Research

The Westmead Feelings Program (WFP) has a strong research basis and has been studied in more than eight research studies evaluating teaching content, teaching materials and outcome measures in a range of settings (including hospital outpatient department and school settings) and by a range of WFP facilitators (including psychologists, school counsellors and special educators). WFP has consistently demonstrated clinically significant treatment benefits, resulting in improved emotional competence, social skills and mental health for children with autism spectrum disorder and their families.

Results of WFP research have been presented by the authors of the program at national and international conferences and studies of WPF (formerly known as Emotion-Based Social Skills Training, or EBSST) have been published in peer-reviewed journals.

Conclusions

  • WFP in schools significantly improves teacher-reported emotional competence in children with autism spectrum disorder and mild intellectual disability, comparing treatment to a control group.
  • There are clinically significant improvements in mental health for treatment compared to control groups in children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder.
  • Completing WFP results in positive trends for parent-reported emotional competence, parent- and teacher-reported social skills and parent mental health.
  • For facilitators who have completed WFP facilitator training and accreditation, there is a high level of skills and competence acquired relating to WFP delivery so that no further professional support is required for successful implementation. 
Westmead Feelings Program 1 -

Emotional competence is the foundation for social skills and good mental health. The Westmead Feelings Program is derived from specialist clinical experience of what works, based on theories of emotional intelligence and emotional competence, and has been developed to suit children’s individual learning needs. To date, the largest and most significant study of WFP involved a treatment-versus-control-group study that evaluated the impact of the program on the emotional competence of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In this study, 55 school counsellors from government schools in New South Wales, Australia were trained and certified as WFP 1 and WFP 2 facilitators and delivered the program to over 330 children on the autism spectrum (with and without mild intellectual disability) and their families and teachers. Comparing treatment to control groups, there were significant improvements in the emotional competence of children with ASD mild ID following delivery of WFP 1 as reported by teachers. These improvements were maintained six months after treatment and the effect sizes were large (Ratcliffe, Wong, Dossetor & Hayes, 2014). 

An evaluation of WFP 1 for children on the autism spectrum with mild intellectual disability was conducted in a special education school in Sydney. This evaluation indicated improvements in children’s ability to report on feelings experienced, rating feeling intensity, using problem solving skills and increased opportunities to have empathy for one another (Wong & Costley, 2016). For example, one teacher reported that since completing WFP 1, she has had conversations with children in her class about starting high school. She reported having this discussion:

I’ve asked, 'Is anyone worried?', and they’ve said, 'Oh, if I get bullied', and we ended up having a big talk about being bullied using a lot of the Westmead Feelings Program language. So even though we weren’t actually doing the formal sessions, we were using the Westmead Feelings Program language to talk about feelings.

In this same study, it was reported that following delivery of WFP 1, recognising emotions in everyday life ‘went from zero knowledge to a large knowledge’. In particular, identifying emotions on the Feelings Strength Bar, the strength of the emotions, and how different emotions are experienced by different people was named as a great benefit of the Westmead Feelings Program 1. For example, one teacher reported:

If I asked everyone in my class, 'Why are you feeling sad?', they would all be able to tell me and say how they feel on the strength bar.
(Wong & Costley, 2016)

The Westmead Feelings Program teaches children on the autism spectrum emotional competence skills, which are the foundation for social skills, thus enabling children to have relationships with others and participate in the community.

The impact of the WFP 1 on social skills was evaluated in a study of 75 children in a treatment-versus-control-group study conducted in government schools across the state of New South Wales in Australia. For children on the autism spectrum with mild intellectual disability, WFP 1 improved overall social skills, assertion skills and autism spectrum symptoms, and reduced social relating problems (Ratcliffe, Wong, Dossetor, & Hayes, under review).

Teachers have reported on the social skills benefits of WFP 1 in a study conducted in a special education setting in Sydney (Wong & Costley, 2016). WFP 1 was reported to allow students to engage with each other, when they otherwise would not have chosen to spend time together.  For example:

There’s one group of students that are friends and the other two are not and don’t really socialise with them. It was really nice that they were all talking to each other about home and stuff like that.

