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Blog – The BrainWaves Wellbeing Curriculum

How we developed the BrainWaves Wellbeing Curriculum

The BrainWaves Wellbeing Curriculum – available free to all secondary schools and sixth form colleges across the UK – was first introduced in 2023. The development of the curriculum represents a concerted effort to integrate scientific research, pedagogical principles, and practical strategies to create an impactful mental health education programme. In this blog, Tracey Riseborough from BrainWaves explains how we went about it…


The vision: Evidence-based, engaging and empowering

From the outset, our objectives for the BrainWaves curriculum were clear. We wanted to develop a programme that was firmly grounded in evidence-based practices, ensuring that every component, particularly the strategies we recommend, is supported by robust research.

Equally important was our goal to make the curriculum engaging, ensuring that pupils find the material interesting and relevant. Active learning is consequently at the heart of our approach. Guided by the ASPIRE principles (Agency, Safety, Positivity, Inclusion, Respect, and Equity), each BrainWaves lesson aims to engage pupils through interactive discussions, case studies, quizzes and videos.

Lastly, our aspiration was to create an empowering experience for pupils, providing them with a toolkit of evidence-based strategies, opportunities to practise them and the confidence to use them when needed to protect and support their wellbeing and mental health.

Overall, the curriculum is intended to give young people a greater sense of agency in managing their mental health and instil optimism about their potential to change. This stems from the development of pupils’ mental health knowledge, as well as their emotional, communication and critical literacy skills. Above all, we want them to feel that they have a part to play in their own wellbeing.

The inspiration: Positive psychology powerhouses

The BrainWaves curriculum is deeply rooted in the principles of positive psychology, drawing inspiration from the works of renowned scholars such as Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Barbara Fredrickson, and Ilona Boniwell. Their research on flourishing, flow, and positive emotions has significantly influenced our approach.

One of our guiding lights for the curriculum was Seligman’s concept that positive emotions, resilience, and optimism can be nurtured and developed – and that we constantly need to top up our ‘wellbeing bucket’ to help protect our mental health when life gets difficult. With mental health, a lot of work is needed when things start to go wrong – so our curriculum is all about nurturing the positives before that point. We believe that by giving young people the tools to make choices that influence their wellbeing, we can increase their sense of agency and reduce feelings of helplessness.

PERMA: Our North Star

Our curriculum strongly aligns with Seligman’s PERMA model of wellbeing, which stands for:

These five strands form the backbone of our lesson topics, encouraging young people to incorporate the key principles of positive psychology into their lives in order to protect and promote their mental health and wellbeing.

Beyond PERMA

In addition to the PERMA strands of the curriculum, we’ve added two extra themes to deepen pupils’ understanding of themselves and the world around them:

  • Brain and body: Understanding teenage brain development, hormones, sleep patterns etc and how these can impact our mental health.
  • Thinking about mental health: How to evaluate the vast quantity of mental health information available online, and handling the pressures of social media.

The image below shows the lessons within the BrainWaves curriculum and their relevant PERMA strand by age range.

As you can see, the lessons follow a spiral curriculum approach – often revisiting the same topic several times so that pupils can build on their knowledge as they progress through secondary school, revisiting mental health strategies that might work better for them at different stages in their lives and picking up new ideas to try out as they get older.

Please note: we have currently 17 lessons available from the entire curriculum and are planning to release more in due course. Please check back on our website for new releases or follow us on social media to be kept up-to-date with new lesson announcements.

Building skills, literacies and attitudes

In designing this curriculum, we have drawn on Claxton’s (2018) metaphor of a river of learning, encompassing three levels:

  1. Content and information: Providing solid, research-backed knowledge about mental health.
  2. Skills and literacies: Developing critical thinking, emotional regulation, scientific literacy, and more.
  3. Attitudes and dispositions: Emphasising growth mindset, resilience, and positive psychology principles.

For Level 1, the content of the lessons is described above. This content has been selected through careful consultation with teachers and educational experts.

Level 2 refers to the skills, strategies and literacies we hope to support through these lessons. This includes but is not limited to, scientific literacy, information literacy, personal reflection, active listening, emotional regulation, healthy sleep habits as well as others outlined in more detail in the lesson plans and teacher guidance. These will be supported mainly through the activities carried out in the lessons.

Level 3 speaks to the broader ideals that guide our approach as a whole, as well as the attitudes and dispositions we seek both to model and to encourage in pupils. These include ideas such as Seligman’s positive psychology and Dweck’s growth mindset. Whilst we do not claim to be able to develop these over the course of a series of lessons, it is hoped that in modelling them and in highlighting their importance, we can emphasise their value to learners.

