2019_08 Rachel viva celebration

Congratulations Rachel Nesbit!

In August 2019, Rachel Nesbit successfully defended her PhD thesis in the lab titled ‘The role of social-emotional factors and lateralisation for emotion processing in adolescent facial emotion recognition’. Rachel’s PhD work focussed on understanding some of the factors that might relate to facial emotion recognition skills in adolescence. Below we asked Rachel some questions about her PhD work and what her plans are post-PhD.

Why did you decide to look at emotion recognition in adolescents?

The ability for us to be able to recognise emotions is an important skill that allows us to navigate in our social environments. It allows us to know how someone is feeling and thinking and modify our behaviour accordingly. We know that a core component to many psychiatric disorders is the difficulty to recognise emotions in others. Adolescence is a period of considerable change, and a time where mental-health disorders emerge. How emotions are processed in the brain may also link to emotion recognition ability – with the belief that those who are more right-hemisphere dominant (process emotions in their right side of the brain) may be stronger at emotion recognition. The aim of the PhD was therefore to examine these factors together in adolescents.

What were your main findings from the work you conducted?

Throughout my PhD work I showed that social anxiety, depression and where about in the brain emotions are processed are really important in understanding adolescent’s facial emotion recognition skills and that these factors are also important over time (although the relative importance of these factors may change over time). When I looked at where individuals high on social anxiety and depression looked when making decisions about emotions, it was found that those with higher levels of social anxiety did not show large differences in where they looked during emotion recognition – which may highlight that it may be more to do with subjective feelings and not attention processes. It was found that those higher in depression did look less at the facial features during emotion recognition, which might reflect less social motivation in these individuals.

What are you doing post-PhD?

I have recently started as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Anxiety and Depression in Young People (AnDy) research group at the University of Reading. I will be working on a UKRI funded project examining adventurous play as a mechanism for reducing anxiety in children. My particular focus of the project is trying to understand what the barriers and facilitators are for opportunities and engagement in adventurous play through carrying out qualitative interviews with headteachers, teachers, parents and playground assistants. This work will then inform interventions for school-based programmes with the aim of increasing adventurous play in schools – which may play an important role in reducing anxiety in children.

2019_08 Rachel viva celebration

Research Assistant (now graduated) Experience blogs

Thank you to our 2018 Research Assistant graduates! See their blog posts below.

Alice Hitchcock (left) and Natasha Phillips (right)

In July 2018, two of our research assistants within the Social Development Lab graduated: Alice Hitchcock and Natasha Phillips.

Both have been written a brief blog about their activities and experiences working within our group. We thank them for the work they contributed to (including projects with Rachel Nesbit, Beatrice Hayes, and Dawn Watling) and wish them all the best for the future!


Alice Hitchcock’s Blog post

I started as a research assistant for the Social Development Lab working with Rachel Nesbit on her project looking into emotion recognition in adolescents with anxiety. In this role, I worked on many tasks such as recruiting and testing participants, also tidying and preparing data for analysis. I was so pleased when I got this role, as I really wanted to gain experience conducting research as this is something I want to continue into a career after university. During this project I also learnt how to conduct eye tracking experiment and analyse the data, which was something I was extremely interested in and very useful for my final year project, which used mobile eye tracking equipment.

Through this role I met other members of the Social Development lab; Dr Dawn Watling and Beatrice Hayes. They were beginning more work on their independent evaluation of Eikon’s  Smart  Moves  materials. I was fortunate enough to help continue their data collection, which went towards a Placement unit for my Passport Award at our university. This project involved travelling around to different schools and collecting questionnaire data from students. By the end of the placement I was confidently explaining the participant’s rights, aims of the study and other instructions to a classrooms of students independently.

Working on both these projects has been very beneficial for me, as they have given me vast amount of research experience in two very different projects with diverse methodology. It also allowed me to complete two placement units during my degree, that will hopefully aid future applications to jobs. I am grateful to Rachel, Dawn and Beatrice for allowing me to learn from them, answer my questions and help me develop as a researcher. I feel my confidence has grown and what I have learnt will stay with me as I continue on the path of becoming a researcher.

Natasha Phillips’ Blog post

I applied to become a research assistant for the Social Development Lab as I have a particular interest in developmental psychology and wanted to gain some relevant experience in this area. My involvement began at the end of my second year when I was tasked with transcribing a number of interviews with teachers about materials used in the FAGUS programme for children with special educational needs. This provided insight into qualitative research which I hadn’t had practical experience with previously during my degree course, demonstrating qualitative techniques in practice which was really useful. It also quickly became apparent that transcription can be a lengthy process!