Teachers also reported that WFP 1 provided opportunities for students to show empathy for their peers. For example, a teacher reported:

During one session, a student talked to the class about feeling really sad because his cat had died. It was nice for students to say to him, 'Oh, that was sad', and show a bit of empathy with their friends, because often you don’t really get a chance to talk about things like that.

In addition to the impact of autism on children, the mental health problems they can suffer from are of at least the same severity as that of their disability. However, unlike autism, mental health problems are reversible and preventable.

The Westmead Feelings Program 1 teaches emotion regulation skills to help manage mental health problems. For example, in a study of WFP 1 in a special education school in Sydney, Australia for children on the autism spectrum with mild intellectual disability, one teacher reported on the benefits of using problem-solving and perspective-taking skills from the program.

We’ve got one boy in our class who does get angry a lot over minor things normally. I think the Westmead Feelings Program 1 helped him to think about how he could try something different next time [to manage his anger]. We spoke a lot about the problem-solving strategy. For example, I say, 'Okay, well, how can we solve this problem?' and once you start talking like that, because he’s done the Westmead Feelings Program 1 and knows the language, he says, 'Oh, okay…' That seems to help him to think about managing his anger. He might be a 3 on the angry strength bar and now he can think about how that might affect how someone else is feeling. So with him we could then say, 'Okay, well, you were feeling angry but because of the way you acted, now that person is feeling sad'.
(Wong & Costley, 2016).

To date, the largest and most significant study of the Westmead Feelings Program involved a ‘treatment versus control group’ study. In this study, 55 school counsellors from government schools in New South Wales were trained in one of the two manualised versions of WFP: Westmead Feelings Program 1, for children with autism spectrum disorder and mild intellectual disability (ASD and mild ID), or Westmead Feelings Program 2, for children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (HFASD). Of 331 participants aged 6−13 years old, 161 participants were in the treatment group (55 WFP 1; 106 WFP 2) and 170 participants were in the control group (59 WFP 1; 111 WFP 2). Results found that WFP significantly improved teacher-reported emotional competence for children with both ASD and mild ID, and with HFASD, and the effect size was large. This improvement was sustained at 6-month follow-up. Significant improvements in teacher-reported social skills were also found for children with HFASD when controlling for pre-treatment child mental health (Ratcliffe, Wong, Dossetor & Hayes, 2014).

Results of Westmead Feelings Program research have been presented by the authors of the program at national and international conferences and studies of WPF (formerly known as Emotion-Based Social Skills Training, or EBSST) have been published in peer-reviewed journals.

References

Ratcliffe, B., Wong, M.G., Dossetor, D. & Hayes, S. (under review). Emotion-based social skills training for children with autism spectrum disorder and mild intellectual disability: a treatment versus control trial in Australian schools.

Ratcliffe, B., Wong, M.G., Dossetor, D. & Hayes, S. (2015). School counsellor delivery of emotion-based social skills training for students with autism and mild intellectual disability: a controlled trial of 75 primary school students. Oral presentation at the Asia Pacific Autism Conference, Brisbane.

Ratcliffe, B., Wong, M.G., Dossetor, D. & Hayes, S. (2014). Teaching social–emotional skills to school-aged children with autism spectrum disorder: a treatment versus control trial in 41 mainstream schools. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 8(12), 1722-1733.

Ratcliffe, B., Wong, M.G., Dossetor, D. & Hayes, S. (2014). Emotion-Based Social Skills Training (EBBST) for children with autism spectrum disorder and mild intellectual disability: a controlled intervention study of 75 children in Australian primary schools. Oral presentation at the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Vienna.

Ratcliffe, B., Wong, M.G., Dossetor, D. & Hayes, S. (2014). Emotion-Based Social Skills Training: a controlled intervention study in 55 mainstream schools for children with autism spectrum disorder. Oral presentation at the International Meeting for Autism Research, Atlanta.

Wong, M.G. & Costley, D. (2016). Emotion-Based Social Skills Training at Aspect: a pilot project. Final report. The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney.