How neuroscientists and educators can build a better partnership

ePhotographyAustralia, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
ePhotographyAustralia, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Lauren Vega O’Neil and Eric Pakulak, researchers at the University of Oregon’s Brain Development Lab, discuss ways to foster successful neuroscientist-educator collaboration.

Meeri Kim: Your lab has been conducting collaborative projects with educators. Can you tell me about your latest project?

Lauren Vega O’Neil: In a previous study, we developed an 8-week, family-based training program called Parents and Children Making Connections Highlighting Attention (PCMC-A), which focused on improving the selective attention skills of preschool children from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds. We found a pattern of positive results, so for our latest project, we decided to move this intervention into preschool classrooms. In this new study, children enrolled in Head Start – a U.S. program that promotes school readiness of children from low-income families – participated in small-group activities at school called “The Brain Train” which were designed to improve regulation of attention and emotion states.

We started with basic things like “What is your brain, and what does it do?” From there, we taught the children how to focus on emotion regulation, as in calming themselves down, and self-regulate the language they use to express their emotions. A lot of the activities were packaged as fun games. The teachers loved having these ready-made activities that would help them long-term in the classroom.

Then later in the school year, parents attended eight weekly 2-hour small-group classes in the evenings or on weekends that targeted family stress regulation, parental responsiveness and language use, and facilitation of child attention. Parents are now using the same practices that teachers do and are thus increasing stability in the child’s home, creating an exponential benefit.

Eric Pakulak: For the children, we documented improvements in selective attention, improvements in social skills, reductions in problem behaviors, and improvements in standardized measures of language and IQ. We also saw reductions in parenting stress and more favorable interactions between parents and their children during a play session.

MK: Could you talk about some of the challenges that you experienced during the study in terms of neuroscientist-educator collaboration?

LV: I worked mostly with teachers in classrooms during the study, and many of them jumped on board right away. But there was some pushback, particularly since some teachers saw this as yet another curriculum that they were being asked to implement. They already had Second Step, which is a research-based social-emotional learning program, as well as the Teaching Strategies GOLD assessment system that they were trying to target as their standards. So they just saw our training program as something else that was being asked of them.

EP: But once teachers saw that the training was working, they came back to the mid-year training check-in sessions and said things like: “My goodness! Wow, my classroom is a less stressful place as compared to before the training.”

“Researchers need to make an effort to listen to educators. It needs to be a truly bi-directional collaboration.”

On top of that, we were lucky enough to get some press coverage and to be featured on a TV program called “School of the Future.” We had a viewing party for all the teachers with popcorn. All of these things combined with the efforts of Lauren and our intervention team – working so closely with teachers and giving them support – led to a turnaround in terms of buy-in.

MK: Do you have any advice for others that are planning similar collaborative projects? What would you say to them? 

LV: I would say, try to integrate yourselves as much as you can into each other’s institutions. We were lucky enough to have a relationship of over ten years with Head Start, but when we started this intervention, we still didn’t have a complete understanding of each other’s organizations.

It’s vital to the success of the program to establish standards, set out how you’re going to clearly communicate with each other, and maintain contact.

EP: I agree with all of that. What I might add, also based on conversations I’ve had with other folks doing similar work, is that researchers need to make an effort to listen to educators. It needs to be a truly bi-directional collaboration. We had a year-long developmental phase for this project, and a lot of the changes we made in terms of research design were not just ideas coming from the Brain Development Lab. They came from collaborative discussions and joint work meetings with both educators and researchers.

Unfortunately, it seems to be all too common that researchers come in and don’t listen as much as they should to educators, thinking that it should be all about neuroscience, and only using education to implement what they know, as opposed to something more bi-directional. Instead, we need to work together and really understand the ways that the experience of teachers and administrators can inform our work.

Lauren Vega O’Neil is licensed teacher with ten years of general education and ESL experience, and five years of higher ed teaching and teacher training. She has served and supported vulnerable populations for over 15 years, through teaching and research. Lauren is a PhD candidate at the University of Oregon. Her research involves studying socio-economic influences on learning and intervention work that promotes social, cognitive, and affective competence in children involving the neuroplasticity of selective attention, self-regulation and emotional awareness. She helped adapt PCMC-A for educators and has delivered PCMC-A’s child training “Brain Train” and the Creating Connections teacher training.

Eric Pakulak is an Associate Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Stockholm University and the acting director of the Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon. His primary research interests concern the plasticity of neurobiological systems important for language, attention, and self-regulation, and the effects of early adversity and early training programs on these systems and related behaviors. The current focus of his research is the development, refinement, and implementation of evidence-based training programs that simultaneously target at-risk children and their parents.

The IMBES Conference
The purpose of the biannual IMBES Conference is to facilitate cross-cultural collaborations in biology, education and the cognitive and developmental sciences. Our objectives are to improve the state of knowledge in and dialogue between education, biology, and the developmental and cognitive sciences; create and develop resources for scientists, practitioners, public policy makers, and the public; and create and identify useful information, research directions, and promising educational practices. The 2018 conference took place in Los Angeles, California.

The interviewees, Lauren Vega O’Neil and Eric Pakulak, were among the presenters at the conference.

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