The majority of my volunteering work involved assisting Dawn and Beatrice in their research in local schools. This typically entailed liaising with teachers to ensure the classes were ready, loading questionnaire materials onto computers and laptops, ensuring all children were satisfied with the instructions, and answering any queries about the survey questions. Although the testing procedure was relatively straightforward, we still ran into a number of challenges that I learned to manage (including when staff were not expecting me, how to deal with children to ensure that they did not discuss answers with one another, or what to do when the unexpected happened (internet failure).  With each session I encountered something new, every school and every class was different. I quickly discovered the reality of conducting research in a dynamic school environment. Importantly, some of the children were genuinely excited to be taking part in a university research project which was particularly gratifying.

Overall, these school visits were a great opportunity both in terms of experiencing the practicalities of conducting research and working with children (a little more challenging than an undergraduate sample!). It has helped to develop my confidence in working with young people as well as my communication skills, which was crucial for managing a classroom of children. I hope to work with children and young people more in the future, and this experience has definitely encouraged me to do so even more.

I am very grateful to Dawn and Beatrice for giving me the opportunity to assist with their research – I’ve really enjoyed working with the team and feel that it has helped me develop practical skills in addition to those gained during my degree. Good luck to next year’s RA’s!

2019_08 Rachel viva celebration

Researching young children’s attitudes towards autism.

Over the last year, Dr Eilidh Cage’s final year project students carried out research looking at typical children’s attitudes towards autism. Eilidh’s previous research with autistic adults has noted that acceptance from other people may play an important role in their mental health. It is therefore important that we understand other people’s attitudes towards autism, and ultimately how we can improve the autism acceptance.

Psychology students Abby, Astrid, Becky, Emma and Nadia worked together to recruit 160 four to seven year olds to take part in their research. We wanted to look at attitudes in young children, as most published research focuses on older children. Is it possible to positively influence young children’s attitudes towards autism?

In the research, children heard a story about a character called Julia. We based this story on the new Sesame Street character of the same name. The children heard one of three stories – in one version, Julia was described as autistic and autism was explained (e.g. “Sometimes people with autism may do things that seem confusing to you, like flapping her hands. That’s just something she does when she’s excited!”) In another version Julia displayed the same behaviours but these were not explained and autism was not mentioned. Finally there was a version where Julia was described as a typically-developing child. Importantly, we used a ‘neurodiversity’ framework, where autistic people are seen as different, not less.

After hearing the story, children completed a range of fun activities. They answered some simple questions about their willingness to do different activities with Julia (their ‘behavioural intentions’) and they played a game where they could share stickers with Julia. We also looked at the child’s empathy and ‘Theory of Mind’ (their ability to understand others’ minds). With this research, we wanted to see whether the story they heard would influence the child’s behavioural intentions: if they heard an explanation about autism, would they be more likely to want to play with Julia? Would they share more stickers with her? We also wanted to know how things like empathy and theory of mind might impact on their behaviour.

Interestingly, we found that the story the child heard did not impact on their attitudes. Regardless of whether they heard a version where Julia was autistic or not, the children had positive attitudes towards her. We think this reflects the fact that children under the age of eight tend to be quite positive towards others. It might not be until after the age of eight that more negative attitudes are formed.

We did find that children who said they would like to play and spend time with Julia (irrespective of whether she was described as autistic or not) were more likely to share fairly with her. We also found that children who had more empathy had more positive behavioural intentions. It might be that children who are more empathetic towards others are more likely to want to play and spend time with others.

Overall, our findings suggest that educational interventions might be best targeted when children are around the age of eight. Developmentally, we know that age eight is when children start to be more aware of differences between themselves and others. Future longitudinal research would be beneficial to test whether an intervention at this age would have a positive and long-lasting effect on improving autism acceptance.


2019_08 Rachel viva celebration

Our team completed an initial evaluation of the Fagus materials

Dr Dawn Watling lead an independent evaluation of how useful teachers found the Fagus materials. Fagus is an educational resource that is a framework for emotional and social development. The evaluation involved interviewing teachers, independent from Beech Lodge School where the resource was developed, who were using Fagus in their schools. Interview questions were developed with Dr Alana James (previously at RHUL, now at University of Reading) and Alastair Lidster (Chartered Educational Psychologist). We trained undergraduate voluntary research assistants  to carry out the interviews (Alice Golding and Bryony Robinson) and to code the interviews (Sophie Bury and Natasha Phillips). A report was provided to the Fagus team, who have outlined some of the key findings on their website:


2019_08 Rachel viva celebration

Working with Eikon: Independent evaluation of Smart Moves materials

Dr Dawn Watling is excited to report that she is working with the Eikon charity, and is currently conducting an independent evaluation of Eikon’s Smart Moves materials with year 6 and year 7 children. Eikon is committed to supporting the development of happy, thriving, and resilient youth in order that they may have a positive contribution to society.

