Research News

UB researchers using virtual reality to treat students with trauma

Schoolgirl gesturing while using virtual reality glasses in a classroom.

UB researchers hope to use virtual reality to build resilience in children, including distress tolerance, interpersonal skills, mindfulness and self-regulation/inhibition control.


Published February 15, 2019

headshot of Richard Lamb.
“We work with teachers in virtual reality to allow them to practice sensitive and trauma-informed approaches with students who have been traumatized.”
Richard Lamb, associate professor
Graduate School of Education

Researchers in the Graduate School of Education are developing a treatment using virtual reality in the classroom for children who have experienced trauma.

The researchers — Richard Lamb, associate professor and director of the Neurocognition Science Laboratory, and Elisabeth Etopio, director of the Teacher Education Institute and assistant dean for teacher education — will apply modern cognitive behavioral therapy interventions to work with students with trauma.

Both faculty members have successfully used virtual reality equipment to simulate student behaviors in teacher-preparation courses.

Their latest project with elementary students who have experienced trauma is another example of UB researchers and educators using virtual reality scenarios on mobile devices that were developed in the Neurocognition Science Laboratory and adapted for classroom use.

“This research is exciting and important because it allows researchers, teachers, administrators and students to come together to think about how the effects of trauma in childhood impact schooling,” says Lamb.

“So through virtual reality, we can actually reach a lot more children than we could with one-on-one types of counseling. By integrating it into the school using inexpensive, virtual reality programs and headsets, we can start to actually reach whole classrooms of children, as opposed to one or two children at a time.”

Lamb and Etopio are developing additional VR-based programs that could help the many children who have experienced trauma that causes significant impairments in school.

An estimated 26 percent of children in the United States will witness or experience traumatic events before turning 4, the UB researchers say. In high-needs schools, this number rises to upwards of 60 percent.

For children experiencing trauma, difficulties within the educational setting manifest as early as kindergarten and often persist throughout their school career and into adulthood, the two researchers say.

Behavioral manifestations in school related to exposure to trauma may include increased absenteeism, poor school performance, difficulty relating to peers and teachers, suicidal tendencies, depression, anxiety, high-risk behaviors and other potential physical, emotional and behavioral difficulties, according to existing research. When these socioemotional issues are present, they impact student learning, researchers say.

Lamb and Etopio say these observations were the reasons they decided to investigate whether virtual reality could help these children.

The virtual-reality platforms being developed by Lamb and Etopio will take one of two forms. The first are programs designed for teachers, school counselors and social workers, Lamb says, noting they’re usually inexpensive and can be run on equipment already available in schools, such as cellphones or iPads.

“With the teachers, we give them a scenario in which they are responding to a child who has been traumatized,” he says. “The child has some sort of behavior the teacher would ordinarily question in the classroom, such as talking out or putting their head down or being disengaged. Instead of trying to understand why the child may be engaging in the behavior, the teacher may attempt to reprimand or correct the child.

“We work with teachers in virtual reality to allow them to practice sensitive and trauma-informed approaches with students who have been traumatized,” he says.

The second part of the research involves working with the students, something that must be handled delicately and in conjunction with clinically trained counselors, psychologists, or psychiatrists because the child already has experienced trauma, Lamb says. The virtual-reality treatment is a very small component of a much broader treatment plan overseen by a variety of caregivers and mental health professionals.

“You don’t want to traumatize the child further,” he explains. “So if you just stick him in a traumatic experience again, it may re-traumatize him all over again and make the problem more difficult.

“Our hope is that we can use virtual reality to build resilience in children, including distress tolerance, interpersonal skills, mindfulness and self-regulation/inhibition control.”

Etopio adds that scenarios have been developed to provide students the opportunity to interact with characters (avatars) to practice interpersonal skills. Students also may be presented with difficult situations in which they must practice distress tolerance and self-regulation, she says.

Lamb and Etopio will be working with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Enterprise Charter School in downtown Buffalo, where both researchers have used virtual reality to work with teachers. The school has history of hosting UB faculty interested translating their work to practice in classrooms, and has been a model of how UB researchers and educators can work in local classrooms to improve students’ experiences through partnerships and research.

“We are in the process of working with teachers and administrators from Enterprise Charter School right now,” Lamb says. “We have not started with students yet because we want to make sure we have the VR fully developed with adults before we start doing the work with the children.”

Lamb says he anticipates implementing the UB program with students starting this fall.