Strategies to help with thinking skills

A central part of the EPIC approach is the use of psychoeducation and pairing of that knowledge with suitable strategies for facilitating optimal thinking, learning and wellbeing.

Once the child, parent and/or teacher are aware of a child’s difficulties, strategies can then be paired to difficulties to meet an individual child’s needs. In our Strategy booklet, we detail many examples of games and activities that can help with a child’s awareness of their thinking difficulties and easy tips and tools they can use to overcome them. Our current booklet has been developed for teachers but is also suitable for at home use by parents. In our next phase of EPIC we plan to co-produce a strategy booklet specifically for parents working with parents to do so. All of our work has evolved from what is called a ‘co-production’ model – working with children and young people, parents, teachers and clinicians to ensure our research priorities, practices, language use and materials are directed by those that will use them.

The strategies we detail include those that involve internal thinking strategies and external aids. Internal thinking strategies include for example ‘chunking’ which involves grouping or listing things based on similarity. If a child has to hold in mind a series of numbers they could chunk them into something meaningful – 1045 – my brother is 10 and my Dad is 45. Chunking in reading can help to not overwhelm a child with a long piece of text. Seeing the text as broken up into meaningful parts can also help with understanding.

Another technique to help memory is use of ‘mental imagery’. This is when a child creates an image in their mind to make things more vivid. It can also be used to remember to connect different bits of information. If a child for example is writing a paragraph that has to include a child, a dog and an ice-cream they could picture themselves holding an ice-cream and the dog takes a lick!

External strategies can also be useful such as the use of diaries or planners. These can help to reduce information that has to be remembered but also to plan out tasks and divide into steps. A mini-whiteboard can be a particularly useful tool for children with thinking difficulties. The use of ‘mind-maps’ can also help with planning and organising information meaningfully. A mind-map is a diagram or picture where information can be grouped and it can be linked. Colour and images can be used to help organise and display information.

Please see our booklets for more information on these strategies. We will post about more of the EPIC underlying principles over the next few weeks. We hope you find our booklets useful. Do please contact us with any feedback you have! 

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How can researchers encourage teaching professionals to get involved in research?

This blog post is pitched to researchers and how best to encourage teachers and other education professionals to get involved in research. The work described in this post was funded by a Wellcome Trust, University of Edinburgh, Institutional Strategic Support Fund award.

Administering interventions through schools is a promising strategy for improving the wellbeing and learning of children with mental health problems or neurodevelopmental diagnoses, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyspraxia/Developmental coordination disorder (DCD), dyslexia or for children who are born preterm. For these interventions to be developed and tested, the involvement of teachers, head teachers, teaching assistants, pupil support officers, guidance counsellors, and other education professionals are essential. Yet, these stakeholders are often stretched thinly and often turn down research as they are worried it will take up too much time with few gains. How can researchers motivate and encourage teachers and other education professionals to get involved in research?

We held a ‘Knowledge Exchange’ workshop with primary school teachers to understand why teachers choose to take part in research and how we can encourage more to do so. The workshop also included an update on our research findings and some myth busting around ADHD, making it a knowledge exchange workshop with mutual benefit. Their insights are organised by theme below:

  1. Pointing out that involvement can be a part of Continued Professional Development

Researchers can remind teaching professionals that their involvement in research can be a part of their continued professional development. For example, the General Teaching Council for Scotland encourages teachers to take part in Professional Learning such as online learning, professional dialogue with colleagues, critical analysis of reading, masters courses, or attending conferences. Research engagement also counts as professional learning.  Researchers can point out that teachers can log their research participation in their professional learning records. Teachers are guided by the Professional Standards when selecting learning opportunities. Researchers can highlight that their research is in line with the professional standards and therefore teachers can appropriately log it as their professional learning. For example, one teacher in our workshop mentioned learning about strategies for helping children with ADHD (the focus of the research project they were involved in with us) was in line with the social justice and professional commitment section of the Professional Standards. For more information see the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s page on Professional Learning.