Evaluation and improvement

Through the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, we are working to constantly evaluate and review the BrainWaves lessons with a view to modifying and improving the content. Each lesson plan comes with links to a short feedback form at the end, which can be completed by both pupils and teachers. We are very keen to receive feedback so would urge teachers to take part in this important evaluation process.

Our first evaluation of the 16-18 lessons/curriculum was completed by nearly 12,000 pupils and over 50 teachers, and revealed the following:

  • 73% of pupils enjoyed the lessons.
  • 74% of pupils said they learned something.
  • 64% said they would try out a new strategy to support their mental health following the lesson

We’ll release more information about our evaluation findings as it becomes available so please watch this space!

Final thoughts: Support for teachers

One of the hardest things about creating a curriculum of wellbeing lessons is ensuring that they can be taught easily and with minimal support by busy, non-specialist teachers. To help with this, we have provided a succinct toolkit to help teachers faced with the challenges of teaching about mental health and wellbeing:

  • Teacher guides: Each lesson is supported by a concise teacher guide, outlining the main activities within the lesson and how to deliver them, as well as downloadable handouts. You can find an example here.
  • Scientific guides: Each lesson also includes links to a scientific guide highlighting the evidence and research behind the specific mental health strategy suggested in that lesson. You can find an example here.
  • Webinars: We have an ever-increasing library of webinars exploring the key concepts presented in the BrainWaves curriculum, such as PERMA, sleep, stress and the teenage brain. All new and previous webinars are listed here for you to book onto or watch again.
  • Blogs: Our blogs cover lots of advice and support for promoting a classroom environment in which sensitive issues such as mental health can be discussed. You can read them here.

So, there you have it! Grounded in research and brought to life with the aim of making a real difference, the BrainWaves curriculum offers the chance to foster a real culture of wellbeing and resilience in your school. We do hope that you enjoy teaching these lessons, but that most importantly, they have a positive impact on your pupils in helping them proactively manage their mental health and wellbeing.

Thanks for reading!

About the author

Tracey Riseborough is the Content Manager and School Programmes Manager at BrainWaves. She has worked in educational publishing for over 25 years, developing resources for schools in the areas of mental health, special educational needs, assessment and the early years.

Blog – BrainWaves One Year Anniversary!

Celebrating one year of BrainWaves! Shaping the future of adolescent wellbeing

This week marks a year since the launch of BrainWaves, and a year since we started building our community of Research Schools/Colleges on our journey towards revolutionising adolescent mental health education!


One whole year, in which we have achieved so much, meeting and surpassing all that we hoped to deliver. None of this could have been possible without the amazing Research Schools/Colleges who have partnered with us so far.

Real-life research

Over the last year, an incredible 34 institutions have signed up to become BrainWaves Research Schools/Colleges – including sixth form colleges, consortiums and specialist schools. The students at these schools/colleges have had the opportunity to work closely with the University of Oxford – getting involved in real-life, active research studies, taking part in lessons, sharing their opinions and making their voices heard.

The BrainWaves Wellbeing Curriculum

We now have 17 lessons available on our website with many more planned as part of our FREE spiral wellbeing curriculum for students aged 11-14, 14-16 and 16-18. These lessons have reached over 940 schools, are impacting tens of thousands of students and have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from both teachers and students.

Over 11,500 students, along with many teachers, joined our education evaluation study and have given feedback on the BrainWaves lessons. This feedback is helping us to continually improve these lessons and make sure they connect with young people.

Taking part in mental health research

Over 4,200 students aged 16-18 years took part in our Consent Trial throughout autumn-23 / spring-24, examining the issues relating to getting young people to give their consent to take part in health-related research. This ground-breaking study helped us when preparing for collecting our first set of Cohort Study data, where over 7,200 students aged 16-18 years completed a 40-minute questionnaire about their mental health.

Over the next few months, we will be sending out individual reports to participating schools, highlighting the trends in their cohorts’ wellbeing and we look forward to our next Cohort Study data collection point in November 2024.

Using the data collected

Students and teachers have really enjoyed the opportunity to join in with these studies and help us make a difference. With their help, we aim to transform what we know and understand about adolescent mental health and use the data we collected to develop interventions specifically designed to improve teenage wellbeing.

The benefits of becoming a BrainWaves Research School/College

Our Research Partners are supported by our team of School Liaison Managers who work closely with the BrainWaves lead coordinators in each school or college. As well as each school and college receiving a termly wellbeing gift, teachers have the opportunity to take part in our Teacher Wellbeing Prize Draw. So far this year, winning teachers have chosen a Netflix movie night / hamper selection and a 6 month book subscription as their respective prizes!

Networking opportunities and CPD

We are now looking forward to our inaugural Networking Day in June for BrainWaves leads at Research Schools and Colleges, where we will have a chance to discuss the BrainWaves research and hear from insightful and inspiring speakers on mental health within schools. This event marks the start of the development of our BrainWaves Research School community that we hope will go from strength to strength, with lead teachers sharing experiences and learning from each other.

