BPS Developmental Section – Annual Conference 2016 14th-16th September, Hilton, Belfast.

The BPS Developmental Section met for its annual conference on 14th September, in the Hilton Hotel, Belfast. Bringing together experienced and early-career researchers from across the UK, the conference showcased recent thinking and research in a broad range of areas of developmental psychology. Five members of the CogDev Lab attended, including Emily Farran, who presented a paper on spatial category learning in Williams syndrome, and four first year PhD students, who all presented posters of their recent research on the relationship between spatial cognition and maths and science, and on the consequences of poor motor ability on spatial performance in neurodevelopmental disorders. As a first time BPS Developmental conference attendee, I found it to be a very welcoming and friendly group of people. An impressive number of keynote talks, symposia and workshops were crammed in over the course of the three-day event, so I will just cover two of my highlights.

Denis Mareschal, Birkbeck, chaired a fascinating symposium on growing up in a multisensory world. Given the richness of the sensory environment that children experience on a daily basis, it is surprising how research has traditionally been unisensory.  A key message was that children and infants are sensitive to multisensory stimuli and integrate this sensory information in various ways.  A paper by Andrew Bremner, Goldsmiths, and colleagues demonstrated crossmodal cuing effects between vision and touch for the first time in 9-year-olds and 7-month old infants, where cues from one sensory modality affect attention to a stimuli in another modality. We were also told by Dorothy Cowie, Durham Univeristy, that children use multisensory information to identify their own bodies.  Anna Peng and colleagues’ paper showed cross-modal task switching costs in children and adults; the negative effect on performance of switching attention between tasks of different sensory modalities. However, Hannah Broadbent, Birkbeck, then explained that children performed better on an incidental learning task when exposed to multisensory, rather than unisensory information. More positive outcomes of multisensory integration were then given from a paper presented by Celeste Cheung (lead author Tim Smith, Birkbeck): touchscreen use is not linked to negative outcomes in terms of developmental milestones in toddlers, and earlier touchscreen use may be associated with earlier fine motor achievement. Together, the symposium presented a convincing account, both of children’s sensitivity to multisensory input, as well as the potential benefits of harnessing multisensory learning and technologies.

Numerical cognition was the focus of a symposium chaired by Jo Van Herwegen, Kingston University. Bianca van Bers’ presentation, Queen’s University, Belfast, focused on the prevalence of developmental dyscalculia in a longitudinal sample, which, with the DSM-V criteria applied, she suggested was only 0.5%. She questioned the criteria were too strict. The other presentations in the symposium focused on domain-specific mathematics skills, how these skills relate to domain-general abilities and how interventions, for children with difficulties such as developmental dyscalculia, might be targeted at these skills.

The approximate number system (ANS) featured in two talks: a non-verbal cognitive system which allows discrimination of numerosities without using counting or numerical symbols. Maria Chiara Passolunghi’s (University of Trieste) research showed evidence that ANS performance is strongly associated with both mathematical ability and working memory skills. Further analysis is planned to determine if the relationship between mathematics ability and the ANS is mediated by working memory differences. Despite evidence like this showing a role of the ANS in mathematical ability, Jo Van Herwegen and colleague’s paper, an intervention study with children at risk for mathematical learning difficulties, did not find evidence in support of training ANS abilities to improve number outcomes. The study compared an ANS-based training to a symbolic-based knowledge training intervention. Although ANS abilities increased with the ANS intervention, this did not lead to improved number skills, in contrast to the symbolic knowledge intervention which did elicit improved number skills. This suggests that a focus on symbolic knowledge may be more useful than on ANS. Victoria Simms, Ulster University, then presented recent research on number line estimation skills shown by individuals with Williams syndrome and Down Syndrome. While participants with Down Syndrome showed similar patterns of estimation, participants with Williams syndrome showed less linear estimation patterns on 0-10 number lines, compared with typically developing children. Given the characteristic weakness in spatial ability shown by individuals with William syndrome, this points to a role of visuospatial ability in number line estimation, a finding backed up by CogDev Lab PhD student Katie Gilligan’s BPS prize winning poster presentation linking spatial ability to number line estimation and the ANS.

All of the speakers articulately demonstrated how far understanding of domain-general and domain-specific predictors of mathematical achievement has developed through working with both typically developing children and individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders, and also how we might use this knowledge to best support children at risk of mathematical difficulties.

Written by Alex Hodgkiss