  • Sharing new strategies for problem solving in the classroom

Teachers mentioned that they were more likely to take part in research if it is likely to directly benefit their classroom, for example in helping them develop new strategies for teaching children.  All teachers mentioned the main reason they took part in our research study was because a child in their class had the developmental diagnosis (ADHD) we were researching in that particular project, and they wanted to improve the strategies they use with them. However, they recognised that the strategies could be used to help children with other neurodevelopmental conditions or children struggling for any reason (e.g. mental health difficulties, problems at home). One in five children have a neurodevelopmental condition and so it is likely that a teacher will have a pupil in their class who needs extra support. Yet, there is little formal training on teaching neurodivergent children. Even in some school communities where there is a focus on improving outcomes for children with neurodevelopmental conditions, they often focus primarily on autism forgetting other disabilities, our workshop teachers pointed out. Therefore our particular focus in the research project we had engaged with them – ADHD, a condition associated with a lot of myths and uncertainties, attracted the teachers to take part. Researchers can remind teachers of the direct impact taking part in research may have on their understanding of their pupils, their teaching practice, or their approach to dealing with problems in the classroom.

  • Being flexible and transparent with timing

Teachers mentioned the main reason they would not take part in future research was being asked during a busy time of the year. Some teachers shared they were initially hesitant to take part because they were worried it would take up too much time. The start and end of term were highlighted as particularly inconvenient times. It is important to point out the teachers are not just concerned about time flexibility for their own schedules but often do not want their pupil’s routine to be disrupted or miss a certain lesson. For example, the idea of a researcher only being available at one time meaning the child missed P.E./gym class was not attractive to participation.

Teachers mentioned it was helpful that our research team was flexible with timing, offered a lot of time slots, and generally worked around the teachers’ schedule. Online meetings and workshops offer convenience in eliminating travel time, but it was also mentioned that face-to-face work is more meaningful. Following completion, teachers said that it was not as time consuming as they thought it would be. Researchers should mention in their initial email to teachers exactly how much time it will take up, offer flexible timing, and aim to contact them at less busy times of the term.

  • Explaining the wider implications of the research

Teachers were pleasantly surprised to learn that this research taking place across schools in Edinburgh would be published in international journals, shared around the world at conferences, and had the potential to help many more children in the future. Researchers can mention the impact of a project and the long-term implications of the teachers’ contributions. In this way, instilling a sense of pride, well-deserved in any case, facilitates motivation to take part. Teachers also mentioned it was empowering to be asked for their view throughout the research as opposed to being a passive party in the process. Explaining to teachers that their contributions will ultimately improve the research (in our case the design of an intervention) by making it more accessible and feasible for other teachers is another point to highlight if applicable.  

At the onset of the recruitment, researchers can cover these points when explaining the project in their initial email or phone call.  We believe that highlighting and considering the above points when developing a partnership with teaching professionals will result in a symbiotic relationship conducive to research.

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The EPIC intervention and use of associated materials aims to facilitate optimal thinking, learning, and wellbeing in children and young people.

A central part of the EPIC approach is the use of psychoeducation.   What is psychoeducation and what does it involve?

Psychoeducation involves gaining knowledge to help with understanding of a condition. The aim of psychoeducation within the EPIC approach is to ensure that everyone caring for a child understands the strengths and difficulties of the individual child. Our booklets ‘Understanding ADHD’ and ‘Understanding DCD’ can be used at home and at school to help with understanding a child’s difficulties.  

Within the EPIC approach, psychoeducation is not about learning about a diagnosed condition such as DCD and assuming every child with DCD has the same set of difficulties. Children with the same diagnosis label differ from each other. These differences mean it is important that everyone caring for a child understands the strengths and difficulties of that individual child and not what they assume would be their difficulties from their label.

A really good example concerns Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Of course it will be assumed that a child with this label has an ‘attention’ difficulty – it is in the name after all. But actually our research shows that if you ask children with ADHD to complete a range of tasks tapping areas like attention, memory, planning and similar skills, the fewest amount of children have a difficulty in ‘attention’. A lack of concentration can reflect a whole wide range of thinking or other difficulties. It could reflect a memory difficulty – we know that for many children with ADHD information disappears more quickly from their short-term memory than it does for other children. Many of these children have sensory processing difficulties and are hyper sensitive to noises or other sensory information around them. Classes are noisy busy places. It is likely that many children with developmental difficulties are distracted by aspects of their environment they are sensitive to, rather than by an internal ‘attention’ difficulty.  For other children there will be a thinking related attention difficulty. Each child is different. The EPIC approach takes a ‘strengths and difficulties’ perspective where each child is understood as an individual.       

