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Child Development and Learning Difficulties



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Education guidelines for children and young people with Williams syndrome

By Admin, on 17 May 2021

Recently, researchers from the Child Development and Learning Difficulties lab at UCL Institute of Education and Mary Immaculate College (Ireland) conducted focus group discussions with parents and educators (e.g. teachers, LSAs, SENCOs) regarding the reality of how schools and staff support learners with WS.


One of the main challenges highlighted by educators was the lack of information available with regards to how individuals with WS can be supported on a day-to-day basis with regards to their learning. Educators noted that, whilst parents were a good source of initial information, there was still a need for concise and easily accessible educational guidelines.


The focus groups also engendered a lot of discussion on what works in the classroom, and specifically what strategies have been used that have been successful in promoting learning in children with Williams syndrome. It was generally agreed that educators and parents alike should:

  • Build upon the strengths and interests of the WS profile and keep the individual child in mind. For example, many children with WS gave an affinity towards music and this music affinity can help them to learn. In addition, many children with WS are eager to please and respond well to praise during teaching.
  • Make the learning physical and concrete rather than abstract, especially when teaching mathematical concepts. Both teachers and parents felt that children were well adept at learning a wide variety of mathematical concepts when incorporating physical objects in the teaching (e.g. teaching addition with toys rather than figures on a worksheet).
  • Always take the child’s sensory needs into account when teaching (is the classroom maybe too loud/ the environment too distractive?)
  • Give the child multiple breaks (whether longer sensory breaks or 1 minute movement breaks) and provide learning in very small bursts of 5-10 minutes.
  • Keep a diary of what works with the individual child and what doesn’t, and that this could be shared with colleagues
  • Include clear communication between school and home: Young people with WS are not always able to clearly communicate what happened at school or home. Yet, events at home or school may impact on their anxiety and ability to learn/ concentrate. Also, parents knowing about what academic topics school is focusing on and how they support their child allows parents to support their child’s learning at home as well.


Overall, it was made clear that according to both parents and educators, education should not only include academic skills but should also include life skills as well as social skills, so that young people with WS may reach their full potential, become as independent as possible and a good quality of life in their adult years.


We would like to thank all of the parent and educators who took part in our focus groups.

Please keep an eye out on the new educational guidelines that we will be publishing by the end of this term (July 2021).


This research is being funded by the Williams Syndrome Foundation with a grant to Jo Van Herwegen


Writing in Williams syndrome: pen or keyboard?

By Admin, on 24 March 2021

Hand-writing is still a core aspect of the national curriculum in the UK. Indeed, the new curriculum, implemented in 2014, focuses even more on hand-writing skills, linking a child’s handwriting to composition and spelling ability. However, other countries such as the USA have dropped handwriting skill from the curriculum as questions have been raised about the importance of hand-writing within a digital age. Think about how often do adults even write with a pen these days and is it not likely that the need to write with a pen will even decrease further when children will grow up?


Writing is a task that requires a number of cognitive processes to come together


One of the arguments put forward as to why handwriting is still important is that handwriting allows children to “feel” the letters and that this ‘learning by doing’ aids children’s spelling abilities.


However, handwriting does not only require complex motor abilities, it is also a complex cognitive skill. When writing with a pen a child engages at least in the following cognitive processes:

1) thinking of the sound they are going to write (verbal working memory)

2) retrieve appropriate visual representation of the sound from memory (visuo-spatial working memory)

3) find appropriate place on paper to start writing (visuo-spatial awareness) whilst remembering to hold the pen correctly (motor skills) and remembering the visual representation of the sound (verbal working memory and visuo-spatial working memory)

4) keep track of how to write the sound (visuo-spatial awareness)

repeat these steps for next sound.


Hence, writing with a pen requires a lot of 1) working memory abilities (processing more than 1 thing/information at the same time in the brain), 2) motor abilities, 3) visuo-spatial abilities. All of these are generally areas of difficulty for children with WS.


In comparison, writing with a keyboard on a computer involves the following:

1) think of sound you are going to write

2) retrieve appropriate visual representation of the sound from memory

3) find appropriate sound on computer (visuo-spatial ability but can memorised) and press button

repeat for next sound.