The Smart Moves materials are developed for children in year 6 to support the transition into year 7, but importantly they are developed to build a number of core skills that can support your students through their lifetime, including: developing relationships, coping skills, emotion regulation skills, understanding of the self (and one’s strengths), awareness of the feelings of others, building confidence, etc.

To really gain a sense of the impact and effectiveness of this programme we are now recruiting :

  1.  schools with year 6 classes who are taking part in Smart Moves and
  2.  schools with year 6 or year 7 classes who not using Smart Moves but who are keen to understand how their pupils well-being, resiliency, and behaviour changes across the school year.

If you are interested in hearing more about the project, or in participating in this important work please contact Dawn via email (


2019_08 Rachel viva celebration

Engaging with nature boosts children’s moods

Dr Deborah Harvey (School of Biological Sciences) and Dr Dawn Watling recently completed a pilot study funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) — as part of a Valuing Nature Placement — investigating the effect of engaging with nature on primary school children’s subjective well-being and mood.

Children from eight primary schools took part in the study, going outdoors for an hour a week to do biodiversity-themed activities such as building bug hotels and setting up infra-red trail cams cameras to see the animals that visited their school grounds at night. Preliminary findings showed that children’s mood was significantly improved by going outdoors and engaging with nature.

Deborah presented the results of the study at a Valuing Nature conference in Edinburgh in September 2017, and we are now working to extend the project to carry out a more comprehensive evaluation of a school-based nature engagement programme to improve children’s mood, well-being, attainment, and feelings of connection to nature.

Watch this space for updates or contact Deborah directly ( if you would like to get involved!

2019_08 Rachel viva celebration

We’ve had a busy few months…

In the recent months, the Social Development Lab has been busy. We welcomed Beatrice Hayes as a new PhD student, and sadly had one of our members leave — Dr Alana James has moved to the University of Reading to begin a new adventure. We wish you all the best Alana, you will be missed!

Beatrice received her undergraduate and PGCE training at Keele, and is joining us after spending 3 year working within primary education settings. Her PhD is exploring  7-11 year olds understanding of the risks of social media. She is planning to develop a research informed resource to support teachers and parents in their approaches to e-safety.


In July, RHUL hosted the annual South East Research Network for Schools (SERNS) Practitioner Event.  Beatrice (see left) presented a poster outlining her project at the event.

We also had Rachel Nesbit (see right) present some of her PHD findings and Ellie Cordell-Edwards (see below) present her Final year UG project findings at the SERNS event.

Dr Eilidh Cage delivered a well-received talk on autism myths to the attendees.


In addition to the above, Eilidh presented at the BPS Developmental Psychology Section conference in Stratford Upon Avon her final year project students’ (2016-2017) findings on their project title “Prosocial behaviour in children on the autism spectrum”.

This was also Rachel’s first BPS conference as the PsyPag Developmental Section representative!

More news to follow on some of the schools talks we have done, updates on publications, and some of our current projects!


2019_08 Rachel viva celebration

Final year UG presents work at BPS Annual Conference

Final year UG student, Pancy Poon, presents at the British Psychological Society (BPS) Annual Conference in Brighton on the 3rd May, 2017.

Sharing on social media: The role of self-presentational style and feelings of social anxiety

This work was carried out by Pancy under the supervision of Dr Dawn Watling, and was funded by an Undergraduate Research Assistant award from the BPS. This project explored how feelings of social anxiety and the extent to which we adapt our behaviour depending on what others are doing may relate to the information we use (specifically the number of likes and shares an image has) when deciding whether or not to share images on Facebook. This work attracted a lot of attention at the conference! Well done Pancy!

Download a copy of the poster here.

2019_08 Rachel viva celebration

March 2017 Newsletter!


The Social Development Lab welcomed two Nuffield placement students and Dr Dawn Watling was awarded funding from the  British Psychological Society to support Pancy Poon on an 8 week Undergraduate Research Assistant placement.

The Social Development Lab March 2017 Newsletter is now available!

You can also see what the lab has been up to, as well as ongoing and upcoming projects, ways to get involved, and recent publications within the lab.

The Newsletter can be accessed by clicking here