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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.

Funded PhD studentship in Educational Neuroscience available


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?


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.”

It’s spring! The CEN online seminar series returns


The Centre for Educational Neuroscience Online Seminars will be returning next week on Thursday Jan 21. Please see below for the full term’s schedule. Seminars will take place on Thursdays from 4 pm – 5 pm UK time. Abstracts and Zoom links for each talk will be circulated via the mailing list on the Monday of each week. To help us keep the seminar secure, we kindly request that you direct colleagues and students who are interested in attending to sign up to the mailing list here.

Spring term seminar schedule

  • Jan 21 – Dr Jonathon Beale (Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning, Eton College) – “Educational Neuroscience and Educational Neuroscientism”
  • Jan 28 – Prof Michael Thomas (Birkbeck, University of London) – “Key themes emerging from the CEN‘s new book on Educational Neuroscience”
  • Feb 04 – Professor Derek Bell (Learnus) and Dr Helen M. Darlington (South Wirral High School) – “Educational neuroscience: so what does it mean in the classroom?”
  • Feb 11 – Dr Gavin Breslin (University of Ulster) – “How Physical Activity and Sport can Impact Mental Health and Wellbeing across Educational Setting”
  • Feb 18 – Dr Rebecca Gordon (UCL Institute of Education) – ” Mapping Components of Verbal and Visuospatial Working Memory to Mathematical Topics in Seven- to Fifteen-year-olds”
  • Feb 25 – Dr Hiwet Costa (Numerical Cognition Lab, Universidad de Málaga) – “First Spanish online dyscalculia test: a validation study”
  • Mar 04 – Dr Karla Holmboe (University of Oxford) – “Development of inhibitory control across the infancy-toddlerhood transition”
  • Mar 11 – Dr Bert De Smedt (University of Leuven) – “Individual differences in early mathematical development: the roles of symbolic number processing and more”
  • Mar 18 – John Bishop (Evolve Education) – “Detail matters. Why delivering successful school based research projects is so difficult”
  • Mar 25 – Prof Gaia Scerif (University of Oxford) – “Attention and the classroom: Development under high genetic or environmental risk”

IBE-UNESCO Webinar: The neuroscience of learning: Relevance and prospects in the time of COVID-19 (December 4 2020)

ibe_webinarThis event, co-organised by the International Bureau of Education (IBE-UNESCO) and the International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO), seeks to contribute to closing the gap between scientific knowledge on learning and its application to education policies and practice. Michael Thomas, Director of the CEN, is a contributing panelist.

The panelists are:

  • David Bueno, University of Barcelona
  • Donna Coch, Dartmouth College
  • Joel Talcott, Aston Institute of Health and Neurodevelopment
  • Grégoire Borst, Paris Descartes, CPSC
  • Michael Thomas, Birkbeck, University of London
  • Crystal Johnson, IBE & CCJ Consulting

Details of how to register for this free webinar can be found here. The webinar will take place at 3pm GMT / 4pm CET on Friday 4 December 2020.

A scientific groundwork for education and learning has the potential to revolutionise the current understanding of learning and to provide an expanded, updated, and potentially useful toolkit to shape educational practice and policy. To effectively envision and guide critical improvements and reforms, policy makers, practitioners, and researchers need to be fully cognisant of this momentous dialogue between education and the science of learning. This dialogue is now more relevant than ever. Besides leading to an extraordinary global health and economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented educational disruptions, with unprecedented government responses (UN 2020, UNESCO 2020, World Bank 2020). This webinar considers how the neuroscience of learning can contribute to understanding and addressing the global educational challenges created by the pandemic.

Parents matter: Creating a short course that marries neuroscience, pedagogy and parenting


Ruth Martin is the founder and owner of Artisans Montessori Kindergarten. This year, Ruth completed the Masters in Educational Neuroscience course offered by Birkbeck and UCL. She recently put together a course for parents of children at her school that combined neuroscience, pedagogy, and parenting themes. Here she reflects on her experiences designing the course and the parents’ responses:

“Parenting is tough. I know, I have four wonderful children of my own and I have taught hundreds of others. Why aren’t parents treated with the respect they deserve for the incredibly difficult task they do? Why aren’t they listened to with compassion and informed with solicitous care? The media is saturated with desperate stories of family trauma; political policy regards children as future capital to be maximised; schools are cynical at best; meanwhile neuroscience stays firmly inside its academic fortress or risks being simplified into quick fix nonsense.

As a teacher and an educational neuroscience student I am perplexed and saddened that most educational and neuroscientific literature either ignores parents as an audience or assumes the worst. So, in my Montessori Kindergarten, I created a short course for parents to explore interrelations between concepts from neuroscience, pedagogy and parenting. From the graciously analytical feedback the attending parents gave, three overarching themes became clear.


Firstly, our hard working, nuclear family society has created a divide between care and education that is new in human history. Neuroscience’s unique perspective offers an opportunity to reunite care and education as the single continuum of a child’s lived environment and this gift was relished by parents. In contrast to both pedagogy and parenting, neuroscience concepts had an ever increasing impact on parental behaviours and choices through the study; “I find the neuroscience is a way I can keep making sure my parenting is the best it can be”, commented one parent.

