Supporting special educational needs teachers with neuroscience

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From left: Principal Shek wai-keung (Hong Chi Morninghill School, Tuen Mun), Dr Savio Wong Wai-ho (The Education University of Hong Kong) and Dr Rosa Chan (City University of Hong Kong)

Hong Kong – In a class of students with special educational needs (SEN), many can be engaged in different activities at the same time, from playing a mathematics game on a tablet computer in one corner and counting numbers in another to doing addition on worksheets elsewhere. In the typical SEN classroom, teachers are required to attend to diversities in learning needs and behavioural patterns.

Among the many everyday challenges SEN teachers face is the emotional fluctuation of individual students, especially autistic children, who tend to show significant delays in language development, and struggle to express personal feelings. In such cases, frontline teachers mainly rely on personal experience and subjective observations to make assessments and early interventions to handle emotional outbursts or make appropriate adjustments of teaching plans.

To help frontline teaching professionals better understand SEN students’ emotional changes and learning experiences, the Centre for Brain and Education (CBE) at The Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK) has applied neuroscience knowledge and theories in classroom settings through an interdisciplinary project in collaboration with the Department of Electronic Engineering at City University of Hong Kong. With a subsidy from the Innovation and Technology Fund and industry support, the project has resulted in the launch of a portable, multi-user brainwave recording and analysis system that can concurrently monitor up to 40 SEN students – the normal class size in Hong Kong.

With students wearing Bluetooth sensors, the system takes measurements of changes in their brainwaves. The information gathered is transmitted to a computer for real-time analysis of emotional status and attention levels by teachers, who can adjust classroom activities accordingly.

According to CBE, the system represents a significant breakthrough. Educators and caretakers can observe the physiological and mental statuses of students more easily and the system is an effective tool for educators, therapists, parents, schools and researchers to objectively measure the effectiveness of various therapies and training programmes.

The system was recently used at a special school, allowing the attention levels of students to be monitored so a teacher could change their assignments when necessary to pre-empt possible outbursts and enhance concentration. The research team at CBE will analyse the data from that trial to optimise and improve the system, with the prospect of application in mainstream schools to support teachers in understanding students with special needs.

Neuroscience is the interdisciplinary study of the biological mechanism underlying behaviours. In recent years there has been a significant increase in education-related neuroscience research aimed at understanding the brain mechanisms involved in learning, and at developing more effective education practices informed by neuroscience knowledge.

The application of neuroscience in education is one of the new areas developed by EdUHK in line with its Education-plus approach. CBE pulls together University scholars from different academic backgrounds with a wide range of expertise in neuroscience, including areas such as memory, hearing, reading, decision making and emotions, among others. Its mission is to promote neuroscience research and translate the findings into education theories and practice. For more information about CBE, please visit its website at