How can the EPIC materials help with identifying what is the underlying difficulty affecting a child? The ‘Understanding’ booklets detail areas of strengths and difficulties to think about and focus on. In our strategy booklet (designed for teachers but it is also suitable for parents) we describe everyday games that can be used to think about what underlies a child’s difficulties. Every day games like connect 4 and snakes and ladders can be useful with this. With connect 4 you can play and see whether a child plans out their moves and whether they have difficulty in taking turns. Being able to think flexibly can also be observed when playing connect 4 by switching the players colour disks between games. Snakes and ladders is also useful for this – play normally and then switch to going down the ladders and up the snakes.

In our booklets we emphasise the importance of talking to a child about their thinking processes. Many children with developmental difficulties don’t have the neurotypical child’s automatic tendency to plan and to use strategies to aid memory.  Psychoeducation can help a child to recognise they need to put strategies in place to help them complete tasks and activities. Parents and teachers can also put strategies in place to aid thinking difficulties and ensure a child can approach and complete a task as best as they can.            

We are currently designing a more general booklet that will be useful for children without a diagnosis. Many children do not have a diagnosis as they are on a waiting list. Others are without a diagnosis as they may not have quite met criteria during assessment. Other children have similar thinking and wellbeing difficulties to those with a diagnosed developmental condition but their difficulties have arisen from a different reason such as having been born premature.  Our approach of taking each child as an individual means that these games and activities are likely useful for children without a diagnostic label.

Of course all children have strengths and difficulties so these booklets can also be used more generally with children. We very much encourage that a whole class approach is taken when learning about thinking processes in school. This can help foster children’s awareness and insight into the limitations inherent in aspects of our thinking like our memory and successful planning and organisation.        

Tomorrow we will blog about pairing knowledge of a child’s difficulties with suitable strategies for facilitating optimal thinking, learning and wellbeing.

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Welcome to the EPIC blog!

We are really pleased to launch our blog ‘Edinburgh Psychoeducation Intervention for Children and Young People’ (EPIC) today!  Our website can be found here with downloadable resources to facilitate thinking, learning and wellbeing in children.

EPIC takes an individualised approach to child development with the aim of facilitating optimal learning, behaviour, well-being and mental health in children and young people. At the heart of the EPIC approach is understanding the individual child’s strengths and difficulties regardless of age, sex, or clinical diagnosis. There is a common saying ‘if you meet one autistic person you have met one autistic person’ – the same applies to other diagnoses such as ADHD and DCD.   We have developed resources for parents and teachers that are available on our website. These resources are suitable for all children and young people, but may be particularly helpful for children with neurodevelopmental difficulties (e.g. ADHD, ASD, DCD/Dyspraxia) and children born prematurely.

During the last few years we have been developing an intervention with children, their parents and teachers. We are currently working with children undergoing ADHD assessment and autistic children. The intervention we have been developing is an 8 week 16 session school and home based intervention. EPIC is focused on psychoeducation involving the child, parent and teacher developing an understanding of the individual child’s strengths and difficulties. We then pair strategies with these difficulties and practice thinking skills using a range of games and activities. In early 2022, we will be extending this work out to children with DCD. In the meantime our resources highlight a lot of our activities with children and young people and can be used by parents and teachers outwith being involved in an intervention.

The booklets contain ideas for how to identify what the individual child’s strengths and difficulties are.  Is there an attention difficulty? Or is the difficulty actually a memory or sensory processing problem that looks like a loss of concentration? Once this understanding is built up, the parent or teacher can use it to inform two key practices – psychoeducation and pairing of strategies to target areas. 

The EPIC blog will include regular posts about child development particularly focusing on thinking and learning skills and wellbeing. Our work is evidence based but importantly posts will be written in a non-academic style to be useful to everyone. Please follow our blog and us on twitter @InformEpic to keep an eye out for our posts.

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