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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 and unpredictable environment, pupils 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 differences), or heightened anxiety. We call these the ‘Triple-A’ difficulties.

Importantly, these difficulties are not easily ‘seen’, and understanding how and why they occur is vital for supporting children to achieve their best. These difficulties can be experienced by any child, but are more common in children who are ‘neurodivergent’ (e.g. have neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism). Researchers from the Centre for Neurodiversity & Development at Durham University, led by Dr Mary Hanley and Professor Deborah Riby, have been working with the Communication and Interaction 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.

New Triple-A Training Tool 

The research to support the development of the training tool has come from a number of recent research 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 autistic pupils.

"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)

Co-designed Online Training Tool 

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, have been working with autistic people, parents, teachers and educational psychologists to co-design the new training tool.

The training tool has two functions: first to raise awareness and understanding of Triple-A issues using research evidence; and secondly, to provide practical guidance and strategies to enable teachers to support pupils who experience these issues. For example, through the training, participants will be able to download their own ‘Triple-A Toolbox’ with a range of strategies to support attention, arousal and anxiety in the classroom. It takes approximately 1.5 hours to complete, and everyone who completes the training will be provided with a certificate.

Although the training has been targeted at education professionals, we believe it will be relevant more broadly, to autistic people, parents, families and any professional involved in supporting autistic and neurodivergent people.

The hope is that the Triple-A training tool will encourage a step-change in understanding and supporting the needs of autistic and neurodivergent  pupils at school to help them reach their potential.

For an infographic about Triple-A difficulties, please see here Triple A Infographic 

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

Access the Triple-A Training Tool

The training tool can be accessed using this link

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 our Triple-A work then please do get in touch. Emails for relevant team members are below: