Psychology research and evidence base

Last updated: 10th May 2020

COVID19 & the impact on schools: an emerging evidence base

There is, of course, no pre-existing evidence base to inform our understanding of the impact of this unfolding pandemic. However, educational psychologists are evidence-informed practitioners, with research skills that contribute to the evidence base in applied psychology as well as drawing from it. As initial research is emerging in the field of educational psychology during the course of this event, we will post relevant reports here.

May 2020: A rapid literature review of how to support the psychological well-being of school staff during and after Covid-19

This work was undertaken by Trainee Educational Psychologists at the University of Birmingham. The work was commissioned by Dudley Educational Psychology Service. The blog post with a summary of main findings is available on this link. 

April 2020: Catalyst Psychology School Staff Survey

This staff survey was undertaken primarily to inform the work of our organisation (Catalyst Psychology CIC) during the summer term 2020. We wanted to identify how school staff were feeling and what their priorities were in terms of the needs of staff and pupils during the COVID19 school closures. The level of engagement with the survey was surprising in terms of the speed and number of responses, the length and content of responses, and the apparent sense that school staff welcomed this opportunity to explain how they felt: “Thank you for this opportunity to share thoughts and concerns”. This initial report is based on analysis of 78 responses received within the first 72 hours of circulation of the survey.

Download the initial research report here.

 

This week we have been thinking about...

Promoting help-seeking

Research summary by Ruby Noble (ruby@catalystpsych.co.uk)

With discussions about potential school reopening dates and plans beginning to emerge in the news, school staff have raised concerns about what this will look like and how this will be done safely. Putting structures in place to support the mental health of staff, students and the school community during uncertainty and change is important in developing and maintaining resiliency skills, and as resiliency is often community-focused, identifying support structures within your community and existing relationships that can be accessed when needed is worth taking time to do. This has been reflected in several documents published recently. In April 2020, UNICEF published a framework for reopening schools which contained a section about wellbeing and protection steps and considerations. The British Psychological Society has also released guidance about the importance of help-seeking in the school community, making suggestions about how staff can help one another and ensure that everybody is supported and has their views and opinions heard (BPS, 2020). During times of stress, talking to people in your community whom you already have developed relationships with has a number of benefits including feeling a sense of relief, developing a closer bond with the other person and experiencing empathy and compassion (Savva, 2015). Both having a sense of belonging in a community and receiving support from people in those communities have been found to be significant protective factors that promote resilience (Werner, 1993). A common concern that people have is that if they share their worries with others it will negatively impact them, but sharing and discussing your feelings and coping mechanisms with family and friends is mutually beneficial (Public Health England, 2020).

 

References

Duffield & O’Hare (2020). Teacher resilience during coronavirus school closures. Article published by the British Psychological Society.

Public Health England (2020). Guidance for the public on the mental health and wellbeing aspects of coronavirus (COVID-19). https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-for-the-public-on-mental-health-and-wellbeing/guidance-for-the-public-on-the-mental-health-and-wellbeing-aspects-of-coronavirus-covid-19

Savva (2015). We all need somebody to lean on. https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/memberarticles/we-all-need-somebody-to-lean-on

UNICEF (2020). Framework for reopening schools.

Werner (1993). Risk, resilience, and recovery: Perspectives from the Kauai Longitudinal Study. Development and Psychopathology. A summary of the study’s key findings can be found here: https://www.pathwaysrtc.pdx.edu/pdf/fpS0504.pdf (Werner, 2005. Resilience and recovery: Finding from the Kauai longitudinal study. Research, Policy, and Practice in Children’s Mental Health)

6th May: Boosting our immune systems (healthy diet and enough sleep)

Research summary by Lucy Thompson (lucy@catalystpsych.co.uk)

Eating a balanced diet can help keep our bodies and minds healthy and certain food groups are known to affect your body and mood in specific ways. Proteins, such as eggs, white meats and pulses can slow the absorption of carbohydrates in your blood and increase dopamine levels, improving your mood. However, eating high amounts of refined sugar, such as fizzy drinks and sweets, can cause glucose levels in the blood to spike and then drop and in turn doing the same to dopamine levels (Thornley, 2011). This can cause crashes in mood and adverse effects on energy levels, and can lead to over-eating (Baptista et al., 2004). Food which contain Vitamins D and B-12, a vitamin that aids absorption of Vitamin D in the body, can also improve mood, and can be found in things like soy milk, broccoli, oatmeal, oranges and greens. Vitamin D helps to support a healthy immune system and helps us to fight off infections (Kikuta & Ishii, 2015). There are also good carbs, such as oats, beans and peas and these slow down sugar absorption and increase serotonin, which can decrease mood swings.

Physical exercise is important and beneficial, but it is also important to make sure you choose an activity that you feel comfortable and safe doing. Consistent Exercise that we enjoy puts a positive stress on the body. In turn this releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is released when we feel put under pressure or stressed. By exercising we allow our bodies to adjust to small levels of cortisol so that it learns how to adapt, and in turn helping us and our immune systems to manage stressful situations (Corazza et al., 2014; Hegberg, 2015). Studies have also shown that it may help us feel more awake after a nights’ sleep (Kovac et al., 2020). It also stimulates the production of endorphins such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, chemicals in the brain that play a large part in managing your mood throughout the day (Seaward, 2014).

27th April: Green Care

Research summary by Beverley Tyrrell (beverley@catalystpsych.co.uk)

This week I looked into the research about exercise and getting outside. It has been found that children tend to be less active, and their fitness levels usually decrease, during the summer holidays. Keen to avoid this impact in lockdown, a variety of fitness videos have been made available online. Our favourite, ‘PE with Joe’ on YouTube (daily family-friendly workouts) typically have over 1 million views. The Royal College of Psychiatrists have helpfully complied research (https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/improving-care/working-sustainably/green-care) which shows the benefits, both of exercising, and of being outside. Exercise, for example, has been found to promote positive behaviour and the wellbeing of children with autism and ADHD. I was also interested to learn that spending time outside can improve symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression. In addition to the research, the website above links to suggestions for engaging with nature at different levels – from looking out a window, to walking the dog, to gardening. Thinking about all this reminded me of child I worked with last year who, when asked what they thought might help them manage feelings of anxiety, suggested they run a quick lap of the playground. They were definitely onto something!

The wide range of papers on this subject includes research into horticultural therapy and the benefits of animal assisted therapy. You can download a list of papers here.

You might be interested in 'how to take a nature based history' using this schedule here.

20th April: Positive Psychology

Research summary by Ruby Noble (ruby@catalystpsych.co.uk)

In January 2000 a special issue of the American Psychologist journal was published that introduced the idea of Positive Psychology. Guest editors Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi felt that Psychology as a profession was increasingly focusing on mental ill health and related treatments but wasn’t looking at “the factors that allow individuals, communities and societies to flourish” (page 5; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). They called for more focus on and research into the positive events and influences in peoples’ lives. Thousands of studies have since taken place about the benefits of Positive Psychology (too many to summarise here), but here is a selection of some of those findings.

  • People who have networks of happy friends, family and significant others are themselves significantly more likely to be happy in the future (Fowler & Christakis, 2008).
  • Optimism is a predictive factor of good physical health (Rasmussen, Scheier & Greenhouse, 2009).
  • Adolescents who build connections to others and to purposes larger than themselves show higher levels of well-being (Gillham, 2011).
  • Students who performed acts of kindness for their peers reported improved well-being and increased peer acceptance (Layous, Nelson, Oberle, Schonert-Reichl & Lyubomirsky, 2012).
  • Recalling positive experiences leads to increased generosity (Aknin, Dunn & Norton, 2011).

 

References

Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/ppintroarticle.pdf

Fowler & Christakis (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. https://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/337/bmj.a2338.full.pdf

Rasmussen, Scheier & Greenhouse (2009). Optimism and physical health: A meta-analytic review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2941870/

Gillham et al. (2011). Character strengths predict subjective well-being during adolescence. https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/cspredictwb.pdf

Layous, Nelson, Oberle, Schonert-Reichl & Lyubomirsky (2012). Kindness counts: Promoting prosocial behaviour in preadolescents boosts peer acceptance and well-being. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3530573/

Aknin, Dunn & Norton (2011). Happiness runs in a circular motion: Evidence for a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and happiness. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lara_Aknin/publication/225565137_Happiness_Runs_in_a_Circular_Motion_Evidence_for_a_Positive_Feedback_Loop_Between_Prosocial_Spending_and_Happiness/links/0c96053555667b6049000000/Happiness-Runs-in-a-Circular-Motion-Evidence-for-a-Positive-Feedback-Loop-Between-Prosocial-Spending-and-Happiness.pdf