Therefore, writing with a keyboard limits the amount of cognitive processing (less working memory demands) and minimises motor demands and visuo-spatial demands. This may be beneficial for children with WS, especially when they are asked to write longer texts as even though some children with WS write, their writing can be slow and laborious. In addition, writing longer texts or a story requires children to keep in memory even more information as well as story structure etc, placing an even greater demand on children’s working memory abilities. However, it has been argued that as computers auto-correct and have spell checks, writing with a keyboard may limit children’s spelling abilities. In addition, we can question whether limitations or difficulties, such as handwriting, should be avoided by using a keyboard or receive more attention, practice and support instead.


Writing is important for children: children who read and write more get to develop their language abilities more and better language abilities lead to better writing abilities. However, children who have motor difficulties, as well as working memory and visuo-spatial difficulties, might benefit more from writing with a keyboard than writing with a pen, at least when writing longer texts.

The impact of COVID-19 on anxiety and wellbeing for families of individuals with Special Education Needs and Disabilities in the UK

By Admin, on 26 February 2021

The COVID19 pandemic has affected all of us. However, research has shown that those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and their families are affected more severely.

In our latest research we examined the impact of COVID19 on families of children with special needs (including autism, ADHD, Down syndrome, Williams syndrome, and other neurodevelopmental and genetic disorders).

You can read the full study here: https://psyarxiv.com/gyhd9

Below is an infographic that summarises the results:


Online research with children with neurodevelopmental disorders

By Admin, on 30 November 2020

(image from Williams syndrome Association)

As you may know, the CDLD Lab works very closely with individuals with Williams Syndrome to understand how we can best support their learning and development. Williams syndrome (WS) is a rare genetic disorder, affecting approximately 1 in 18,000 births. Due to the rarity of the disorder, recruitment of individuals with WS for studies conducted in the lab can be difficult. In addition, participants often have to travel long distances  to come to the lab, which makes it a true commitment on their part, but also expensive for research bids. As a result, lab-based studies often include very small numbers of participants with WS which makes it difficult to see how results of these studies apply to other people with WS who have not taken part in the research (although 30 participants can be as much as 5% of the entire population depending on age range, so the problem about small numbers are relative too!).


Long before COVID-19 entered our lives, my colleagues and I started to address these accessibility problems by developing online assessments for individuals with WS, as well as other development disorder groups, such as individuals with Down syndrome and autistic children. Most of these individuals were part of our Transcend study, which explored the transition from primary to secondary school for children aged 11 years old. However, since then we have extended our online assessments for individuals aged from 6 years old, all the way to adulthood.


What does an online assessment with the CDLD lab look like?

In our testing sessions, children sit in front of their computer in their home with the support of their parent or caregiver.  Then one of the researchers from the CDLD lab calls them via Zoom and shares the researcher’s screen with the child. Consent is obtained from the parent or caregiver before the session via email, and child assent is confirmed at the start of the session. While we always ask one parent or caregiver to sit next to the child, this adult is instructed not to repeat the instructions or to look at the screen, as this could give away the correct answer for the child.  Parents are involved by reading out the answer number for the researcher, when the child points at their answer on the screen.


What assessment tests do we use?

In our sessions we cover a wide range of standardised tasks: Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrices (RCPM), British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS), Digit span forward (DF) and Digit span backwards (DB) from the British Ability Scales, Test Reception of Grammar (TROG), as well as the Copying task from the British Ability Scales for the younger participants. We also ask children to complete the Numerical Operation sub-scale from the Wechsler’s Individual Achievement Tests (WIAT). These assessments are often used by practitioners to see how the child with WS or learning difficulties compares to typically developing children of a similar age and can give us further insight into the child’s strengths and difficulties as well as what support the child would benefit from in the classroom. The data we collect either contributes to our research projects or are part of the EHCP support we provide to parents and children in our assessment clinic. All data is securely stored and only accessed by the researchers.


Most of these tests (BPVS, RCPM and TROG) require a child to select a correct answer out of 4 or 6 options on the screen, whilst for DF and DB the researcher reads out numbers and the child needs to repeat them either in the same (DF) or backwards order (DB). For the copying task, we show the child the stimuli on the screen, one-by-one and the child copies them on paper (one piece of paper per stimuli) and then after the assessment session  the adult is asked to take a photo of each of these drawings and email the drawings or to post them to the researcher for scoring. For the WIAT numerical operations we post a record form to the parent but instruct them not to open it (on the back of the envelope it has our name and instruction not to open it).