Since launch, we have run 9 free webinars on a range of issues relating to mental health – the teenage brain, sleep, positive psychology and how you can help support students’ wellbeing. These webinars are free to attend and are all available to rewatch at any time.

Making a difference

As we celebrate this one-year anniversary, we also celebrate the BrainWaves community, including our inspiring Research Schools and Colleges who unite with us in a common goal. Together, we are making a difference in the lives of young people and shaping the future of adolescent mental health research.

Want to join us on this journey?

Contact the BrainWaves School Liaison team at to find out more and set up a conversation about what’s involved in becoming a BrainWaves Research School/College.

About the author

Abbie Simpkin is a School Research Liaison Manager at BrainWaves, responsible for supporting BrainWaves Schools/Colleges. She was previously a music teacher at Key Stage 3-5.

Blog – Stress management for teachers

Stress management for teachers

Managing stress as a teacher can be challenging, but with the right strategies, it is possible to navigate through the demands of the profession while maintaining your wellbeing. Following our webinar, “From distress to de-stress: Stress management for teachers” we are sharing some of the tips shared by our expert panel…


1. Keep perspective

One key strategy is shifting your perspective. As Carl Sagan famously described in “Pale Blue Dot,” putting things into perspective can help you see the bigger picture and realise that the stressors you face are just a small part of the vast universe. This can help you not to sweat the small stuff and focus on what truly matters!

2. Don’t forget your friends

Another important strategy is finding time for contact with other people. Spending time with friends and family can offer a much-needed break and help teachers maintain a healthy work-life balance. These relationships can provide emotional support, a sense of belonging, a sense of perspective and a break from the isolation that can sometimes come with teaching. Social interactions can also help you relax, share experiences, and gain new perspectives on your challenges.

3. Avoid ‘must’ and ‘need to’

Next, consider the language you use when you talk to yourself. The words we use can greatly impact our mindset and emotions. It’s important to avoid language that creates a sense of urgency (“I must”, “I need to”) and to allow flexibility in task completion if you don’t have time within your working day. Using positive and empowering language can help you build resilience, boost your confidence, and reduce stress.

4. Get outside

Additionally, spending time in nature, as suggested by Kaplan and Kaplan’s theory on nature and cognitive capacity, can be beneficial for stress relief. Nature has a calming effect on the mind and body, helping to restore attention and reduce mental fatigue. Embracing the Attention Restoration Theory, taking breaks in green spaces or simply looking at natural scenery can refresh your mind and improve your overall wellbeing.

5. Ask for help

Get help when you need it, don’t postpone: It is crucial for teachers to recognise when they are feeling overwhelmed and seek assistance when needed. By addressing stressors promptly instead of delaying, educators can prevent issues from escalating and impacting their wellbeing. Seeking help can come in various forms, such as talking to a counsellor, therapist, or trusted colleague, and can provide valuable insights and strategies for managing stress effectively.

6. Reach out to others

Reach out to colleagues to establish a community of support: Cultivating a sense of community and trust among colleagues can create a supportive environment where teachers feel comfortable expressing their vulnerabilities. By reaching out to fellow educators and sharing experiences of stress or challenges, teachers can foster a network of support that offers understanding, empathy, and practical advice. This not only helps teachers cope with stress but also promotes a culture of openness and collaboration within the school community.

By incorporating these strategies into your daily routine, we hope you can enhance your ability to manage stress effectively and create a more balanced and fulfilling teaching experience.


About the author

Tara Pilkington is Partnership Marketing Executive at The Day.

Blog – Glossary of Terms

Glossary of Research Terms

As more and more young people take part in BrainWaves research studies, the more questions we get about what some of these research terms mean. Here are a list of the key terms students might encounter in research, with easy-to-understand definitions…


Any factor which is likely to skew the results of a study in a particular direction. This could be for the entire study, or for a specific sub-group within a study.

Cohort study
A cohort study is a particular form of longitudinal study where researchers track the change of behaviour in the same group of individuals, who share certain characteristics, across a period of time.

Data processing
Data processing occurs whenever any data is collected (from participants) and translated into usable information. This is usually performed by data scientists and researchers.

De-identified data
Data where all personally identifiable information has been removed from a data set.

Ethical approval
Ethics approval is needed for all research involving human participants, or data from which individuals could be identifiable. University of Oxford is committed to ensuring that its research involving human participants is conducted in a way that respects the dignity, rights, and welfare of participants, and minimises risk to participants, researchers, third parties, and to the University itself.

