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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 and young people (CYP) find this much more difficult than others, especially CYP 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 CYP to achieve their best. They can be experienced by any child or young person, but are more common for CYP who are neurodivergent (e.g. CYP who are autistic or have a diagnosis of ADHD). 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 CYP who experience these difficulties.

Triple-A Training Tool 

The research to support the development of the training tool has come from a number of 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 CYP, but especially for autistic pupils.

“I think mainly its worth understanding that for people like me….[it is] our senses….and we get sensory overload much faster than [neurotypical] people. I can only handle so much noise or something, other kids can cope. But being in a noisy classroom, I can’t “.

Quote from autistic adolescent who worked with us on this project.

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 Triple-A training tool. For more information about how we developed the training tool, see here.

The training tool has two functions: first to change 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.

Response to Triple-A

The online training tool was launched in March 2022. Within a year of this launch, we have had nearly 4000 people (mostly educators) use the tool. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. See the infographic below which present a recent analysis of data on the tool from users. Users have told us the training has provided them with new information, that it will help them to support autistic and neurodivergent CYP, that they would recommended it; and most importantly, that they would change their practice after having completed the training. We can also see that users’ knowledge and confidence with supporting Triple-A needs at school significantly increased as a result of doing the training. 

Going forward

The online training tool is only the start of our work in this area. Since we launched the tool we have developed a whole-school manualised version of the Triple-A training, which we have trialled in several schools and hope to be able to release soon. This works differently to the online version, in that a school SENCO can use the manual to deliver the training in-house and to all relevant staff.

We have also undertaken new research in this area which we hope to feed in to the Triple-A package in due course. For example with Esther Waddington and Dora Sadler, we have looked specifically at Triple-A issues in PE at school. And with Chloe Fielding, we are doing new work on anxiety, school distress and attendance difficulties.

To follow updates on this work, please do sign-up to our database where you can access email updates and new research and training (sign-up here).

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: