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Interventions that help children develop protective factors against mental health disorders are an inherently social endeavour, relying on a number of actors from within the family as well as the school context. Little work thus far in CSCW and HCI has examined the potential of technology to support or enhance such interventions. This paper provides the first steps to unpacking this socio-technical design space, focusing on emotional regulation (ER) as a specific instance of a protective factor. We combine a user-centred approach to understanding lived experiences of families (interviews, design workshops) with an expert-led understanding of what makes interventions psychologically effective. Our findings suggest the potential of technology to enable a shift in how prevention interventions are designed and delivered: empowering children and parents through a new model of 'child-led, situated interventions', where participants learn through actionable support directly within family life, as opposed to didactic in-person workshops and a subsequent 'skills application'. This conceptual model was then instantiated in a technology probe, which was deployed with 14 families. The promising field study findings provide an initial proof-of-concept validation of the proposed approach.
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“I Just Let Him Cry. ..”: Designing Socio-Technical
Interventions in Families to Prevent Mental Health
PETR SLOVÁK, UCL Interaction Centre and Evidence Based Practice Unit, University College London, UK
NIKKI THEOFANOPOULOU, Evidence Based Practice Unit, University College London and Anna Freud
National Centre for Children and Families, UK
ALESSIA CECCHET, University of California Santa Cruz, USA
PETER COTTRELL, University of California Santa Cruz, USA
FERRAN ALTARRIBA BERTRAN, University of California Santa Cruz, USA
ELLA DAGAN, University of California Santa Cruz, USA
JULIAN CHILDS, Evidence Based Practice Unit, University College London and Anna Freud National
Centre for Children and Families, UK
KATHERINE ISBISTER, University of California Santa Cruz, USA
Interventions that help children develop protective factors against mental health disorders are an inherently
social endeavour, relying on a number of actors from within the family as well as the school context. Little
work thus far in CSCW and HCI has examined the potential of technology to support or enhance such
interventions. This paper provides the rst steps to unpacking this socio-technical design space, focusing on
emotional regulation (ER) as a specic instance of a protective factor. We combine a user-centred approach to
understanding lived experiences of families (interviews, design workshops) with an expert-led understanding
of what makes interventions psychologically eective. Our ndings suggest the potential of technology to
enable a shift in how prevention interventions are designed and delivered: empowering children and parents
through a new model of ‘child-led, situated interventions’, where participants learn through actionable support
directly within family life, as opposed to didactic in-person workshops and a subsequent ‘skills application’.
This conceptual model was then instantiated in a technology probe, which was deployed with 14 families. The
promising eld study ndings provide an initial proof-of-concept validation of the proposed approach.
CCS Concepts:
Human-centered computing HCI theory, concepts and models
;Field studies;User
centered design;Collaborative and social computing devices;
Keywords: Prevention Science; Families; Mental Health Promotion; Emotion Regulation; Social-Emotional
Learning; Interventions
Authors’ addresses: Petr Slovák, UCL Interaction Centre and Evidence Based Practice Unit, University College London,
London, UK,; Nikki Theofanopoulou, Evidence Based Practice Unit, University College London and
Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, London, UK, ; Alessia Cecchet, University of California Santa Cruz,
Santa Cruz, USA, ; Peter Cottrell, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, USA, ; Ferran Altarriba Bertran, University
of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, USA, ; Ella Dagan, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, USA, ; Julian
Childs, Evidence Based Practice Unit, University College London and Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families,
London, UK, ; Katherine Isbister, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, USA, .
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Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 2, No. CSCW, Article 160. Publication date: November 2018.
160:2 P. Slovak et al.
ACM Reference Format:
Petr Slovák, Nikki Theofanopoulou, Alessia Cecchet, Peter Cottrell, Ferran Altarriba Bertran, Ella Dagan,
Julian Childs, and Katherine Isbister. 2018. “I Just Let Him Cry.. .”: Designing Socio-Technical Interventions in
Families to Prevent Mental Health Disorders.. In Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol.
2, CSCW, Article 160 (November 2018). ACM, New York, NY. 35 pages.
Mental health problems represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK, with the cost to the
economy is estimated at £105 billion a year — roughly the cost of the entire national health service
]. Most mental health disorders are chronic and begin early in life (75% before the age of 18
years), and this realisation is fuelling calls by national governments and international organisations
for preventative interventions in childhood [
]. Although the psychological mechanisms
to develop protective factors against mental health disorders are relatively well understood and
evidence-based interventions exist (see [
] for reviews), only little is known about the potential
of technology to address some of the critical challenges remaining – including those of access,
engagement, and training costs that prevention programs face when trying to reach families of
young children [
]. As such, it is not clear if/how technology could be used to facilitate
transfer of such learning from school into families (cf. [
]); or to enable new types of interventions
that would empower parents and children to further develop protective competencies independently
on formal training programs.
This work focuses on emotional regulation (ER) as a specic instance of a protective factor. We
chose emotion regulation as it is a fundamental life skill, with eects on life outcomes comparable
in size to those of IQ or family social status [
]. Research shows that these eects are wide
reaching: if ER is poorly developed, it leads to increased chances of developing mental health
disorders [
] as well as societal problems such as criminal behaviour [
], low
personal wellbeing [95], and academic under-achievement [30].
Our aims are to provide the rst steps to unpacking this inherently socio-technical design
space, which requires an understanding of research literature across Psychology (what works), HCI
(what is technically feasible); as well as insights into the everyday practices of families within the
designed for social context (what people actually do). Our methodological approach thus draws
on combining a user-centred approach to understanding the lived practices of families within a
particular community, with an expert-led understanding of the experiential components that make
interventions psychologically eective. To do so, our work proceeded in a number of interrelated
First, we
15 parents and children from an underprivileged community, which
falls into 5% of most deprived areas nationally. Supporting these populations is an urgent
issue as prior research repeatedly shows that under-privileged children are particularly at
risk of low self-regulation competencies at an early age [
], and the gap further widens
over the school years [
]. The goal of the interviews was in gathering ‘thick’ qualitative
data that could drive design: we aimed to develop an understanding of the existing practices
used by families, including their beliefs, emotion-regulation support that parents provide
their children, and the technologies already in place (or the lack thereof).
Second, we
combined such empirical data with psychological theories
originating in
Educational Psychology and Prevention Science to identify the socio-technical constraints
and opportunities of how technology-enabled interventions could t within the lived worlds
of these families.
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:3
As a result, we
proposed two high-level design goals
that embody substantial conceptual
shifts in how prevention interventions could be designed and delivered with technology: the
notion of ‘situated interventions’ and ‘child-led rather than parent driven’ approach.
Finally, we instantiated these conceptual design goals into a proposed intervention model
and designed a
technology probe
to validate some of the core assumptions. We report on
it’s deployment with 14 families to provide an initial validation of the envisioned approach.
Overall, this paper contributes a set of empirically grounded design opportunities that can inspire
new models of prevention interventions; as well as an initial case study exploration within an
under-researched area. We discuss the novel directions this opens and hope this work might serve
as an inspiration and a bridge between Prevention Science and CSCW communities.
This work spans multiple elds that are not commonly connected: We will start with an overview of
existing work on parent-child interaction in CSCW/HCI and technology-enabled learning. We then
switch to the psychology strand to outline the increasing importance of prevention and promotion
interventions, overview the existing research into impacts of (mal-) adaptive emotion regulation
strategies, and highlight the known challenges within existing interventions.
2.1 Related work in HCI
2.1.1 Parent-child interaction and interventions in CSCW and HCI. Although a growing body of
work suggests that technology-enabled tools could eectively scaold parent-child activities, most
so far has been focused on supporting remote parent-child communication. For example, a number
of projects have explored how technology-enabled systems can provide a virtual space where
parents and children can interact [
]; or support parent-child activities when the parent
and child are at remote locations, such as facilitating gameplay [
] or reading together [
With regards to research aiming at supporting parent-child interactions in co-located contexts,
recent work has explored multi-touch tabletop applications (see [155] for a review); sensor-based
co-operative exergames [123]; and technology-enhanced storytelling activities [23,140].
Other research has explored opportunities for technology to not only support parents, but
also provide intervention. For example, TalkBetter [
] and TalkLIME [
] are in-situ mobile
intervention services that have been specically targeted at supporting interactions between parents
and children with delayed language development by providing real-time feedback to parents during
their ongoing conversation with their child. TOBY [
] helps parents start early intervention
for their children with autism to improve their child’s competencies such as attention, memory,
and recognition. Pina et al. [
] have designed a system to help parents who have children with
Attention-Decit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) by detecting parental stress and oering in situ
cues that remind parents of behavioural strategies to practice in those moments of duress. Geared
towards all preschool children, smartphone-based system WAKEY [
] helps parents use better
communication strategies to teach their children to carry out their morning routines.
However, research around the potential of digital technology to support the development of
social-emotional competencies at home for typically developing children has been limited in the
HCI community [
]. The few recent relevant projects include the design of an interactive
artifact created to support social-emotional learning in children aged 3-6 years [
], and the
development of an intelligent social tutoring system (ISTS) designed to assess and build prosocial
skills for children aged 7-12 years [
]. Finally, Slovak et al explored mechanisms to engage parents
with social-emotional learning content at home through an interactive, game-like activity [133].
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160:4 P. Slovak et al.
2.1.2 Emotion regulation and technology. Similarly, only a limited body of work is available
that would focus on technology-enabled emotion regulation support. The closest are emerging
systems that use game-based bio-feedback interventions to support children in improving attention
and/or anxiety regulation, often through breathing and relaxation exercises. For example, ’The
Journey to Wild Divine’ [
] is a biofeedback video game system which has shown potential in
teaching relaxation techniques to children with ADHD to reduce disruptive behaviours. Similarly,
an evaluation of an 8-week video game-based bio-feedback intervention that combined relaxation
training and practice with psychoeducation [
] showed that the system was successful in reducing
symptoms of anxiety and depression in a group of 9- to 17-year-olds, who were presenting with
clinically relevant symptoms compared to waiting list controls. More recently, an RCT [
] tested
the eect of MindLight, a newly developed neurofeedback video game combining evidence-based
clinical techniques for reducing anxiety with game design principles aimed to optimise emotional
intensity, motivation and engagement, on children with elevated anxiety levels. Finally, MindFull
] is a mindfulness-oriented, neurofeedback-based, mobile brain-computer system developed to
help teach children living in poverty to self-regulate anxiety and attention, with promising results
after a 6-week eld intervention [
]. Such emerging projects show the potential of technology
in extending and scaling up the established bio-feedback techniques in support of self-regulation
of attention. However, these focus only on a limited subset of emotion-regulatory competencies
covered by the prevention programs, as described in the next section (cf. 2.2).
Another related area of work is focused on ‘social assistive robots’, with the aim to replicate
the diverse emotional benets that companion animals oer people [
]. Much of
the work in SAR interventions has focused on older adults, reporting positive eects on mood,
social behaviours and physiological indicators of stress after interactions with Paro in the elderly,
particularly those suering from dementia [
]. Regarding the use of SAR with
typically developing children, most research is focused on their use for educational interventions:
for example, teaching nutrition to 1st-grade children [130], facilitating English language learning
], and teaching children to play chess [
]. Despite the reported promising outcomes of SAR
interventions in other contexts, there are no studies exploring the use of SARs for supporting
emotion regulation competence (or in-the-moment soothing) with typically developing children.
