How To Use VR To Help Pupils Overcome Anxiety And Develop Key Social Skills With Ange Anderson

How To Use VR To Help Pupils Overcome Anxiety And Develop Key Social Skills With Ange Anderson

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Can advances in technology (including Virtual Reality) help young people with additional needs to better understand how to interact with others and actively reduce anxiety?

In this week's School Behaviour Secrets podcast, we interview Ange Anderson, to discuss the current barriers schools face to using innovative technology. We explore how VR can help prepare young people for real life situations and how technology can make life in school easier for everyone.

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Show notes / transcription

Ange Anderson  0:00  

I wanted to find out how we could use technology to make life easier for parents and staff but more importantly for the students, how could we use the technology they seem to enjoy to make real life situations easier for students with learning differences?

Simon Currigan  0:15  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to another episode of school behaviour secrets. While other educational podcasts are like prize winning canines at Crufts. Majestic poodles or Labradoodles. manicured and carefully groomed. Were a bit more like a hyena. We're ugly. We're scrappy, and we're feeling hungry to dismiss our bite strength at your peril. I'm joined here today as always by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:21  

Hi, Simon.

Simon Currigan  1:23  

Emma. Before we go any further, I'd like to open the show by...

Emma Shackleton  1:27  

...asking me a question? Yes, yes, I'm familiar with the format.

Simon Currigan  1:31  

Okay, here it goes. Is there a piece of technology that has made your life easier or better somehow?

Emma Shackleton  1:37  

Well, as you well know, Simon, I'm not brilliant with technology. But yes, definitely, I suppose after my phone, which I know for many of us is actually a handheld computer. Now, I have to say my absolute favourite piece of technology is drum washing machine

Simon Currigan  1:57  

What? Going back in time to the 1950s to ask this question?

Emma Shackleton  2:01  

Hey, washing machines make life easier. I don't want to be washing everything by hand, and my machine has got a fancy-shmancy timer. So you can set it to do washing at the time that's convenient to you, which I think is pretty impressive. And yes, I know I am easily pleased.

Simon Currigan  2:21  

Wait until you see one of those new automobiles. It's like a horseless cart, it's gonna blow your mind.

Emma Shackleton  2:26  

So how is my use of technology related to this week's episode?

Simon Currigan  2:30  

Today, we're going to share my interview with Ange Anderson who leads an innovative special school in Wales. And she's going to share her experiences using technologies like VR to help her pupils overcome social, emotional and mental health difficulties.

Emma Shackleton  2:45  

Oh, wow, that sounds interesting. And it's something that we haven't covered before. But before we dive into the interview, hang on a sec. If you're the type of person who enjoys helping others, why not do a friend or colleague a favour by sharing the link to school behaviour secrets, and letting them in on all the good stuff too. All you've got to do is open your podcast app and click the Share button. And by the magic of technology, they too will be able to listen into the show. That's a 30 second job that could really help someone else out and mean that they and the children in their care also benefit from the podcast. Thank you for sharing. And now here's Simon's interview with Ange Anderson.

Simon Currigan  3:31  

I'm very excited to welcome our guest to the show today Ange Anderson. Ange opened and led and innovative special school in North Wales for 10 years, introducing over 25 different therapeutic and technological interventions to support pupils with learning differences. She's written a number of books on therapeutic and technological interventions including VR, AR and Ai in SEN, the topic which will form the basis for today's interview, and also presents internationally on topics related to special education, such as supporting children and adults with neuro diversity, and is also the Special Educational Needs advisor for a global VR company. And not only that, but she also writes children's books under the name Angela Morgan. Ange, welcome to the show.

Ange Anderson  4:21  

Thank you, Simon. I'm glad to be here.

Simon Currigan  4:24  

We're really excited to have you here we're going to discuss the topics of how virtual reality and augmented reality can be used to support pupils with social emotional and mental health needs. But first off, can you explain to us what VR and AR actually are? And how they are different.

Ange Anderson  4:40  

Okay, the term VR was actually coined by Jaron Lanier in 1987. And he defined it then as a computer generated interactive three dimensional environment in which a person is immersed. In his book though the dawn of the new everything he goes on to give for ti seven different definitions, I would say that the difference between VR and AR is that VR takes the person to a different reality to the one they're currently in. Whereas AR augments the reality they are actually in. The term augmented reality was coined by the Boeing researcher Thomas Caudill in 1990. an AR became popular really with the general public during the Pokemon Go craze in 2016. So Pokemon Go would use your phone's camera to place an image of a Pokemon within your surroundings. So you're not then taken to a different reality. AR is particularly helpful, for instance, in many industries, so you may have AR images overlaid on equipment so that you can strip away components using the images as you fix that piece of equipment. So instead of going back and forth to a manual, it's in front of you as you work. So those are basically the differences between the two.

Simon Currigan  5:58  

So this is a bit like the new Google Maps thing where if I hold my phone up to the real world with AR...

Ange Anderson  6:03  


Simon Currigan  6:03's showing me the real route around the world. 

Ange Anderson  6:06  

That's right. That's right. And it's absolutely brilliant for people who are deaf and so on. And then there are some really good AR apps for people who are blind. So AR is really, really good for anyone with learning differences and who's got a form of disability? 

Simon Currigan  6:10  

And this technology has really moved on in the last couple of years, isn't it? I mean, I'm a gamer and I own an Oculus quest two, I think it is. And there are no wires, everything moves seamlessly, you feel with VR, when you put that headset on, you've got handsets, they've got force feedback in the hand sense, you feel like you're there, and you feel like you're picking things up if this technology is moving quickly.

Ange Anderson  6:40  

Oh, yeah. So yes, the future. And what concerns me at the moment, and I've written about it in several public forums, to be honest, is that the UK is not quick enough in the development of this in the educational perspective, if you go to Dubai, for instance, and I've got dealings with Dubai, particularly with VR over there, it's part of the curriculum, really moving forward with it. And if we think about the last big industrial revolution, Britain was at the forefront of that, and at the moment, in this fourth industrial revolution, we're way behind way behind Dubai and South Korea and places like that in this technology. And you certainly get it with teachers to be honest, in that they are reluctant, the children are far more in tune with this fourth industrial revolution and technology than any of the teachers are. And teachers need to be retrained in certain areas, particularly in technology to take this forward. And although we've changed the new curriculum, and done a great job of that, certainly I know of that, obviously, in Wales, Scotland did really well, which is why we use somebody from there to help pioneer that in Wales. So although we've done really well in restructuring, and changing the new curriculum, we still haven't given teachers confidence in delivering technology and in using technology to the benefits of students. I know, for instance, in my school, I made sure every child has an iPad, and then those iPads are individualised for each student. So a child with pmld, for instance, is not going to have the same x on this as a child who's got ADHD or autism or whatever. And so I was shocked when I was helping a child in a mainstream school babysitting, actually. And they were writing something that they had to give him for school for homework, they're not allowed to take iPads to school, they don't use iPads in class, it just stunts them as far as I can see, if they were able to use a word processor, you know, children are so fast at learning that their ideas come to them, but they could be so frustrated because they might not be able to spell a word. If you had the technology in front of you to do that for you. They can just deliver it that much faster. And the society today as it is the children that we've got now are ready for that technology. And unfortunately, I myself personally think that some teachers aren't ready 

Simon Currigan  9:00  

And we started to touch on this What led you to start exploring how to use this technology to support the pupils in your school. What problem were you trying to overcome?

Ange Anderson  9:09  

Well, in the school where I was head,  all of our students were neurodiverse with diagnosis ranging from severe learning disabilities to complex and profound so 75% of our students had a primary or secondary diagnosis of autism and many of our students found transition difficult. Some would have meltdowns going to the dentist, catching a train, crossing a road, going into a supermarket. Many were anxious and had fears and phobias. VR can help reduce anxieties and prepare students for real life situations and transitions they fear I would say that our own private inner worlds all of us can be full of anxieties, hopes and desires that may not be met by traditional education, which is designed to meet the needs of the economy and the outside world. The traditional way of learning is often based on memorise In certain facts and formulas and regurgitating them for exams, but in this technological age, we can access more information from the internet in an instant than we could ever memorise in our lifetime. In my many years as head teacher of a special school a major concern for myself and staff, with the communication difficulties and the mental health challenges students suffered as a result of their conditions, and also because of the neurotypical world outside of themselves that they had to contend with. So what I suggested is that we use technology to help neuro divergence gain control in a neurotypical world. Students with learning differences, in my experience, have shown high levels of comfort with technology for many reasons, computer programmes are predictable, logical, and can provide an intellectual outlet for those who specialised interests. We found that our students born into this fourth industrial revolution, were comfortable with technology. What they did find uncomfortable, though, was actual real life situations. I wanted to find out how we could use technology to make life easier for parents and staff, but more importantly for the students, how could we use the technology they seem to enjoy to make real life situations easier for students with learning differences? multi sensory rooms are already popular in special schools in the UK, where students can go into a multi sensory room and learn about colours and numbers and interact with these images. In the spring of 2016. I asked the innovative technology firm in the UK, OMI to instal their 360 degree multi sensory room, but I wanted it with a difference. I didn't need the maths and literacy backgrounds they had. We had whiteboards in the classroom that would do that interactive whiteboards, but I did want the relaxing beach themes that they had and similar scenes that all students can benefit and meditate on. I also wanted the background scenes that parents had requested OMI agree to try and in the summer recess, they installed a multi sensory room, and some 3d Interactive background scenes but they were a German shopping mall, a European underground, and we felt we needed scenes to be more personalised for our locality and our students. So OMI agree to train our staff in producing our own 360 degrees scenes, which they did.