Linked to representativeness, generalisability refers to the degree to which the results of a study can be generalised to a broader population or context. For example, if taking a cold shower improves your mental health, to what extent can this be generalised to the claim that cold showers would improve other people’s mental health.

Interventions, in the context of psychiatry, are actions performed to bring about change in people. They can be targeted towards a wide range of behaviours, such as bullying, depressive symptoms, wellness etc.

The weakness of a study or ways in which a study could be improved in future. No study has no limitations, the important thing is for researchers to be open about the limitations and recognise them, not to try and hide them or claim they don’t exist.

Linkage key
A linkage key allows researchers to identify multiple data sets from the same participants. Since BrainWaves is a cohort study, it is important to know how a person’s behaviour changes over time.

Longitudinal data
Data that is collected with the same group of individuals across a period of time measuring a standard set of criteria.

Peer review
The process by which scientific studies are shared with other independent scientists who check whether the methods used and conclusions drawn are appropriate. This is often considered one of the most important features of scientific research.

Personal data
Data that is related to an individual who might be identified from other data sets.

Pseudonymisation is a data processing technique that removes all information in a data set that can identify the participant. However, using a linkage key, researchers can still identify the data sets contributed by the same individual participant.

The degree to which a measurement consistently measures the same thing. e.g. a questionnaire to measure the degree of stress felt by students might be considered unreliable if some students answered the survey right before a 3 hour exam, while others answered after breaktime.

The degree to which a sample (the people in a study) can be considered to represent the population as a whole (the entire group of people which the study is hoping to investigate). For example, a sample of 16–18-year-olds in schools in London would not provide an accurate representation of all 16-18-year-olds across England.

About the author

Charlotte Chan is an assistant on the BrainWaves research project. She holds a BSc (Hons) in Psychology from the University of Bath,

Blog – Positive Psychology

Positive psychology and student wellbeing: Our top 5 insights

In our recent webinar on ‘Positive Psychology and Student Wellbeing’, we had the privilege of hosting a panel of experts, including Dr. Michelle Tytherleigh, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Chester.


The aim of the webinar was to explore the fundamental principles of positive psychology and the research that demonstrates how these principles can positively impact student mental health. Our panel also discussed how teachers can apply these principles to promote students’ self-assurance, perseverance, and understanding of how to maintain mental wellbeing.

Outlined below are five significant takeaways from the webinar. Plus, don’t forget that you can now also watch the webinar on-demand here!

1. What is positive psychology?

Psychology often takes a deficit approach where issues are identified and remedied to bring people to a balanced level of mental wellness. Positive psychology, on the other hand, looks at what makes life most worth living. It concentrates on using our strengths to build upon the good in our lives and enhance the lives of everyone around us.

It is important to note here the five key elements of wellbeing theory (PERMA), as defined by Martin Seligman, that inform our understanding of positive psychology:

P – Positive emotion E – Engagement R – Relationships M – Meaning A – Accomplishments

Mental wellness goes beyond just experiencing positive emotions. It involves reflecting on the things that give life meaning and purpose, building positive relationships, and feeling a sense of accomplishment. It acknowledges that negative experiences are also a part of life, but it doesn’t negate the possibility of having mental wellbeing alongside mental illness.

2. How can positive psychology support student wellbeing?

During adolescence, students are in the process of discovering their identity and determining their direction and path in life. Positive psychology can be a helpful tool to encourage students to recognise their individual strengths and create their own strategies for success. The principles can help students to perceive the things they enjoy as being good for them, developing and growing them and as important to their wellbeing. By focusing on the things they enjoy, students can develop their skills and build a toolkit of resources to support their mental wellbeing.

This approach empowers students to use their agency and take control of their own mental health and equips them with resources to handle challenges and pressures. In addition, it can benefit all students, including those who are neurodivergent, by emphasising their strengths and capabilities.

3. What can teachers do to implement positive psychology in school?

Many individuals who work with students in schools may not have clinical training, but they can still implement positive psychology principles in their work with students. As a teacher who undoubtedly wants their students to succeed and cares about their wellbeing, you may already be using many of these principles without realising!

Utilise your skills and experience in engaging and communicating with students to scaffold conversations which inspire inner hope and belief that they can overcome obstacles. Encourage your students to identify their strengths and use positive psychology practices to support their own wellbeing. It is crucial for school staff to model this approach and empower students to take agency in their own lives.

4. How can positive psychology fit in with the curriculum?

Time constraints within a school timetable can make it difficult to implement positive psychology principles during PSHE sessions, tutor time, or assemblies. However, a more reactive approach in responding to problems as they arise can be even more time and resource consuming and does not reach every student. To effectively support student wellbeing, we need to find time to use interventions that can make a long-term and wide reaching impact rather than taking a reactive approach to each issue as it arises.

You can use principles of positive psychology during pastoral, disciplinary, or restorative conversations with students. Asking questions about their current situation, interests, relationships, and behaviour can be helpful. Questions you could ask include: “Let’s have a conversation about you”, “What’s going on at the moment?”, and “Are you a good friend to the people around you and what does that look like?”

Investing in positive psychology can also meet OFSTED’s standards surrounding personal development and create a strong foundation for your school’s curriculum and behavioural system. By prioritising positive psychology, you can create a sustainable approach to supporting student wellbeing.

5. What additional resources are available incorporating the principles of positive psychology?


  • BrainWaves is developing a curriculum of wellbeing lessons for KS3 to KS5 students. There are currently 6 KS5 lessons available, with a range of KS3-4 lessons launching in early 2024. The lessons are based on principles of positive psychology along with critical thinking and information literacy. They also include scientific links to neuroscience and the adolescent brain.



  • The Palgrave Handbook of Positive Education (Kern & Wehmeyer, 2021 – available as open source)
  • Activities for Teaching Positive Psychology: A Guide for Instructors (Froh and Parks, 2012)
  • Applied Positive School Psychology (Giraldez-Hayes & Burke, 2023)

Academic articles:

Watch the webinar!

If you found these insights and strategies interesting, watch the webinar on-demand to find out more.

About the author

Abbie Simpkin is a School Research Liaison Manager at BrainWaves, responsible for supporting schools on the BrainWaves Research Programme.  She was previously a music teacher at Key Stage 3-5.

Blog – Sleep

Five questions about teenagers and sleep

Missed our recent webinar on “Teenagers and Sleep” where we were joined by Professor Russell Foster, a world-leading expert on sleep from the University of Oxford? You can now watch it on demand here!


Below are some of the most popular questions that Professor Foster addressed in the webinar:

1. How much sleep should we be getting? 

  • It is most commonly accepted that adolescents should get 8-10 hours of sleep. However, this is a generalisation, sleep is like shoe size – it is different for everyone. Try not to be too prescriptive about how much sleep you need as this can generate anxiety.
  • Although the amount of sleep you need might fluctuate depending on things like your age, the season and many other factors, try and identify how much sleep you need and stick to that requirement. To do this, ask yourself some key questions: Do you oversleep on your days off? Are you dependent on an alarm clock? Do you feel fatigued when you’re awake?  This will help you answer how much sleep you’re getting and how much you might need.

2. What can I do to help fit my sleep around  my natural circadian rhythm? 

  • Control your access to light. Exposure to morning light by going outside or from a light box can help advance your body clock and make it easier to wake up earlier. 
  • Stabilise your light exposure. However tempting, don’t oversleep at the weekend to make up for lost sleep, as this will cause you to miss the morning light and shift your body clock later. 

3. I find it hard to fall asleep – how can I help myself relax?

  • Avoid using smartphones or devices for at least 30 minutes before going to bed because of the alerting effect it can have on your brain which delays sleep onset. 
  • As a helpful wind-down before bed, choose activities you find relaxing. Often we need to address the stress in our lives to help us sleep better.
  •  Exercise is good for building sleep pressure but try not to exercise too close to bedtime as this will be counterproductive.
  • Avoid taking long naps after 3pm. This makes it more difficult to get to sleep at night and means your body can fall into a negative pattern of shortened night-time sleep. However, short, occasional naps are fine. 
  • Sleep takes up a third of our lives so think about your sleep environment: make sure it’s not too warm and if you can, invest in a good mattress and bedding. If possible, remove television and work equipment and try to make your bedroom a haven for sleep. If exposure to the sun in the summer months is making you wake up earlier, consider the use of blackout blinds.

4. When I wake in the night, I find it hard to sleep again. My app says I have very poor sleep. Help!

  • Firstly, don’t take sleep apps too seriously. They can tell you roughly when you went to sleep and when you woke up, but they are not accurate enough to comment on the quality of your sleep.
  • If you have periods of wakefulness at night, stay relaxed and calm, keep the lights low and try not to watch the clock. It is perfectly normal to wake up at night. If you stay calm, you will almost always fall back to sleep.

5. I am a teacher. How can I help my students understand their sleep needs and get better quality sleep?

  • A great way is to introduce sleep education into the school environment. Students should be aware of their sleep needs and the benefits of sleep: a decent night of sleep defines how we function during the day. BrainWaves has produced a free lesson on Teenagers and Sleep which you can access here

Watch the webinar!

We hope you found these tips helpful. You can find out more in our sleep webinar, and in Professor Foster’s book, Life Time: The New Science of the Body Clock and How it Can Revolutionise Your Sleep and Health.

About the author

Naomi French is a School Research Liaison Manager at BrainWaves, responsible for supporting schools on the BrainWaves Research Programme.  She was previously a year 6 class teacher and subject leader for PSHE.

Blog – Grouping

Grouping for effective discussion

In PSHE, the discussion of sensitive content can mean that students are sometimes less likely to talk openly with their peers during their learning. Therefore, when grouping students, there needs to be careful consideration of not only academic abilities but also social and emotional wellbeing and the personal circumstances of the students. This is where teachers’ knowledge of their class will be invaluable to planning grouping, with as much consideration needed as the lesson content itself.  

There are many different grouping techniques you could consider, and the appropriateness of these will vary depending on not only lesson content or activity but also the class dynamic and the individual students. BrainWaves School Liaison Manager, Naomi French, collates some ideas on how best to use group work in your classroom. 


The ‘neighbourhood’ technique

Simply put students in small groups based on who they are sitting near. These may or may not be their friends. This technique works well for students who are perhaps more confident, and is a useful method when you need to group students quickly, perhaps for shorter, snappier, timed discussions. 

You may wish students to spend the lesson in pre-assigned, specific places, using a seating plan, so as to have some control over their grouping. 

Working in pairs

Students are posed a question and then have a direct conversation with the person sitting next to them (their partner). You could use pair discussion to give students a chance to share their ideas with other members of their class. Here are some instructions you could use to facilitate this activity:

  1. Think about the question posed with your partner
  2. Write down you and your partner’s collective thoughts on a post-it note
  3. Put your post-it notes on the table in front of you or on a board at the front
  4. Now, everyone can get up and look at their other classmates’ ideas

It is useful here to have the question displayed on the board, as well as sentence stems that the students can use to structure their discussion with their partner, such as, ‘That’s really interesting – have you considered X?’ or ‘I agree – another example is…’ or ‘Although I understand what you’re saying, I disagree because… what do you think?’ 

As with the previous technique, you could sit your students in places other than their normal seats so that you can dictate who they work with.

Switching partners

Have students stand up and then switch partners. This could be random (if appropriate) by drawing names out of a hat, or based on whether they have had a positive or negative response to the criteria. The criteria could be things like:

  • Do you feel that you have enough good quality sleep? 
  • Do you feel that exercising improves your mood?
  • Do you prefer talking to others or spending time alone when you feel low?

The criteria could be used in different ways. For example, if one student responds yes, they could find somebody who has responded no to partner with. Or, they could find somebody who has responded in the same way as them and share their experiences.

The benefit of using criteria is that it can be tailored to the lesson content, pupil or task requirements, therefore giving teachers more control over pairings. This is a good technique for getting students talking with people they might not normally pair with in the class. 


In contrast to the previous suggestion, you could keep the groups or pairs consistent throughout the lesson or even throughout the whole unit of lessons. 

This technique could be particularly beneficial in helping students to open up when exploring more personal discussion points such as their experiences or strategies they wish to try. By sharing with the same partner or group throughout the lesson or even throughout the whole series of lessons, students have the opportunity to build a relationship of trust over time with their partner or group and become used to sharing with them.

Student choice

With this technique, students choose who they work with – although more often than not, this will be their friends! If you have a specific task in mind, you might specify the number of students per group or give a minimum/maximum number. Giving a little flexibility means that it is less likely for students to be left out.

If students work with their friends, they may be more likely to share experiences and participate more openly in the lesson. However, this can also potentially lead to students straying off task. Only giving a short amount of time for these discussions can help keep the students focussed. Additionally, why not read our blog on encouraging effective discussion for more tips on how to keep pupils engaged?


Effective grouping can be key to the success of a lesson and of the learning. When it is considered carefully and planned alongside the lesson itself, it can be an invaluable tool to facilitate discussion and engagement. We hope that these methods are of use to you – why not let us know if you have any more suggestions by contacting us on

About the author

Naomi French is a School Research Liaison Manager at BrainWaves, responsible for supporting schools on the BrainWaves Research Programme.  She was previously a year 6 class teacher and subject leader for PSHE.

Blog – No-hands up

Using the ‘no hands up’ technique

The ‘no hands up’ technique is used by teachers to ensure all students engage in all discussions and dialogue. Without careful planning, there is the risk that only a few students participate in PSHE lesson discussions whilst the rest remain silent.

So, how do we encourage maximum student participation in sensitive discussions using the ‘no hands up’ technique? School Liaison Manager Naomi French shares her thoughts…


From drawing names out of a cup or directed questioning, to students selecting the next speaker, there are a number of ways in which the ‘no hands up’ technique can be facilitated. However, best practice should involve an ‘opt out’ for those who feel uncomfortable, such as writing their response down or asking a friend for help. This strategy is all the more important – and challenging – in a PSHE setting where sensitive issues, such as mental health and wellbeing in the BrainWaves lessons, may be discussed.