2.1.3 Technology-enabled situated and embodied learning. Situated learning, including peripheral
learning, has emerged in the learning sciences as an important strategy (e.g., [
There has been an accompanying focus on tangibles and other ways technologies become embedded
and used in the learners’ environment as a way to accomplish this (see e.g., [
for reviews and proposed frameworks). As an example of these approaches, tangible and mobile
interfaces enabled situated learning in nature [
], museums [
], as well as engaging with
computation in classrooms [
]. Such possibility space for the design of situated, embodied
learning is moreover steadily expanding with the emergence of conductive fabrics, soft and stretch
sensors, and the increasing power and decreasing size of on-board computational capabilities
(e.g., [
]). In summary, the existing HCI/CSCW literature provides a wealth of examples
showing the technology-enabled opportunity for situated learning and interventions in schools
and family spaces; as well as novel technologies that open opportunities for feasible large-scale
deployments. However, to best of our knowledge, such developments have not been explored within
mental health promotion/intervention contexts and it is not clear if/how these would be applicable.
2.2 Emotional regulation: impact and strategies
An individual’s emotion regulation practices can become a protective or a risk factor for the
development of mental health disorders. Well-developed emotion regulation is associated with
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:5
good health outcomes, and improved relationships and academic and work performance [
Conversely, diculties with emotion regulation are associated with mental disorders [
and incorporated into several models of specic psychopathologies, including borderline personality
disorder [82,85], major depressive disorder [103,122], and many others ([42,69,92]).
In particular, most theoretical models distinguish maladaptive (risk factors for psychopathology)
and adaptive (protective against psychopathology) emotion regulation strategies. For example,
Aldao et al review [
] on ER strategies across psychopathology emphasises reappraisal, problem
solving, and acceptance as adaptive; while suppression (including both expressive suppression and
thought suppression), avoidance (including both experiential avoidance and behavioural avoidance),
and rumination are seen as maladaptive. With the exception of problem solving, the maladaptive
strategies were found to be more strongly related to psychopathology than the adaptive strategies,
indicating that presence of a maladaptive ER strategy might have more adverse eects than the
relative absence of particularly adaptive ER strategies.
2.2.1 Deprivation as a key risk factor to low self-regulation. Living in under-privileged conditions,
such as in poverty, is a key risk factor for low self-regulation both in childhood and later in life
]. Already by kindergarten age, children from low socioeconomic status (SES) families are
behind in self-control skills relative to middle-class peers [
], and fall progressively further
behind over the school years [107,127]. Given the strong eects of self-regulation on a variety of
life outcomes (cf., [
]), such early-age dierences in abilities can reinforce the accomplishment gap
between middle and low-SES children, and facilitate a negative family spiral of staying in poverty
across multiple generations [
]. While low self-regulation in childhood is a strong risk-factor for
a number of negative outcomes, it does not necessarily map out the child’s life course.
2.2.2 ‘Universal’ prevention interventions. A body of literature in Educational psychology and Pre-
vention Science shows that emotional-regulation—as well as other social-emotional competencies—
are malleable: there are evidence-based interventions that can change people’s ability to regulate
their emotions (e.g., [
]). Moreover, even small improvements in self-regulation in early
years can lead to large positive dierences in individual life outcomes for both at-risk and general
populations [95], with accumulating impacts at the societal level [10].
This has led to a research focus on universal prevention programs which are deployed to whole
populations (e.g., as whole school approaches) to promote and reinforce personal strengths, rather
than being targeted to children already manifesting problems (see e.g., [
] for a review). Drawing
on these techniques, a number of prevention programs have been designed and deployed with
promising results in Randomised Control Trials (RCTs), showing long-term positive eects over
decades [
]. As one example, the Perry Program focused on low-SES populations and found that
the program group had only a third of the incarceration rates in comparison with a control group
(6% vs. 17%), as well as substantially higher earnings, more stable family relationships, and better
health 40 years after the intervention [10,99].