Simon Currigan  12:19  

I'm imagining here that we're moving almost beyond the sensory room to something like I'm imagining like the holodeck, from Star Trek, where you're immersing a child in this rich sensory environment. 

Ange Anderson  12:29  


Simon Currigan  12:29  

How did they respond to that, that's quite a thing,

Ange Anderson  12:31  

Just life changing, really, they were more than happy to go somewhere with a trusted teaching assistant, it was done very, very carefully, as you do everything in a special school very carefully, it just took off, we made sure that we got the scenes we wanted. And we put them in the room, we presented them with other things, first of all in the room, so they got used to going into the room. So it might have been a scene that they could go in and relax to or surrounding them, and so on. And then when they went in there, the next time they cost they were comfortable with that room, it was a room where they've gone and they've had a nice experience. And when they went in and confronted the issue, it depends on what the issue was that they went into the room for. So they might go in for a minute or two to start with. And then that would be increased so that they felt safe and secure. And you know what students who are neuro diverse, particularly those with autism, they need to repeat things, they need to repeat things over and over, you'll find that for instance, there may be certainly in the past when you had videos, and so on who would watch a child with autism keep going back. They keep rewinding, to keep going over the same scene all the time as if they were trying to sort it out to their minds. You can't do that in a real life situation with crossing the road. You can't give them the chance to practice crossing the road without perhaps having an accident or something serious happening. You can't give them the chance to repeat that experience. But you can in a virtual reality route.

Simon Currigan  13:54  

So before we get into how to do it, how to use the technology. Can you talk more about the benefits of using VR and AR with pupils in your school to support where their SEMH needs? We've touched on their sensory needs and their anxieties. What were the benefits? On the other side, You know, what were the outcomes for kids using these technologies? 

Ange Anderson  14:13  

Well, VR has been of huge benefit to enabling students go to places they previously couldn't. We've all experienced, as I've said a student rewinding the video time and time again to help them make sense of that confusing world. We've seen students not willing to let go of an incident until it has the outcome that they expected it to have. Why not use that knowledge to recreate Virtual Reality situations where they can, as I said, play back a scene as often as they need to and until they feel comfortable to visit it and it's real life counterpart. We used AR apps in school all students as I said had an iPad and class teachers would assess which of the latest AR apps would be of most use to the individual students. Minecraft is particularly popular and if you use a search engine for Minecraft, you'll find links to resources and lessons for teachers to encourage 21st Technology Skills. Treasure Hunt, similar to Pokemon can also be used with AR. There are many, many free AR apps available now. And I would encourage all schools to ensure that every student has their own iPad that has been tailored to meet the needs of the individual with appropriate apps, word processor, etc. And that it is constantly updated to meet their needs. And these iPads can support students with pmld through AR, reading apps, communication apps, right through to apps that encourage students to use an AR app to support a project that they're working on. So in a special school, it's always very individualised regarding their their needs, whatever condition that they've actually got. And you would be perhaps surprise, or perhaps you wouldn't be surprised at the difference that it makes to students who, you know, previously would have been thought of as having a particular condition. I can remember one child, for instance, coming to us who had supposedly PMLD, staff are brilliant, I had an absolutely brilliant staff and, and they said, you know, he's got such a lot about him, he seems to have really good cognition, slightly gotten off tangent, we were lucky enough at that time, and they still have we had an eye gaze in the school, which we purchased, and we use Eye Gazer with him. Within 10 days of him using that Eye Gazer machine, he was telling the teaching assistant to go and get her dinner. Now he had come to our school diagnosed with pmld. But the technology that we had, was enabling him to prove what he could do and gave him, changed his life, you know, and technology can change lives.

Simon Currigan  16:34  

Can you explain for our listeners, what Eye Gaze is?

