Clarity! The best outcomes are from the schools who really apply critical lens to their self review, seek change and improvement across the school by involving all staff from canteen staff to headteacher, pupils and parents. Often it is the stronger schools that are prepared to do this. We have found that coaching from the research project directors can offer additional confidence and support the schools professional criticality. We want to scaffold the process and support schools to take those difficult steps. Moving beyond your comfort zone takes bravery, and good planning around SEN support really can help shift understanding from an operational standpoint to a strategic perspective.

What kind of examples of concrete innovation come through?

First of all, asking which intervention to use to help pupils make progress usually isn’t a sufficiently nuanced or contextual question. Intervention suggests SEND provision is made up of bolt on to what is usually available in the classroom. Secondly, we have to be careful about approaches that tweak or seek to change the pupils rather than what they are capable of. At a whole school level, working with parent led groups can be very effective. Upskilling Teaching and Learning for SENCOs and creating opportunity for SENCO and T&L leads to work together helps to reshape priorities. A review of CPD to encourage SEND as intrinsic to teaching is another route. This doesn’t mean there aren’t discreet SEND sessions in school CPD, but a leadership position on making SEND central to school improvement makes a difference.

We have been working with Headteachers to make sense of evidence from recent national research including the NAO Report and the SENCO workload survey as well as the increasing number of reports emerging that relate to exclusions. This highlighted both a need and desire for SENCOs to focus more on capacity building and less on the burdensome paperwork associated with SEN.

In summary

The SEND Review is a school improvement tool strengthening pupil outcomes through an explicit lens on struggling learners addressing provision but most importantly, effective pedagogy. It allows schools to navigate the journey from operational to strategic development planning for SEND.

Secondary schools can still sign up to be part of the SEND Review Trial. The deadline for applications is April 3rd.

Contacts:

Margaret.m@nasen.org.uk or project manager Helen Prosser helenp@nasen.org.uk