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Countering educational disengagement after childhood acquired brain injury

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  • Full or part time
    Dr N Hughes
    Dr Sue Morris
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

A pediatric acquired brain injury (ABI) is sudden damage caused to the functioning brain during childhood, and not as the result of congenital disorders or birth trauma. ABI can therefore occur due to: traumatic brain injury (TBI); brain tumour; haemorrhage; viral infection; or lack of oxygen to the brain. ABI can result in a number of potential impairments and developmental difficulties that subsequently impact on aspects of functioning and behaviour. These include deficits in cognitive skills, including memory problems, poor concentration, problem solving skills, or social or pragmatic communication. ABI can also impact upon socio-emotional functioning and behaviour, including impulse control, irritability, regulating aggressive responses, the ability to respond appropriately to other people’s emotions, anxiety and withdrawal. There may also be resultant physical difficulties, including headaches, fatigue and chronic pain. Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to the affects of ABI due to the on-going development of the brain.

The relationships between symptoms resulting from ABI and potential challenges in engaging effectively in education are clear. Fatigue, concentration and regulation of behaviour may affect a child’s ability to function in the classroom. Cognitive, executive functioning and communication skills directly influence the ability to learn. Young people who have experienced ABI may therefore have specific needs and learning styles that should be responded to.

The timing of ABI can also be crucial to its influence. For example, impairments causing difficulties with learning prior to the age of 8 can lead to subsequent challenges in engaging with further stages of education. ‘For boys in particular, this is often a time... when externalising behaviour difficulties becomes apparent in the classroom.’ (Snow and Powell, 2012: 2) A potential association between early difficulties in engaging with education due to impairment and subsequent classroom misbehaviour is therefore apparent.

Particular difficulties may also become apparent as young people transition from primary into secondary education, when the shift from the more nurturing environment of primary school to a secondary school that places significant academic, organizational and social demands on the student can be particularly challenging. TBI may affect parts of the brain associated with higher cognitive functions, and this may only be fully realized when the child reaches an age at which such functions are assumed to be developed and are called upon in the classroom. If TBI has inhibited the development of such skills, the young person may suddenly begin to struggle to effectively engage. What’s more, the cause of this difficulty may not be attributed to an earlier head injury from which the young person appears to have recovered.

ABI is a ‘hidden disability’ in that the changing symptoms and difficulties for a young person are not always easy to spot or their cause obvious. Without an appropriate awareness of ABI and its myriad of potential influences on functioning and behaviour, appropriate support may not be offered. A school’s failure to identify and respond to the learning needs resulting from ABI may be the origin of potential disengagement with education. It may also be directly implicated in the onset of problem behaviour. Without an awareness of an underlying cognitive or emotional deficit, classroom misbehaviour may simply be interpreted as an attitudinal or behavioural problem, with the root cause unaddressed. This may result in inappropriate labels and interventions.

This association between ABI and educational disengagement provides the context for this doctoral research, offering a wide range of potential lines of enquiry. There is a need to learn from the educational experiences of young people following ABI, in particular those who have been excluded from mainstream education and are now receiving specialist support. There is a need to work with schools to support effective means to recognise the signs and symptoms of ABI, and to develop and evaluate appropriate practices and interventions to support young people after assessment. This includes the need for effective collaboration between educational services and providers of specialist support following ABI. There are also a growing number of examples of good practice, in both mainstream and specialist education, and there is the potential to access and evaluate these settings. The planned doctoral project therefore offers great scope for a student to develop their own interests based on their own expertise and interests.

Funding Notes

This studentship is fully funded through an ESRC Collaborative Studentship and supported by the Child Brain Injury Trust

For further information on Dr Hughes' work in this area please visit the following webpages:
- https://bham.academia.edu/NathanHughes/
- http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/social-policy/departments/social-policy-social-work/research/projects/2013/applying-neuroscience-to-social-policy-and-the-law.aspx

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FTE Category A staff submitted: 34.50

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