Psychological research is arguably impossible without collaboration. At the very least, it requires willing human beings to participate in your research (unless you’re studying animal behaviour, in which case, your participants may not be human!), but more often than not it is vital to collaborate with non-academics. Whether you’re an fMRI researcher needing access to brain scanning facilities and staff, or an evolutionary psychologist planning a trip to a bonobo sanctuary, collaborating with people external to the University is essential.
My PhD research, conducted within the Centre for Developmental Disorders at Durham University, is all about the factors important for facilitating learning in primary-school aged children with and without autism. All developmental research requires careful planning when it comes to recruiting children and arranging to work with them, but working with children with autism raises unique challenges that can be supported by collaboration.
Collaborating with schools has been essential to my research, and without the invaluable support of Head Teachers, Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs) and class teachers, it would simply not be possible. SENCOs have been able to speak directly with parents about the research, before giving them our information packs, which always returns more interest and enthusiasm for participating in the project. Head Teachers have been kind enough to arrange a space within the school for me to use and set up my equipment (and I take up a lot of space when I’m running an eye-tracking experiment!). Class teachers know their pupils the best, and I have been able to work with them to figure out the best time to visit and work with the children in their class. Uncertainty and changes to routine are things that children with autism, in particular, can find it hard to manage, so making these arrangements with class teachers is vital to be able to conduct the research at a time best for each individual child.
Accessing schools in the first place can be a challenge; cold calling or emailing schools is rarely successful. This is where my external collaborators, the North East Autism Society (NEAS) come in. Not only do the NEAS run specialist schools within the North East for children with autism, but they also have a large presence on social media. Collaborating with them has allowed me to work within their schools, but also post videos on their social media pages, gaining interest in the project from families with a child with autism.
Schools and families taking part in our research do so because we have a shared goal – finding out more about how we can best support children to learn while at school. An important part of this collaborative relationship is disseminating our findings and passing on knowledge to those who could benefit from it. This involves offering workshops for school staff, talks for families to attend, or sometimes sharing the data from our project with a school so that they have a better understanding of their pupils.
Psychological research at Durham
On a more personal level, support from my fellow PhD students within the Centre for Developmental Disorders has been a key part of my studies. I can’t imagine studying for a PhD without being able to collaborate with my peers and being part of a team, which is an important skill for a future academic career. Whether it’s talking through challenges I’m facing, or bouncing ideas off one another, being a part of the Centre has facilitated that important step towards academic collaboration.