From Beano to bravado, with the help of the little men

29th August 2008 at 01:00
Eddie Murphy's new film may sound intriguing: the titular character of Meet Dave is operated entirely by lots of tiny Daves who man the inside of his body.

But the film star is probably unaware that a west of Scotland primary had already picked up the idea and done something rather different with it. It was a Beano comic strip, not Murphy, which inspired the innovative project at Helensburgh's Colgrain, designed to prepare P6 pupils for the difficult move to secondary school. A variation of the comic's cartoon, "The Numskulls", in which workers inside a boy's head control his thoughts and actions, was used to make big school less daunting.

Questionnaires showed the 26 pupils' emotional resilience had improved after the Homunculi project, devised by two educational psychologists and named after the Latin for "little men".

Pupils spent an afternoon a week in the summer term making videos showing how the homunculi could help find a way out of a problem they might encounter at secondary school, such as bullying, struggling with homework, or peer pressure to smoke. A control group in another Argyll and Bute school carried out a video project that was superficially similar, but without the Homunculi project's focus on building emotional resistance.

The project was designed by educational psychologists Tommy MacKay and Anne Greig to reduce anxiety, depression, anger and stress in children with Asperger's syndrome and other social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Results of the Colgrain project have yet to be published, but Professor MacKay, director of Psychology Consultancy Services and the driving force behind West Dunbartonshire Council's innovative programme for eradicating child illiteracy, and Dr Greig discussed their findings with The TESS.

Pupils at both schools were asked before and after their video projects to describe how they would react to challenging situations. These responses were ranked from 0 to 3.

A 3 might be scored by a girl or boy who would go up to a group of friendly-looking pupils and make conversation. A 0 represented the other end of spectrum. The Colgrain pupils scored only 40 in total before the project, but shot up to 73 afterwards. The control group started on 50 and finished on 53.

The project came about as Colgrain's P6 probationary teacher Steven Robb was looking for an action research project, something which Argyll and Bute Council encourages all probationers to do. He had seen the effect of Dr Greig's work with two children in his class through her work for the council.

The films were a mixture of live action, depicting scenarios that might happen in secondary school, and animation to depict the homunculi's response. A crucial feature was the three-alarm system: the "stop" alarm, which alerts the homunculi that they have work to do; the "think" alarm, which signals their consideration of possible solutions; and the "do" alarm.

"It's meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking," said Dr Greig. "It's about showing what the brain is like, that it's your brain and your thoughts, and you have control of them. You can take a thought, look at it, stop it, make it better - or make it worse. Things are better in your life, depending on what you do with that thought. It's the kind of training that isn't always given." Some parents do it automatically, she said, while others find it difficult to do without revealing their own anxiety.

An activity pack for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties will be released this year, while a pack for mainstream children, using techniques trialled at Colgrain, is expected to be published next year, with findings from the study.


A large frieze depicts a drawing of the inside of a skull. Children create their own characters on the basis of problems they wish to solve.

Each character is given a name and a description or script of what he can do. In the original case study, involving a boy with Asperger's, five characters dealt with moods, sleep problems, friendships, motor tics and communicating: Moody, Couch Potato, Gaffa, Chatterbox and Twitch. For example, Chatterbox helped in "knowing when to stop talking and take turns". Special tools, such as a friendship repair toolkit, are devised for each character.

A head homunculus is always on patrol, noticing when problems arise by monitoring a "thoughts and feelings screen" inside the skull and responding to an early warning system of flashing traffic lights and an alarm. He alerts the homunculi to the problem and decides who should be involved in helping.

When the project started at Colgrain Primary, pupils identified the most daunting situation they might face at secondary school. Each was put into a group in which they would have to confront that fear. They designed a homunculus with its own powers, perhaps sorting out arguments, thinking things through or, in one case, being really good at bouncing.

Pupils also thought up special tools for the homunculi, such as a "thinking gun" or a magic orb for seeing into the future.

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