Ange Anderson  16:36  

Eye Gaze, we use the Tobii eye gaze machine that there are other varieties around the eye gaze machine is where they assess their focus of their eyes. And so the machinery assesses that. And then when they focus on different aspects on the computer programme, whatever you've got on there, that you're using their eyes, it will examine exactly their movement of their eyes and where they're going. So you would then use start using games with them where they'd have to say which of these two is yellow, and you might have a yellow and a red ball on the screen, the eye gaze machine would assess where their eyes were focusing on. And then you move on to that once you've assessed all these different fun games with them. And you might have words on there or letters on there. And then they would focus on those words to actually talk to you using their eyes.

Simon Currigan  17:24  

So is this about like using your eyes as a mouse to select things on screen? 

Ange Anderson  17:29  

Yes, it is a bit like that. Yeah. 

In your book, you talk about using VR to help teach children in real world social skills. Now initially, that could sound counterintuitive, because when we imagine someone using VR, we picture someone with a headset on and they're effectively locked away from the outside world. So how does VR work to help pupils develop social skills?

There are many many VR apps now that will help students understand emotions, for example. So if you just go on YouTube to sample some one that springs to mind is meeting strangers in the metaverse, which is directed at teenagers, and you wear a headset for that. But VR hasn't got to mean wearing a headset VR enables a student to practice and experience with them, that would not be possible in real life. I know for instance of a college currently using VR for students to practice work experience situations before they actually go there. The whole of the shop floor can be experienced in the safety of the school beforehand, we use the VR Room for transition for those who couldn't face leaving our school to visit the secondary school. But by visiting that school and its staff in our VR Room, their anxiety levels were reduced. And once they became familiar with the school, the staff the bus ride, they felt able to visit, and we had 100% successful transition, and we hadn't had it before our use of VR.

Simon Currigan  18:52  

So this is really powerful, isn't it? This is preparing yourself in virtual reality for completing a task or visiting an environment. So when you actually arrive in the real world, you know what to expect. You've been there, you've done it

Ange Anderson  19:04  

Exactly, exactly. And the number of meltdowns that parents experience even today. I mean, I was very lucky that I was able to do that in our school and change the lives for those parents and children. But this isn't happening everywhere. Unfortunately, I know some good schools I mentioned later that that is happening. But this needs to be more universal because parents are still suffering with the meltdowns that some students have. Because their anxiety levels are sky high when they're going to these places. And if only they have the chance to practice these out beforehand, these issues wouldn't arrive and I tell you what, these issues are so painful. I know of one student for instance, who kicked his dad so dreadfully on a train because he couldn't cope with the transition on the train that his dad had to go to hospital and it was very serious. And he had got into that meltdown because he didn't know what to expect his anxiety levels were so high.

Simon Currigan  20:01  

In your book you describe using a virtual reality room to help neurodiverse pupils learn to cross the road safely. And you've touched on this already. I want to say I found this personally, this example really, really fascinating. It's a really practical example of how this can work in the real world. It was a bit of an eye opener. So could you talk us through what that virtual reality room looked like and what the results were?

Ange Anderson  20:25  

Okay. Well, as I said before, we did approach parents as to what situations were most important to them, and we just asked them to give us a list. And to be honest, the staff and parents voted for learning to cross the road that was the number one as the first VR experience, certainly the local road. Because our students had experienced difficulties when they were expected to wait at that local pedestrian crossing which had a waiting time of three minutes. Three minutes is quite a long time to wait for a student who's already anxious. And one of our HLTA is Helen visited the local crossing took 360 degree photos and made recordings of all the sounds encountered there. Samantha our technology lead transferred these onto a programme on the VR computer that was connected to the rest of the VR equipment in the multi sensory room. And this produced a seamless 3d version of the crossing with relevant sounds and actions projected onto three walls of the room, so that students were surrounded by a real life situation. But in the safety of the school, it was decided that 30 students aged from seven to eleven would benefit from this opportunity and consent forms plus useful information was sent home to the parents, all parents consented to the trial, the panoramic view of the junction was projected onto the three walls. The coloured spots on the floor were beams of light projected from the ceiling, and each had an image attached along with an accompany and sound were irrelevant. These were activated by students with or without support, passing a handheld controller across the appropriate colour. To break the beat. Each student was offered an individual session of 10 to 15 minutes in length once a week, spanning a period of eight weeks, and these sessions were split into three stages. During this time, each student was encouraged to act out crossing the road, they were required to listen out for sights and sounds, they learned how to press the button to control and activate the traffic light system. And they learned to wait patiently as they looked and listened continually. The immersive room experience is very real. It allows students to explore and experience situations as if they were actually present in that environment or place. And at the third stage, students were taken to the actual crossing, to see whether the VR session had been successful or not in helping them to cross the road in a safe and timely manner. During one week, each student was taken to the crossing the staff and the success or failure of the programme was observed. And they had 100% success rate.

