Coming soon! CEN’s new book on educational neuroscience: “A must for teachers”

On 15th November, CEN’s new book on educational neuroscience will be published by Routledge (Taylor Francis). You can get 20% off with discount code: FLA22

en_thebasicsAimed at teachers, parents, and the general public, our new book Educational Neuroscience: The Basics explains how the brain works and its priorities for learning. It shows how educational neuroscience, when combined with existing knowledge of human and social psychology, and with teacher expertise, can improve outcomes for students.

It is a compact and lively introductory text for students of psychology, neuroscience and education and courses where these disciplines interconnect. It will also be essential reading for educational professionals, including teachers, heads, educational advisors and the many industry bodies who govern and train them, as well as parents and anyone interested in the fascinating story of how we learn.

Here’s what the reviews say:

” A must for teachers and other educationalists committed to exploring the evidence on what works in teaching and learning – and to understanding why it works.” – Professor Becky Francis, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)

“Here is a trustworthy guide to what every teacher needs to know about the brain. It explains findings from neuroscience in down-to-earth language and discusses what goes on in the brain when we are learning to read or to do maths, when we need to remember, make friends, think, and multitask.” – Dame Uta Frith, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London (UCL)

Download the flier!


Involving Young Learners in educational neuroscience research






Guest editors Dr Jessica Massonnié, Prof Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, and Dr Liory Fern-Pollak are putting together a special issue of the educational neuroscience journal, Mind Brain and Education, focusing on involving young learners in educational neuroscience research. After it, it’s their brains that teachers are enhancing!

The special issue “Involving Young Learners in Mind, Brain and Education Research” will highlight the theoretical, empirical and ethical challenges of engaging young learners with the research process in educational neuroscience. The papers will cover a variety of domains, including cognitive, social and emotional development, recognising that learning is inseparable from social relationships, general health and wellbeing.

The papers will have as a common theme discussion of how researchers can work to co-construct the findings with the learners, with a focus on actively engaging young learners, that is, participants below 18 years of age.

Submissions from a wide range of countries are particularly encouraged to ensure a lively contrast of views. The guest editors welcome submissions related to a variety of disciplines, including biology, genetics, neuroscience, psychology, education, didactics, and philosophy. This special issue is open to all relevant theoretical perspectives and methods (e.g. quantitative, qualitative, art-based, mixed-methods).

If you have work that would fit with this forthcoming special issue, please see details on how to submit an article here. The deadline to submit paper abstracts outlining your proposed submission is 30th October 2022. For enquiries, contact the lead editor:

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”