A computer-based program that teaches children to focus their attention on the positives has been found to reduce anxiety, according to a new research study funded by Australian Rotary Health (ARH).

ARH Mental Health Research Grant recipient Professor Allison Waters and her team at Griffith University were awarded the grant from 2014-2017 to conduct a school-based trial of positive attention training to increase children’s emotional well-being and prevent anxiety and depression.

“Many children experience anxiety and depression but have limited access to empirically-supported interventions,” Professor Waters said.

“School-based interventions using brief, computer-assisted training provides a viable way of reaching children.”

School children aged between 7 and 11 years old were recruited to the study, with one group given a computer-delivered positive search training (PST) intervention, another group given a classroom-based, therapist-delivered cognitive behavioural therapy intervention (CBI), and a control group given their curriculum as usual (CAU).

Child anxiety and depressive symptoms were assessed before and after the interventions, and at six months and 12 months after.

“As expected, compared to the curriculum-as-usual control condition, children receiving positive search training and the cognitive behavioural intervention reported anxiety reductions by post-intervention and at six-month follow up.”

However, at the 12-month follow up these effects had reduced, despite parents reporting greater anxiety reductions in children receiving PST.

“Benefits observed at post-intervention and six-month follow-up were not maintained at 12 months and suggests booster sessions are needed at six-months,” Professor Waters said.

In addition to these findings, teachers reported higher post-intervention social-emotional functioning in Year 5 students receiving the CBI, but lower post-intervention functioning in students receiving PST.

Associate Professor Waters believes these evaluations may have been influenced by the teacher’s prior knowledge of the two interventions.

“Further research is needed on strategies to maintain long-term benefits and determine preventative versus early intervention effects.”

While school-based trials of attention training programs have been conducted previously, this was the first time world-wide that this particular type of training program has been examined in a school-based trial.

“It was truly amazing to see entire classes of students engaged and actively participating in the positive search program,” Professor Waters said.

“The possibility that a short, computer-delivered attention program can reduce children’s anxiety is an exciting and promising new finding.”

A journal article on this study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

 

Media contact: Jessica Cooper – (02) 8837 1900 or jessica@arh.org.au