2.2.3 Existing challenges. While eective, the existing prevention programs are however very
resource intensive. The key challenge is that they lack scaleable techniques to get beyond classroom-
based learning and support the in-the-moment reinforcement and scaolding of the learnt self-
regulation techniques, which are needed for the skills to be transferred from intervention to practice
]. This is because emotional regulation—and social-emotional skills more broadly—
need to be developed for ‘hot’ moments, i.e., situations when the learner is overwhelmed with
emotions; and when the capacity for conscious, analytical thought is diminished [
]. Devel-
oping emotional regulation thus requires repeated practice and students’ scaolded experiential
learning within relevant situations to ingrain the learning beyond full cognitive control. This is
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160:6 P. Slovak et al.
analogous to how showing someone ‘how to ride a bike’ will not be helpful unless they can (repeat-
edly) try it out for themselves. Consequently, learners need extensive examples and opportunities for
personal experience and practice in real-world settings that are coupled with in-the-moment feedback
that drives active reection on progress [71].
The critical role of providing this scaolding and support is currently left to teachers and parents,
requiring extensive training to do eectively: For example, a shortened version of the Incredible
Years program [
] still required 12-24 weeks of parent training in groups of 6-10 parents
for 2.5 hours, once a week. The Perry Pre-school program was even more intensive, comprising a
2-year program of 2.5 hours of interactive academic instruction daily coupled with 1.5-hour weekly
home visits by trained sta [
]. The need for such in-person training is a substantial barrier in
terms of program cost, but more importantly also in the pragmatics of deployment. This particularly
aects parents from high-risk communities, such as those with low-SES, who often do not have
childcare available, work multiple jobs etc. [
]. So although the extensive programs have been
shown to be economically cost eective despite the substantial investment in time, eort, and
money [
], the front-loaded costs and time-requirements for parents/teachers substantially
limit the scale and impact these programs could have. Here we see the potential for our proposed
socio-technical prevention interventions to supplement the work of such programs.
Methodologically, this work is deeply grounded in the socio-technical tradition as “an approach
to design that considers human, social and organisational factors, as well as technical factors in the
design of organisational systems [
]”. While this tradition might be more deeply steeped in the
context of work settings (within CSCW and more broadly), we argue that the principal need to
view “technical features of the system and social features of the work as fundamentally interrelated
[98]” is as important within the context of at-home mental-health interventions.
In fact, such interdependence of social and technical is particularly pronounced in the mental
health context: the goal of the designed system is not ‘just’ in augmenting an existing social
practice; the purpose of a mental health intervention is to, ultimately, enable people to change
and re-shape some of the deepest ways in which they relate with the world and with one another.
Within the selected case study of emotion regulation, the ‘work to be supported’ are then the
intra- and inter-personal practices through which the child perceives, reacts to, and copes with
strong emotions. The principles of socio-technical design then apply on multiple levels: how the
(technology-enabled) intervention becomes embedded into the current practices of an individual or
the family unit; which mechanisms are assumed to lead to shift of these practices; and on which
timescales and through which ‘levers’ this happens in the family context.
It was important for the design process to therefore draw on the understanding of the existing
everyday practices of the specic user group, while contrasting such case study data with what
is already known in the literature (mental health interventions, prevention science, parenting) as
well as the feasibility of technologies. The rest of the section outlines the three-stage process we
took in this work: Phase 1 drew on interviews to gather ‘thick’ qualitative data to ground design
process; Phase 2 combined interviews, related work (parenting, intervention literature, technology
feasibility) into a conceptual framework; and Phase 3 provided rst steps towards validating this
conceptual vision and its feasibility.
Ethical approval. The research protocol for all phases of the study was approved by the univer-
sity’s Research Ethics Committee and informed consent/assent was obtained from all individual
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:7
3.1 Phase 1: Interviews
We conducted a series of interviews with parents and children from an underprivileged community
in the UK, to better understand the existing practices and beliefs about self-regulation of the families
in this community, as well as the challenges they face. Such ‘thick’ descriptions of the everyday
practices in the case study community served predominantly as grounding the design process in
Section 5, allowing us to combine this understanding of lived practice with SEL theories to identify
opportunities for technology-enabled interventions, as well as gain an initial understanding of how
such interventions could t within the everyday lives of these families.