Create a safe environment first

Before we discuss strategies, creating a ‘safe’ environment for PSHE lessons, where taking risks and making mistakes are not only allowed but encouraged, must be a priority. Without this, the potential for all students to engage in discussion and dialogue is lost. Students need to understand that mistakes are learning! A clear set of co-authored ground rules that are revisited every lesson are key to creating a safe environment where pupils are comfortable to respond (in any manner, not just verbally) to one another, the teacher and the lesson content. You can find the BrainWaves Safe Teaching and Learning Guidance here.

Teachers should never tolerate other students making fun of a mistake (an integral part of the ground rules mentioned previously) and should also make sure not to correct students in a way that makes them feel ashamed. Using positive reinforcement when students speak will also help students feel comfortable taking risks. Using a variety of corrective feedback strategies can help teachers encourage students to improve while ensuring they feel respected. For example, a teacher can ‘recast’ which means to simply reformulate what the students have said and provide the correction without actually pointing out the mistake. 

Providing ‘response stems’, which are the beginnings of sentences that students can use to formulate a response, can also help structure appropriate, positive discussion, and thus create a safe environment. They can be included as a bingo game in the lesson – whoever uses them all first in an appropriate way can win a prize linked to the school reward system. These can include phrases such as: ‘While I agree with X, I also believe that…’ or ‘Although Y makes a really good point, I think…’

‘No hands up’ strategies within a PSHE environment

When you feel a safe environment has been established and the students have had opportunities to practise their empathetic, reflective response skills, and that a culture of encouragement and mistake making has been established in your classroom, your next step might be to take the ‘no hands up’ approach.  This encourages all students to participate in all discussions in a supportive manner. Here are five techniques that can be used:

Think, pair, share

This technique can be used in a variety of ways. A question can be posed to a pair of students, time can be given to discuss with their partners, then students can give feedback to the class. Another option is to have students give feedback on their partner’s response – with their permission – which encourages active listening as well as active learning. With this method, all students will engage with the question without answering in front of the whole class.

Number draw

Assign each student a number at the beginning of a lesson. Pose a question and allow time for partner discussion. Bring the class back together and draw a number – whoever’s number is drawn answers the question. Students can nominate someone to speak on their behalf if they do not feel comfortable doing so.

Phone a friend

Pose a question to a student. The student ‘phones a friend’, they discuss, then the student repeats what their friend has said.


When pupils are discussing a question, the teacher circulates and collects ‘gems’ that they hear. These can then be fed back to the class or displayed on the board to reflect on while the students remain anonymous.

Ummmm cards

Pupils have access to ‘Ummmm cards’, which they can use when they are called upon to talk but are struggling to input. The cards can include questions such as: ‘Can you repeat the question?’, ‘Can I have more information?’ and ‘I’m not sure but my best guess is…’

Engaging students who don’t want to talk

There are many reasons why students may choose not to engage in lessons. In PSHE this can be because they find the subject matter challenging or too personal. A safe, risk-taking, mistake-making classroom environment must be first established where they feel valued and their voices are heard, then the ‘No Hands Up’ techniques can be introduced. Pupils should understand that questions do not require a perfectly formulated answer, but their thoughts in whatever language they feel comfortable with. 

In time, students should become increasingly active in their learning and can become each other’s greatest supporters. Not only could the ‘no hands up’ technique benefit student engagement, but it has the potential to foster a more positive learning environment, particularly in PSHE lessons such as those developed by BrainWaves.

About the author

Naomi French is a School Research Liaison Manager at BrainWaves, responsible for supporting schools on the BrainWaves Research Programme.  She was previously a year 6 class teacher and subject leader for PSHE.

Blog – Differentiation

Differentiating the BrainWaves lessons

Differentiation is a common tool utilised within teaching. Teachers are constantly thinking of ways they can provide support for students who are struggling to access aspects of their lessons. Additionally, effective differentiation also requires teachers to consider how they can stretch the thinking and learning of the higher-level students in the class.

So, how can the BrainWaves lessons be effectively differentiated to ensure every student can access the learning and reach their potential? School Research Liaison Manager, Abbie Simpkin shares her thoughts…


The BrainWaves lessons have been described as being ‘low floor, high ceiling’. Generally, this means that the content of the lessons should be relatively clear and simple for students to access, but that there is also scope for high-level thinking and discussion depending on the student’s capabilities and engagement level. I want to share with you a few ways we have already provided differentiation strategies in the BrainWaves lessons and also share my view on some other versatile strategies for differentiation.

Scaffolding and modelling suggestions

Optional differentiation strategies using scaffolding and modelling are suggested in the slide notes and teacher notes of the BrainWaves lessons. For example, in the lesson, “Boosting your mood” it is suggested that the teacher spends time modelling the “How do these activities make you feel?” task themselves in order to help students understand how to use the rating scales. Another example is in the lesson “The teenage brain”, when the teacher notes suggest using the analogy that neural pruning is like deleting old apps from your phone.

Intentional forming of student groups

Many of the activities in the BrainWaves lessons require students to discuss their thoughts in groups. For example, in “The teenage brain”, students are asked to discuss in groups what sort of behaviours and actions a teenager with both low and high levels of three different hormones might exhibit after being told facts about each of the hormones. This requires skills of comprehension and inference.

One way that you could support students who might struggle with these types of activities is to put them in groups with students who have higher level literacy skills. Hearing from other students can be useful in helping students to consider new, creative ideas and to clarify concepts. You could ensure fact slides are visible so that students can refer to it during their discussion.

Effective questioning

One of the key techniques you most likely use every single lesson to differentiate for your students is questioning. Teachers know their students best, they tend to gauge the audience and formulate questions that are phrased at the cognitive level of the students, allowing students to access the learning at their individual level. Questioning can be used to cultivate curiosity and thinking that stretches the minds of students and instil a sense of wonder which can keep students engaged and encourage them to participate in the discussion. This is exactly what we want during the BrainWaves lessons!

Using the glossary

A glossary is provided in the BrainWaves Personal Workbook that students can be signposted to to support their understanding of the key vocabulary used throughout the lessons. You could try putting the key vocabulary for each lesson on the board and taking a few moments at the start of each lesson to clarify the definitions of words the students are already familiar with.

We hope you now have some idea of the many ways you could choose to differentiate the BrainWaves lessons for your students. We look forward to hearing about how you can use these lessons to engage and stretch the thinking of the students in your class.

About the author

Abbie Simpkin is a School Research Liaison Manager at BrainWaves, responsible for supporting schools on the BrainWaves Research Programme.  She was previously a music teacher at Key Stage 3-5.

Blog – Effective teacher questioning

Effective teacher questioning

Questioning is used by teachers not only to inform them of the understanding of their students, but also to improve their students’ learning. BrainWaves School Research Liaison Manager, Abbie Simpkin, discusses teacher questioning, a technique which can help teachers to engage their students by inviting curiosity and provoking thinking…


The importance of questioning

Questioning is viewed as an essential pedagogical skill that requires practised knowledge. However, there can sometimes be an imbalance of questioning within teaching because of the dominance of teacher talk. This can lead to negative responses from students including disengagement. So how can questioning be used effectively in the BrainWaves lessons to instil a sense of wonder and encourage participation whilst differentiating between the different abilities of your students?

Dialogic questioning

Dialogic teaching, a technique which fosters the use of dialogue, counters the imbalance of questioning by using skilled questioning which extends the students’ thinking and in which students’ answers are built upon rather than just received. This technique encourages teachers to ask one question at a time, not to answer their own questions and ask questions to all students regardless of their ability or how likely they are to engage.

Why not give it a go? Here are some tips:

  • Talk less, listen more
  • Respond to the students and re-orientate them where necessary
  • Encourage students to expand upon their responses by asking additional probing questions
  • Ask questions simply and conversationally
  • Encourage students to also ask questions
  • Use silence as thinking time for students to gather their thoughts before answering
  • Sequence your questions using an increasing taxonomy of questions
  • Ensure that your questions are sufficiently open and divergentUse a no opt-out or cold calling strategy

Opportunities in the BrainWaves lessons

There are many opportunities to foster conversations about mental health through dialogic questioning in the BrainWaves lessons. Many lessons state specific questions you could ask to encourage this type of conversation. For instance:

  • In the KS5 lesson on ‘Sleep and teenagers’, students are asked “What surprised you?” after watching a video.
  • In the KS5 lesson on ‘Boosting your mood’, questions are sequenced “Which outcome do you think was produced by each activity?” then “Why do you think that?”

When asking these questions, enter into a conversation with the students, respond to their answers and even ask other students to respond to the answers too. This will encourage students to engage with the conversation and stretch their thinking.

Using techniques of dialogic questioning can lead students to natural inquisitiveness, deep insights and creative responses. It demonstrates to the students that they should all be engaged in the dialogue with no-one dominating or being overlooked. Responding to the answers given by students can add depth and breadth to the discussion and create further conversation points. It is a strategy that can support lower level students, encouraging them to participate and improve upon their answers in a conversational and natural way so that they feel supported but also confident in their increasing understanding. It can also support higher-level students by stretching and extending their thinking, and keeping them engaged and learning, even when the material might seem easy for them to understand.

About the author

Abbie Simpkin is a School Research Liaison Manager at BrainWaves, responsible for supporting schools on the BrainWaves Research Programme.  She was previously a music teacher at Key Stage 3-5.