Here are a few things my team and I have learned along the way:

  • There are no differences between online performance and face-to-face performance for individuals with Williams syndrome on Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrices.
  • For younger children you need to make the instructions much clearer. For example, show the picture of the RCPM first and then the choice options appear on the screen. This is because without being able to point to the missing part, young children fail to understand that there is a piece missing and that they have to find that missing piece from the 6 options. Although thus is slightly different from the in-person standardised instructions, during face-to-face testing the researcher would usually point at the pictures and options and make the difference between the picture and the options explicit as well.
  • For the Numerical Operations task that we post to parents before the session, we ask parents to rip open the envelope in front of the screen so that we can see that the task is new to the child and the child has not been coached or trained on the items.
  • We take a lot more shorter breaks between tasks: we ask the child and parent to switch their camera and sound off (and the researcher does the same) but we remain in the Zoom call to avoid any reconnection issues. This allows the child to have a proper break.
  • Completing the tasks on small screen (phone or tablet) can be tricky so we do ask parents if a laptop or computer is available when we arrange a session.
  • Parents receive an email from us with clear instructions about what to expect in the Zoom call (including number of tasks, who will be on the call, whether call will be recorded, Zoom link details) but we also ask parents to complete a short questionnaire about the child’s abilities and difficulties as well as what the child is interested in so we can establish a relationship with the child much easier.
  • To keep children motivated we tell them we have a mission or puzzle that they need to complete and after each completed task they get a picture that forms part of the puzzle or mission. In other cases, we give the children visual stickers and rewards (short video clips for example to watch).
  • Finally, we sent children a voucher for their time so they can get a real reward for their time and efforts!


Have you used online assessments or been a participant? What worked for you or what would you recommend? Do let us know, you can email j.vanherwegen@ucl.ac.uk

Anti-Bullying week: Bullying in children with SEND

By Admin, on 20 November 2020


by Susanna Mannik,

Bullying is one of the most damaging forms of discrimination and all children can be vulnerable to bullying for a variety of reasons.

However, learners with special educational needs (SEN) may be bullied for a range of additional reasons (e.g. because they look or act differently). The phrase ‘special educational needs’ covers a broad range of conditions (including, for example, autism spectrum disorders, learning disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) (DSCF, 2008), which call for special educational provision to be made for the learner (Department of Education, 2015).


There is considerable amount of evidence confirming that children with SEN are significantly more likely to be bullied or victimised by their peers. Chatzitheochari and colleagues (Chatzitheochari et al., 2016) analysed nationally representative data from two renowned longitudinal studies, which allowed them to examine the prevalence of school bullying in early childhood (age 7) and adolescence (age 15). The results of their study suggest that children and young people with SEN were at a higher risk of bullying victimisation at both time points.

Additionally, various studies have suggested that bullying may have been experienced by 83% of children with learning difficulties (or eight out of ten) (Luciano and Savage, 2007 and Mencap, 2007). Furthermore, 70% of children with autistic spectrum disorders combined with other characteristics (for example, OCD) were shown to be victims of bullying in the study by Bejerot and Mortberg (2009), and 94% of parents of children with Asperger Syndrome reported that their child had been bullied in the previous 12 months (Little, 2002).



There is evidence for both direct and indirect bullying against children with SEN. Woods and White (2005) have defined direct bullying behaviour as hitting, kicking or taking belongings, and indirect or relational bullying as causing harm through the manipulation of social relations by name calling, spreading rumours and social exclusion. In a study by Mooney and Smith (1995), 59% of the people with speech difficulties had been physically bullied as children, and 56% of respondents had experienced the spreading of rumours. However, children with SEN may, in some instances, be affected by a different kind of bullying involving ridicule, manipulation and name-calling (Moore, 2009).

Pupils with SEN can also be at a higher risk in relation to cyberbullying, which is becoming more prevalent with the increased use of technology. Cyberbullying is bullying via electronic means and can take a wide range of forms, such as threats, intimidation, namecalling, harassment, exclusion, posting personal information, etc. (Anti-bullying Alliance, 2020). In a study by Didden et al. (2009), victimization and bullying via the internet and cellphone were found to be relatively prevalent in students with developmental disabilities. Additionally, Beatbullying found in their Virtual Violence II report (2012) that those who reported having SEN were 12% more likely to have experienced cyberbullying than those who did not.