5th April: The importance of play

If adults played more maybe they wouldn’t be as stressed all the time

In 2019 the British Psychological Society published a position paper on “Children’s Right to Play” which explains why play is important to all aspects of children’s development. Many schools are developing as Rights Respecting Schools using principles from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). In 2013 the UNCRC defined play as “behaviour initiated, controlled and structured by children, as non-compulsory, driven by intrinsic motivation, not a means to an end and that it has key characteristics of fun, uncertainty, challenge, flexibility and non-productivity.” According to educational psychologists, “the importance of children being able to play without intrusive adult controls or structure has been recognised as an important factor in promoting lifelong attributes,  such as resilience and flexibility and the development and maintenance of children’s social relationships.” (Mannello, Casey & Atkinson, 2019).

Here, with some help from Michael Rosen, children explain why play is important:

There is clearly a challenge in the current circumstances of the required "lockdown" to find ways to enable children to play and to maintain play-based social relationships with their friends. We have put a number of suggestions together on our webpages: support for adults and support for children.

27th March: Teenagers and adolescence

Research summary by Lucy Thompson (lucy@catalystpsych.co.uk)

The importance of social interaction and the adolescent brain.

Adolescence is a time characterized by change – hormonally, physically, psychologically and socially. Until recently, the adolescent brain is one that was neglected by empirical research studies. However, in the past decade, research has shown that the brain develops both structurally and functionally during adolescence (Dumontheil, 2015). After puberty, the brain does not mature by growing larger; it matures by growing more specialized.

A new study in mice reveals that a lack of social interaction during adolescence has lasting consequences in adulthood. This supports the idea that social experience sculpts the brain during adolescence. To explore this further it is important to look at research on social cognition. Social cognition focuses on how people process, store and apply information about other people and social situations.

Social cognition is thought to show prolonged changes during adolescence. A wide network of brain regions have now consistently shown to be used during social cognition (Blakemore, 2012). These regions form the “social brain”. One way to explore brain activity during social cognition is to use mentalising tasks. These tasks involve reading other’s actions, gestures and expressions in an attempt to work out what they are thinking and feeling, and what they may do next.

Developmental research has typically focused on early developmental stage of the understanding. However, using novel paradigms, studies using mentalising tasks have shown that there are higher levels of brain activity in adolescents than adults. While performance improves from mid-childhood until mid-adolescence in a regular trajectory, the mid-adolescent group made more errors in comparison to adults (Blakemore, 2012). These results suggest that the ability to take another person's perspective to direct appropriate behaviour is still undergoing development at this relatively late stage. In addition, evidence from social psychology studies shows substantial changes in social competence and social behaviour during adolescence (Somerville, 2014).

What might this mean for our young people?

Research suggests that adolescence is a key time for the development of regions of the brain involved in social cognition and self-awareness, as well as in problem solving and abstract thinking (Blakemore, 2015). Social isolation has been shown to cause biases in decision-making later in life. Habit-based behaviours can lead to addiction, and both humans and animals who have suffered early adversity have been shown to be prone to habit-based behaviours (Hinton et al., 2019). With this in mind it is essential that young people are regularly communicating with their peers in order for them to successfully develop these mentalising skills. Whilst young people can not attend school at the present time, we must find other ways for them to communicate.

References

Hinton E et. al., "Social isolation in adolescence disrupts cortical development and goal-dependent decision making in adulthood, despite social reintegration (2019)- https://www.eneuro.org/content/6/5/ENEURO.0318-19.2019

Blakemore S, Development of the social brain (2012)- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3308644/

Dumontheil I, Development of the social brain during adolescence (2015)- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1135755X15000172

Somerville L, Special issue on the teenage brain: Sensitivity to social evaluation (2014)- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3992953/

20th March: Resilience

We don't know much about pandemics, but we do know that resilience can be helped by promoting:

  • A sense of safety
  • Calming
  • Sense of self- and collective- efficacy
  • Connectedness
  • Hope

We are making it our mission to promote resilience as best we can by following these principles and helping others to do so too. This is the research paper: Five Essential Elements of Immediate and Mid-term Mass Trauma: Empirical Evidence, Hobfoll et al.



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