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Triple-A: Attention, Arousal and Anxiety in the classroom

Translating research into practice 

A school classroom is a busy place. There is so much going on at any one time – lots of children, plenty of noise, interesting things on the walls, the smell of lunch from the school canteen, and of course the teacher, guiding pupils through learning activities. In this multi-sensory environment, children must ignore lots of sensory information in order to focus and learn. Some children find this much more difficult than others, especially children with attention difficulties, arousal differences (sensory processing), or heightened anxiety.

Importantly, these difficulties are not easily ‘seen’, and understanding how and why they occur is vital for supporting children to achieve to their best. These difficulties can be experienced by any child, but are more common in children who are ‘neurodivergent’ (e.g. have developmental conditions such as autism). Researchers from the Centre for Neurodiversity & Development at Durham University have been working with the Autism and Social Communication Team at Durham County Council to develop an evidenced-based online training tool for education professionals to raise awareness of ‘Triple A’ difficulties and help teachers to support children who experience these difficulties. 

Translating research to practice 

The research to support the development of the training tool has come from a number of recent studies from the Centre for Neurodiversity & Development at Durham University. This research has involved experiments that have measured childrens’ attention during lessons, questionnaire studies with teachers and parents of autistic children on sensory differences, and interviews with educators looking at the range of factors that influence children’s engagement at school. Crucially, this work has highlighted how attention, arousal and anxiety issues should not be viewed in isolation as they interact with each other - hence, ‘Triple A’. These studies have highlighted how ‘Triple-A’ issues can affect engagement and learning in the classroom for all children, but especially for children with autism.  

"How can you possibly learn with all that adrenaline rushing through you? It’s like asking someone to do long division when they’re free-falling from a plane. Not going to happen." (Parent of child with autism – speaking about anxiety, arousal and impact on attention and learning) 

Creating a free online resource 

Supported jointly by Research England Strategic Priority Funding and the ESRC-IAA fund, the collaborative team from the Centre for Neurodiversity & Development and Durham County Council will translate this research into practice by creating an online training tool to help educators support children who experience Triple-A difficulties. This online resource will be free for all to access, and will be aimed at increasing knowledge of Triple-A issues and how to support them.

We are co-producing this resource, meaning that teachers, educational psychologists, parents and autistic adults will contribute to its development. By increasing knowledge and understanding of Triple-A issues in the classroom, the team ultimately aim to support engagement and learning for all children. 

For an infographic about Triple-A difficulties, please see the resources below. 

View academic research papers which provide the evidence for this project by Dr Mary Hanley.

Contact details

If you have any questions about this project or if you are a teacher, EP, autistic adult or parent of an autistic child, and want to get involved in the consultation focus groups that we are running on this project which will contribute to the development of the online resource, please email a member of the research team:

mary.hanley@durham.ac.uk

deborah.riby@durham.ac.uk 

jessica.r.hirst@durham.ac.uk

roseanne.u.johnson@durham.ac.uk 

Resources 

Triple A Infographic (last modified: 23 March 2021)