Storm Doris: Do windy days wind children up?

This is a perennial topic for the staff room or playground duty and this week many a veteran was predicting that the sting winds brought by storm Doris would  lead to some challenging behaviour. 

But is there any evidence that high winds do affect children’s behaviour? I’ve often wondered and a took the opportunity to collect some data on wind speed (published by the nearest weather station) and the behaviour incidents logged at our school over the last two school weeks, one of which featured lower wind speeds, the other higher speeds as Doris passed over the UK. 


I’m not sure what that shows, and it isn’t a lot of data, but It doesn’t look like any kind of convincing correlation. On the other hand it isn’t a precise measure (‘incident’ covers everything from homework not handed in to having to be removed from a lesson). Another interesting point is the positive side of behaviour – we gave out 12% more achievement points in the Doris week than when wind speeds were low. As for every week the, the number of achievements recorded exceeded the behaviour incidents, with teachers giving out over ten times as many positive achievement points as negative behaviour ones.

In Oxford we were only on the southern edge of the storm, maybe the effect would be greater further north. Anyone want to share some data? 

 
What does published research tell us?


I had a brief look at the range of research on this topic (incidentally, best to avoid typing ‘wind’ and ‘children’ into a search engine unless you’re researching flatulence). There are several ideas as to how high winds could affect behaviour including change in air pressure associated with storm fronts, extra-low-frequency atmospheric pressure oscillations,  increased sensory stimulation, and an increase in positively charged ions. I didn’t explore this last one because the ions are created by hot, dry winds and that doesn’t apply to February in the UK.

Bill Badger and Eric O’Hare of The University of Lankester researched the effect of weather on the behaviour of students at a secondary school in Cumbria in 1989. They found that behaviour was affected by weather but by changes in the prevailing conditions, rather than the type of weather itself. You can read the abstract here. In a US preschool study in 1990, Eva Essa, Hilton & Murray found that stormy, unsettled weather caused children, especially girls, to interact more with other people than toys (abstract here and paper free if you sign up). A small lab-study by Delyukov and Didyk in 1999 showed that artificially produced pressure oscillations reduced attention. Lovely controlled conditions (abstract here) but a long way from Year 9 on a windy wet  Wednesday lunchtime.

So, research suggests that changes in weather and atmospheric pressure do affect children (and adults), but there isn’t a clear link to increases in ‘wild’ behaviour at school.

If you’re interested in involving students in the topic the Met Office have produced a maths investigation for use with their Weather Observation Website.

Making the most of working memory capacity

“My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer.” That’s how psychologist George Miller began his groundbreaking account of short term memory capacity in 1956 (read his original paper here). That integer was 7, the “magic number” that kept appearing in research on our ability to process incoming information. 

Short term memory stores information collected from our senses. This may be transferred to our long term memory, or may be lost. From his own research and that of others, Miller concluded that the capacity of our short-term memory is limited to 7 +/- 2 items. The reason why we lose some information before it can be transferred to our long term memory is usually because it is displaced by new incoming information. 

Cognitive psychologists Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch then developed the model of a simple memory store into the concept of working memory, but the principle of a limited capacity remains. Teachers need to be aware of this in presenting students with new subject content. A feeling of being overwhelmed by new information isn’t because our brain is ‘full’ but rather because the capacity of our working memory to process new information is being exceeded. An understanding of the limits of working memory can help teachers plan accessible learning activities for all students and also recognise those who have poor working memory.

In general, we should think about how much information is presented at once and how many items, or instructions in a sequence, students have to recall without prompts in order to complete a task. Most of us would struggle beyond 7 for an unfamiliar task, and some students will not readily recall this many. Examples where teachers should consider this in the design of resources and tasks include:

  • The layout of presentation slides and the number of items on each
  • The number of options or menu items in electronic / online resources
  • The layout of activity sheets – how much information is presented at once
  • The number of steps or stages in a sequence of instructions. Should some steps be broken down further into sub-stages?
  • The number of verbal instructions, repetition, and availability of non-verbal memory aids.
  • What assumptions do instructions for practical activities make about students’ recollection of previous routines?
  • How much do students have to remember in order to complete homework?

Much of this would be considered good advise for general planning. We have to give additional consideration for children who may have more limited working memory capacity.

Characteristics of children with poor working memory (Susan Gathercole)

  • Children have good social skills but may be quiet or reserved in collaborative learning activities.
  • May appear forgetful, inattentive or easily distracted in class
  • May not follow through instructions or complete tasks
  • Forget key content of messages, instructions or homework

If you’re like me, when reading that list you will recall children you teach who have these characteristics. It is well worth considering that the ‘inattentive’ or ‘distracted’ child may be experiencing difficulties with working memory. This can often result in poor academic progress over time. Research has focussed on reading and mathematics, but other areas of study are also likely to be affected. 

On recognising these signs, there are a number of things that teachers can do to help students, including:

  • Reducing the working memory load by decreasing the number of items that need to be remembered at one time, particularly by restructuring complex tasks
  • increasing the meaningfulness of new material by placing it in context and the familiarity by making explicit links with prior learning and similar information of tasks that the student has encountered before
  • Repeating key information frequently, using different formats
  • Using memory aids as appropriate for the student, these could include key vocabulary, visual scripts, framing tools to break down tasks into stages, number lines or grids, literacy  place mats, etc.
  • Helping the child to develop specific strategies such as devising their own memory aids, confidence in asking for help, ‘3 before me’ resourcefulness strategies ( e.g. ‘Brain, book, buddy’), and improved organisational skills.
  • Providing specific support for students in collaborative tasks, providing context and making roles and outcomes clear. I’ve written more on this in my post on ‘Making group work work’.

It is also worth recognising that our working memory capacity increases throughout childhood. For some children, the issue may be a developmental delay and with support they will catch up with their peers.

 

Can training improve working memory?

A considerable amount of research has been conducted into whether is is possible to train children (and adults) to improve working memory. The results are mixed, but overall this research indicates that training methods can improve short-term performance in specific tasks, but these improvements are not generalisable to other tasks or skills. This evidence suggests that our efforts as teachers may be better placed in helping students make the most effective use of the working memory they have, rather than attempting to increase their capacity.

 
Further reading

Miller, George A. (1956) The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information. Originally published in Psychology Review 63: 81-97. A transcript of Miller’s lecture on short term memory capacity mentioned at the start of this post. 

Gathercole, Susan & Alloway, Tracy (2007) Working memory and learning: a classroom guide. Harcourt Assessment, London. A very accessible short practical guide for teachers.

Melby-Lervåg, Monica & Hulme, Charles (2013) Is working memory training effective? A meta analysis of over twenty research studies. Developmental Psychology vol 49, 2:270-291. A meta analysis of the effectiveness of working memory training.

Workable Wellbeing 3

Last Sunday, the #SLTchat topic was wellbeing, hosted by @ottleyoconnor, a topic this Twitter discussion forum has addressed before. The irony of teachers tweeting about work-life balance on a Sunday evening notwithstanding, I have always found theses discussions really useful and they have inspired these earlier posts on wellbeing.

Workable wellbeing

Workable wellbeing 2

Returning to wellbeing seems more relevant than ever. What struck me about the discussion was the number of participants writing about modelling wellbeing for others. This had been mentioned previously, but it seemed to me that it was a dominant theme of the most recent forum. @pickleholic, @issydhan, @chrisedwardsuk, and @AsstHead_Jones, among others, all stressed the importance of school leaders modelling behaviours that foster positive wellbeing.

How can we model what wellbeing looks like? Here’s my completely unscientific sample of elements grabbed from the blizzard of comment that is #SLTchat:

  • It’s ok to leave early sometimes, especially when other days have been late.
  • Touching base about family, interests, hobbies, books, films or music is normal human interaction. We’re here to get a job done but relationships are important.
  • Share the things you do to foster your own wellbeing. I hope I haven’t bored anybody about #teacher5aday or the Fitbit I got for Christmas!
  • Admit mistakes, talk about times when you got it wrong, and what you learned. OK, there’s a time and a place for this. There are many occasions where colleagues need leaders to lead, modelling calm and decisiveness, but being superhuman isn’t realistic and pretending to be can harm oneself and be off-putting to others. 
  • Ask for help. We need to be accessible to our teams, so we should model that it’s OK to ask for help. Teachers shouldn’t feel isolated and asking for help will show others that it’s ok to do the same.
  • Smile. I’m terrible for getting lost in thought, presenting a blank gaze to others in the corridor, but a smile at the right moment can be just what someone needs.
  • Make talking about mental health everyday and normal. I think this was another strong strand in the discussion, quite rightly.

So what I have taken away from last Sunday’s #SLTchat is the need to model behaviours that lead to wellbeing. I’ll be trying to do that more at work from now on. What was my contribution to the discussion on work-life balance? Leaving the chat early to pick my son up from youth club!