Secondly, the implied value base of our educational and political structures is that children are adults-in-waiting. The evidence of developmental neuroscience is that childhood offers unique potentialities which, if nourished, could create the threshold for positive change; parents embraced that. One parent commented “These sessions make me realise that childhood is special and different to being an adult… [children] are better at taking risks and trying new things, and we ought to let them, not get anxious about it.” Children are not replicas of their ancestors, but citizens of the future, and society risks self-harming if it fails to provide children with the space and time to ferment change.

Finally, parents actively sought to use neuroscience to support mental and emotional health as this parent’s comment illustrates, “I know the experiences are what are shaping his mental health and his character and not the facts he knows. Providing experience and empathy has given us both space to be contented”. Neuroscience has proven the critical reverberations of relationships, demonstrating the prioritisation of safety, survival and social connection present in the hierarchies of brain functions. Public and professional conversations around mental health are drawing on neuroscientific insight into how this impact takes effect, the answer has the potential to be pivotal in how we, as a society, choose to conduct and model relationships with and around children. Maybe it will be this that finally makes the professional and academic elite realise that their sterile, orderly worlds would be more luminous, fulfilling and accurate if they sought and valued parenting as a dynamic cauldron of expertise.

The feedback from the parents attending my course offers a glimpse of how, in the tender membranes between neuroscience, pedagogy and parenting, there are many latent opportunities for a symbiotic relationship between all three practices. A relationship which, in the future, could underpin a more generous experience for children of their childhood and a more intimate intergenerational and interprofessional society.”

Educational neuroscience and International Literacy Day 2020


Tuesday September 8 was International Literacy Day 2020. UNESCO marked the day by holding a global meeting on ‘Literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond’. Globally, basic literacy skills and more than 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. During the initial phase of the pandemic, schools were closed down in more than 190 countries, disrupting the education of two thirds of the world’s student population. The COVID-19 crisis has magnified existing literacy challenges, deeply affecting schooling and lifelong learning opportunities including for youth and adults with no or low literacy skills.

UNESCO’s global meeting brought together international experts in literacy teaching and learning, with the aim of enhancing understandings about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on teaching and learning of youth and adult literacy and reflecting on reimagined teaching approaches in times of the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

The CEN’s Director, Michael Thomas, contributed to a meeting session on ‘Reimagined literacy teaching and learning and the role of educators’. He presented the neuroscience perspective and addressed the question of whether neuroscience points to any differences in learning ability in youth and adults that may impact literacy learning, and provides useful knowledge to educators.

Professor Thomas made the following points:

  1. The adult brain has lifelong plasticity, but may need more practice to make skills automatic, and modified teaching methods to help with perceptual learning.
  2. Adult learners need personal relevance, peer support networks, and community buy-in to motivate the required levels of practice.
  3. There can be wider barriers to success than individual brains, including education, policy, and cultural factors.
  4. The COVID-19 crisis is likely to be largely negative for adult learners but there may be opportunities to build back better through technological solutions to augment teaching. However, particularly in rural areas, such opportunities crucially depend on the strength of the IT infrastructure.

Mr. David Atchoarena, Director of UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, who was chairing the session, drew the following conclusions:

  • The COVID-19 crisis has made existing challenges in global literacy teaching and learning worse
  • The response to these challenges should leverage new knowledge emerging from fields such as neuroscience, AI and data analytics, as well as building on the established understanding of teaching and learning principles
  • The financial impact of the crisis presents new challenges regarding the financing of education, both in terms of each country’s percentage spend on education and the amount targeted towards literacy. How can we make sure that literacy is prioritised in this new financial climate, and that funding still reaches the most marginalised in society?

See here for the CEN’s report, commissioned by the World Bank, on neuroscience and adult literacy programmes published earlier this year.

New book on practical strategies to bring educational neuroscience into the classroom in secondary schools


Our colleagues at BrainCanDo have published an excellent new edited volume that provides teachers and school leaders with a concise summary of how some of the latest research in educational neuroscience and psychology can improve learning outcomes in secondary schools.

Here’s an excerpt from the Foreword, written by CEN Director, Michael Thomas, giving an overview of the book:

“What most sets this volume apart from others in the field is its focus on adolescence. It is noticeable how the educational neuroscience and psychological research taken to be of translational interest to education differs with the age of the child. For early years education, the interest is in basic sensori-motor skills, oral language development, behavioural regulation, and socio-emotional development – skills that contribute to school readiness. For primary school age, the focus shifts to core cognitive skills underlying academic abilities, such as numeracy, literacy and reasoning, the limits imposed by the development of skills of cognitive control, and more sophisticated socio-emotional skills involved in peer group formation and dynamics. Consider then, the topics considered in a volume aimed at secondary school: character development, gratitude, motivation, mindset, metacognition, regulation of sleep, extended musical training (Chapters 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11). The focus has shifted again, beyond core skills to children’s understanding of their own learning and their motivations to learn. The individual must learn where he or she needs to put in effort to achieve their goals, and indeed to decide what those goals are – who they are as individuals.” (p.3)