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Computer programmes helps to give vulnerable children a voice

Software designed by the computer scientists at the University of Liverpool is being used by psychologists and social workers around UK and beyond to help establish rapport, and discuss distressing feelings and experiences with vulnerable children.

The challenge

Vulnerable children can have significant difficulties expressing and communicating their feelings in face-to-face interviews. This barrier can prevent a child from receiving much needed support, or even prolong their exposure to detrimental conditions or an abusive environment.

Psychologists working with children have noted that in some instances a child may find it easier to interact with a computer than speak to an adult. Computer scientist Phil Jimmieson at the University of Liverpool and Professor Rachel Calam from the University of Manchester, together with psychology and psychiatry professionals are exploring how a computer tool can assist interviewing vulnerable children.

Research action

The group developed a computer program called In My Shoes (IMS) that pioneers a new form of human-computer interaction. Both the interviewer and the child share control and ownership of the interview process, although it is guided by the interviewer. This creates a shared environment that helps the child to relax and facilitates communication.

The computer tool provides a way to explore the child’s experiences through a set of modules. Instead of turning difficult emotions into words, the child communicates by selecting icons representing the associated feeling. The information can then be used as a basis to acquire further information, making it a gentler shift towards more difficult and emotional topics.

Working in partnership

The IMS tool has been developed in close cooperation with skilled practitioners from the very start of the process to the final product. This careful interaction has focused development of a program applicable to different specialty areas, and enabling professional end users to provide feedback and suggestions regarding future developments and approaches.

The UK Department of Health helped select five local authorities for initial use, who used it alongside their practice to evaluate and fine-tune the pilot IMS program. Cooperation with the not-for-profit organisation Child and Family Training played a crucial role in providing nationwide training and dissemination of the software.

Outputs and outcomes

The IMS computer program is now widely used for interviewing children in local authorities across the UK and beyond. It runs on both Windows and Mac OS, and a toolkit of apps are available for iPad.

Since 2008, IMS has been used in the UK by more than 750 practitioners and over 100 practitioners internationally. IMS-assisted interviews have been shown to considerably outperform conventional interview settings in areas of child and adolescent clinical psychology and psychiatry, mental health services, as well as forensic services, providing data used in court. Furthermore, children and adults with learning disabilities have benefited from the approach, as have children with communication difficulties, including mutism and social anxiety disorder.

The computer program In My Shoes (IMS) pioneers a new form of human-computer interaction for vulnerable children and has been used by over 850 practitioners across the world.

Phil Jimmieson, Lecturer at the University of Liverpool

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