All pupils with SEN may have certain characteristics that can make them more vulnerable to bullying.

Deficits in social competence and communication have emerged as key issues in the bullying of pupils with SEN (Mclaughlin et al., 2010a). An analysis by Kavale and Forness (1996) demonstrated the presence of social skills deficits in 75% of the children with learning disabilities. Social competence comprises various domains, including social cognition, which is the ability to spontaneously read and correctly interpret verbal and nonverbal social and emotional cues, as well as the knowledge of different social behaviors and their consequences in social tasks (e.g., how to initiate a conversation, how to negotiate needs). This can be especially problematic for some children with SEN and may result in inappropriate social behaviour (Bauminger et al., 2005).

Other characteristics of children with SEN that are associated with an increased risk of peer victimization include academic as well as language difficulties (for example pupils with dyslexia). Being aware of these difficulties can damage the self-esteem of pupils with SEN and make them vulnerable to being teased (Singer, 2005) and this may lead to children with SEN being ‘less accepted and more rejected’ by their peers than other children (Mclaughlin et al., 2010b).

Additionally, it has been argued that children with SEN are at an increased risk of bullying because they are absent from school more often (Moore, 2009), which can reduce their opportunities for forming meaningful friendships that may protect them against being bullied (Savage, 2005).


Bullying interventions and prevention strategies often take the form of anti-bullying policies and/or school-wide educational programmes. School-wide programmes aim to change the attitudes and behaviours in teachers, students, as well as parents. In general, the literature has found that these programmes are most useful in the reduction of bullying (Foody & Samara, 2018).

Teachers are in the front line in terms of implementing school policies on bullying and dealing with incidents if they occur, however, there is good reason to also involve parents in bullying prevention. Parents can have an important role in working together with teachers, supporting anti-bullying initiatives, and liaising with schools if they have concerns about a child’s behaviour (Axford et al., 2015).


General advice related to bullying:

Raise awareness of the phenomena, and promote knowledge about bullying and victimization in pupils (De Luca et al., 2019).
Increase skills and competences on the effective ways to intervene after a bullying episode and gain training in conflict resolution (Ttofi & Farrington 2011).

Establish firm disciplinary sanctions against students who bully (Ttofi & Farrington, 2011). Develop techniques together with pupils in detecting and dealing with bullying behaviour (Axford et al., 2015).
Encourage teacher-parent relationships using strategies that include the sharing of information with parents on bullying policy and incident procedures, and training/advice for parents (Langford et al., 2014).

In guidances produced by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (2018; 2020), additional tips have been highlighted:

In the event of bullying in children with SEN, action should be taken at once if it is to be meaningful, as some learners will struggle to remember details of an incident several days later. Some learners with SEN and disabilities cannot recognise bullying behaviour nor identify the child who is using bullying behaviour. In such circumstances, work with bystanders and ongoing proactive work will be most productive.

Provide support groups of peers in school; buddy group, friendship groups etc.
In relation to cyberbullying, children and young people with SEN, should be taught how to use the internet and new technologies safely and responsibly to prevent cyberbullying. Helping young people develop into responsible digital citizens who can look after themselves, and their peers and get the most out of technology is the best counter to cyberbullying.



Welcome to the CDLD Blog

By Admin, on 8 October 2020

The CDLD Blog

Welcome to the Child Development and Learning Difficulties (CDLD) blog.  This blog is a forum for staff, students, alumni and guests to write about and around CDLDs thematic areas of research and engagement.

Our focus areas

CDLD focuses on research that supports children’s learning and educational practice. Our blogs relate to a wide range of aspects related to children’s development and education, each underpinned by research and evidence of best practice. These include:

  • Development in individuals with Williams syndrome
  • Supporting children with SEND in the classroom
  • Mathematical development in the early years
  • Educational technologies and apps

On each of these pages you can find some useful resources for you to download for free.

We also publish regular newsletters about activities at the CDLD lab. You can find our newsletters here: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/cdld/cdld-newsletters/