Simon Currigan  22:51  

Right. That's remarkable. So that is a real world scenario that for a very long time has provoked anxiety and concern in those children. And it was an eight week intervention.

Ange Anderson  23:03  


Simon Currigan  23:03  

A complete turnaround?

Ange Anderson  23:04  

Yeah, a complete turnaround.

Simon Currigan  23:05  

That's remarkable. absolutely remarkable. So what would you say to someone who thought using VR, or AR in this way was an expensive gimmick based on that?

Ange Anderson  23:14  

Well, I would say check out what the NHS are doing that they're providing VR to assist those with mental health issues. And if you just do a search, you'll find out why they're doing that multi sensory rooms are in many special schools. And I think you could claim that they were an expensive gimmick. And I didn't want that because I myself believe that an expensive gimmick a VR Room makes better use of those multi sensory rooms. In my opinion, it has been developed to assess social skills and deal with anxieties, fears and phobias. I know of other schools and colleges to on top of installing the multi sensory room have employed outside disability nurses who use these rooms with students to deliver VR in the same way that we did. I myself believe in training school staff, because this can add to their CPD, but it has certainly worked for that school as well. In conjunction with a disability nurse. They have had a first group of students access a six week programme, which has a significant impact on anxiety reduction, social confidence, and one student is overcoming a lifelong fear. VR is also supporting their employability curriculum with them being able to film workplaces prior to students leave in sight for them to explore in the safety of the classroom. Therefore, support in the anxiety of new environments and demands in Northampton special schools VR has taken off significantly, the initiative has been pioneered by Gareth Everett, who's the head teacher of Daventry High School.

Simon Currigan  24:45  

I feel like we're just scratching the surface here. And unfortunately, our time is almost up. So if you're a teacher or a school leader listening to this podcast, what's the first step you can take today to learn more about using these technologies to support pupils in your School,

Ange Anderson  25:00  

If they go to Angie Anderson, they can find links to my YouTube videos on the different technological and therapeutic interventions that can be used. And most of them are very cost effective.

Simon Currigan  25:13  

And I'll put a direct link to that in the episode description. If you're driving or in the in the gym, and you can't write that down. All you have to do is open up the podcast app. And you'll see in the episode description. 

We ask this of all our guests, who is the key figure that's influenced you? Or what is the key book that you've read, That's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with children?

Ange Anderson  25:32  

I would say it's a quote rather than a book Ignacio Estrada is attributed with the quote, If a child can't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.

Simon Currigan  25:43  

I think that's a brilliant note to wrap up the interview on Ange. Thank you for being on the podcast. This is a fascinating subject getting great results. And I'm sure it'll be very interesting to all of our listeners. Thank you for being on the podcast.

Ange Anderson  25:56  

Thanks very much, Simon.

Emma Shackleton  25:58  

Oh, so there's a lot to think about there, especially in how we can use technology to help our students overcome their fears and anxieties in a safe way before using those skills out in the real world.

Simon Currigan  26:12  

And I've put direct links to Angie's resources in the episode description. 

Emma Shackleton  26:17  

By the way, if you're working with children whose behaviour challenges you in any way, and you're not sure why they're acting that way, we've got a download that can help. It's called the SEND handbook. And it will help you to link behaviours that you're seeing in your classroom with possible causes such as autism, trauma, and ADHD.

Simon Currigan  26:39  

The idea here isn't for teachers to try and make a diagnosis. We're not qualified to do that and that should be reserved for medical professionals. But if we can link classroom behaviours we're seeing quickly to possible causes. It means we can get the right help in place and get early intervention strategies in place to support our children as well.

Emma Shackleton  26:59  

The handbook also includes lots of fact sheets that give you key information and practical strategies to start using straightaway to support pupils with conditions such as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, developmental language delay, PDA, odd and others. The handbook is a free download, so go over to our website click on the free resources section near the top and we'll also put a link in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  27:31  

Finally, if you've liked what you've heard today, and you don't want to miss next week's episode, open up your podcast app now and hit the subscribe button or follow us it's called in Apple podcasts. Subscribing is completely free. And it tells your podcast app to automatically save each episode as it's released. So you never miss a thing. Subscribing will make you feel as satisfied as a beaver. That's just gnawed through a particularly stubborn silverbirch and now has all the materials he needs to complete his dam. Go beaver!

Emma Shackleton  28:04  

We both hope you have an excellent week and we look forward to seeing you on the next episode of school behaviour secrets. Bye for now.

Simon Currigan  28:12  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)