Early-warning system detects pupil mental health risks

By Dr Simon Walker, STEER education, 5.10.2015

On the eve of its annual meeting, the headmasters’ and headmistresses’ conference (hmc), which represents the country’s most famous schools, including eton, harrow and westminster, gave the sunday times exclusive figures from a survey of 65 of its schools. These showed that independent school pupils were kinder to others than themselves. However, they also acknowledged pupil mental health significant concerns:

  • more than 85% of them were concerned about the amount of depression among their pupils, an 85% increase on the proportion five years ago; 42% said it was a “significant” concern, compared to 12% in 2010
  • a 57% increase in schools reporting self-harm as a problem and a 65% jump in the number worried by the amount of pupils with eating disorders.

Sunday Times Article

Dr simon walker, research director at STEER education, anticipated a growing pupil mental health problem back in 2011, and began research to develop a technology to measure, track and improve pupil self-regulation- a key component of good mental health. The technology, launched in september 2015, is called as tracking- which stands for affective (emotional) social.

The critical factor of self-regulation

Since the 1990s, academic research has repeatedly shown that a pupil’s affective-social self-regulation is critical for both a pupil’s learning but more importantly, for mental health and wellbeing. Pupils who can self-regulate show better resilience, social competence and resourcefulness.

The research team was co-led by jo walker, an experienced besd advisor and former deputy head, and her goal was to develop a system both rigorous but also practical for schools. “my experience as a local authority advisor showed me that teachers value clear, practical guidance as to how to better support pupil’s self-regulation, with targeted strategies, that can be implemented within the school environment.”

As part of her doctoral research into as tracking at the university of winchester, jo walker extensively researched four key factors of a pupil’s self-regulation: their self-disclosure, their trust of them self; their trust of others; their seeking of change. Robust academic literature reviews underpin each of these four as tracking factors, with our own papers published here.

Obtaining accurate self-regulation data

One obstacle to be overcome was how to measure pupil self-regulation itself, rather than a pupil’s report of their self-regulation. The research team found traditional pupil surveys dangerously suggestive, including questions like ‘i feel like i want to harm myself’. Many pupils are also reluctant to admit to such feelings in ‘named surveys’, whilst anonymous questionnaires fail to identify which pupil are at risk.

To overcome these obstacles, the research team, lead by psychologist and psychometric author dr simon walker, developed a pioneering technology which tests how a pupil is actually self-regulating across 16 different scenarios, without asking any leading, probing or suggestive questions. The proprietary test is deployed online and a combination of a pupil’s speed, response patterns and orientation to neutral scenarios are computed by our complex as tracking algorithm, to provide eight early-indicators of the pupil’s self-regulation risks.

Developing the as tracking algorithm has taken four major quantitative studies, with more than 11,000 pupils across 25 primary and secondary schools in the uk, over 4 years. Using advanced machine-learning techniques to analyse more than 4 million data points, from 80,000 trials, researchers from a leading global bioinformatics department were able to refine the accuracy, insight and reliability of the as tracking algorithm. The most recent studies have shown that the as tracking algorithm is 82% accurate in predicting a pupil’s hidden welfare risks of self harm, or bullying or not coping with pressure at school.

Improving self-regulation

Once the researchers had developed the early-indicator technology, they set about developing the mechanism by which teachers could intervene to improve the self-regulation of pupils identified as at risk. Cognitive psychologists and teachers worked together to write and design strategies that could be practically implemented by teachers within school. The result is the interactive pupil as tracking action planning tool; teachers can use this to identify a pupil at risk, build a bespoke action plan and email to tutors or colleagues around the pupil, fast and securely. More than 100 teachers took part in trials to refine and improve the action planning tool, and more than 150 have now been trained to use the as tracking action plans, which take typically only about 7 minutes/pupil to write and sit alongside pupil welfare plans.

Evidencing impact

The final challenge for the r&d team was to develop the means by which teachers could evidence the impact of the action planning strategies. Drawing on her experience developing a whole school besd tracking tool across oxfordshire la in 2008, jo walker designed the tracking tool in as tracking, by which teachers can evidence the impact that intervention strategies have had on pupil self-regulation over the year.

Studies have shown that in one school, 8/10 as tracking action plans improved pupil self-regulation over an 18 month period reducing the school’s welfare risks and increasing its capacity to develop emotionally healthy pupils who are able to make wise, pro-social choices.

Ongoing research

Human ecology education performs continuous trials to improve the reliability and accuracy of as tracking. Since its launch, client schools are invited to submit their data for ongoing research purposes, which are analysed to provide greater understanding of pupil self-regulation.

Dr simon and jo walker have been invited to deliver workshops for the british psychological society on as tracking in april and october 2016. Details will shortly be available on the bps web site.