Participants. We recruited parents and children from an underprivileged community, which falls
into 5% of most deprived areas nationally. The community was selected as the most impoverished
area within Oxford, UK (based on government data). Overall, we interviewed 15 parents who
had children within the targeted age-range (6-10 years old) and, where possible, included the
children within the interviews (10 children total). This range was selected to mimic the existing SEL
programs, predominantly targeting primary school grades. Children’s average age was 8.4 years,
with more girls (66.7%) than boys (33.3%). The interviews were complemented with participatory
observation by the rst author, who volunteered weekly at a local youth club for a period of
6 months, alternating between supporting existing activities (e.g., football) and bringing in new
ones in collaboration with the youth club team (e.g., mindfulness). The main aim was to understand
the community a little better and develop long-term relationships and trust with the community
leaders. The interviews were conducted within the rst 6 weeks of these engagements (initial 5 by
the primary researcher prior to any participatory engagements; the remaining 10 by a research
assistant living in the community, who was recruited for this purpose.)
Interview topics. The themes covered in the semi-structured interview included: (i) the existing
practices used by families to communicate around self-regulation in this community; (ii) the
underlying beliefs, motivation, and perceived challenges to self-regulation; (iii) the support that
parents provide their children around self-regulatory competencies more broadly; and (iv) the
technologies already in place (or the lack thereof). The interviews sessions (approx 1 hour) were
conducted in person, often in participants’ homes. Most of the interviews were collected by a
research assistant who lived in the area and was trusted by participants as a member of their
community, thus having access to their homes.
Analysis process. Each interview was audio recorded, fully transcribed, and then included into
a thematic analysis following the process outlined in [
]. The second author transcribed the
interviews, and read and re-read the transcripts to familiarise herself with the data. Following this,
initial codes were generated across the data set. Dierent codes were then sorted into potential
themes, and all the relevant coded data extracts within the identied themes were collated. At that
stage, the rst and second author worked together to review and rene the initial themes both at
the level of the coded extracts, as well as in relation to the entire data set. Themes were then rened,
generating an initial thematic map of the analysis with the resulting main themes and sub-themes.
This process was followed to ascertain that the generated thematic map and individual themes
accurately represented the data, and that the collated extracts for each theme formed a coherent and
consistent pattern across the data set. The renement of the thematic map and individual themes
involved several iterations, until consensus was reached among both authors that the analysis told
a coherent, well-organised story about the data. To protect anonymity, participants are referred to
by using P for parents and C for children, followed by a participant number.
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160:8 P. Slovak et al.
3.2 Phase 2: Design mechanisms articulation
In order to develop appropriate design mechanisms to support children in developing emotion-
regulation skills, as well as to support parents in scaolding these skills, we engaged in a multi-step,
iterative process. We began with the literature review outlined in the Related Work section, to
help dene the problem space and forge an understanding of prior technological interventions
and their contexts. This helped us to prepare the interviews with parents and children concerning
their current self-regulation practices. The team drew upon extant psychological theories and best-
practice interventions, along with the interview data, to brainstorm potential novel technological
support of in-home eorts at rehearsing and discussing self regulation. These ideas were tempered
by our knowledge of the technological feasibility of any given concept. This process led us to the
articulation of the overarching design goals (discussed in Section 5.1); envisioning of an intervention
that instantiates these goals (Section 5.2), as well as the creation of a technology probe validating
initial key assumptions (Section 5.3-5.5).
3.3 Phase 3: Technology probe deployment
This last phase reports on a initial deployment of the technology probe, based on the design
goals articulated in Phase 2. The probe development was grounded in an 8 months iterative
process, including weekly meetings with SEL experts and a series of 9 co-design workshops with
parents/children. Due to space constrains, the design process will be reported in a separate paper
and here we focus only on describing the nal prototypes. We deployed these to 14 families (for a
period of 2-4 days) to explore how such a proof-of-concept instantiation of the design goals would
be appropriated in real-world settings. Within such short time-scale, the goal was to examine
the feasibility of the core design assumptions and explore the nascent design space, rather than
evaluate the specics of the artifact design or formally evaluate the psychological eectiveness of
the probe. Section 5.4 will outline the details of the research process and methodology.
This section presents a qualitative description of the current practices that parents from our case
study community reported to use with their children. We start with describing the parental practices
as the general backdrop of family self-regulation norms, then move to children’s own strategies,
and nally articulate the beliefs that appeared to underlie such behaviours; while contrasting
the ndings with parenting literature. Such detailed description of existing lived experiences and
practices around emotion regulation will then serve—together with technological feasibility and
existing prevention science mechanisms—as the basis for the design process aiming to identify
novel socio-technical interventions in Section 5.
4.1 Existing parental practices
Overall, our interviews highlighted the limited strategies employed by parents to help their children
calm down. There was a strong notion of parents expecting children to calm down on their own,
but not necessarily providing them with support to do so. We highlight these patterns across the
practices parents mentioned when talking about their children, as well as their own self-regulation
4.1.1 Parental practices to calm down their children. In most instances of conict, the parental
focus was predominantly behaviour-oriented, with parents frequently using external threats and
direct demands to the children to change their behaviour. A commonly reported practice was using
threats to withdraw children’s privileges, such as access to digital technologies or family outings,
unless the child ‘calms down’. This was often complemented by making sure the child disengages
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:9
from the situation at hand. The four quotes below illustrate some of these approaches, as well as
highlight how rarely parents brought the emotion or even the underlying need for why the children
were ‘misbehaving’ as a point of discussion; focusing predominantly on cessation of the negative
feelings in parents’ vicinity.
“[W]hen they are not doing as they are being told or when they are not very happy with things,
I take them away from what they were doing and I tell them they have to sit in their room for a
few minutes until they are ready to listen to me.” [P18]
“Well, whoever’s in a strop or anyone throws a tantrum or whatsoever, we tell them to walk out
the room or we let them have their own space.” [P15]
“[H]ers depend on if she’s being angry or ghting or something and I know she’s not calm, I’ll
be like ’You’ve got 5 minutes in the room’, or if she carries on being stroppy, I’ll be like ’OK, now
it’s 10 minutes in your room’. So, it kind of keeps going up, so if she calms down then I just stick
to 10.” [P23]
“I’d let him know ‘you’re crossing your boundaries and your mother and you need to calm down
and watch out how you behave and talk’. [...] I have to tell him ‘If you’re gonna misbehave, I
will ban you from his toys or TV-time or [.. .] he’d have to go to bed earlier or on the weekend
or on the weekend he won’t be allowed to go to his cousins’ house. That usually works.” [P24]
For nearly a third of the parents, the expectation of child self-soothing capabilities led to assume
that ‘having a cry’ is a normal feature of the children’s calming down process. For these parents,
it is a natural part of their children’s routine when they needed to calm down. For example, P14
mentioned that “I let him cry. ‘You’ve done wrong, you know, cos you should have let me nish talking
and then I would have talked to you’. [...] I let him cry for 10 to 15 minutes, max I’ll say 20.. Similarly,
the experience of P21 with her daughter was that “She will slam the door, she’ll let o her steam in
her own way. Probably have a little sob.
Across all of these approaches, the underlying notion seemed to be that children “[need something
to] calm down. And keep them busy. (P13)” As such, any threats never included removing access
to non-digital objects which parents knew their children used to calm themselves down, such as
dolls, toys, books or drawing materials. A minority of parents (4/15) also mentioned pro-actively
suggesting an distracting activity known to help to defuse a potentially emotional situation. For
example, Parent 15 said: “[I]f I know they get into a spot where they’re just gonna burst and that’s it
[...] I’ll tell them from the start ‘Why don’t you go upstairs and sit and play with you dget spinner’.
I’ll give them something to do or what they like doing. Because I know when he plays with the dget
spinner it calms him down. .
Parent-child conicts—which were the most commonly reported situations by parents—often
seemed to turned into power struggles and the strategies the parents described focused predomi-
nantly on behaviour rather than underlying emotions. In contrast, in cases where parents were
not involved in the situation which had upset the child, they were more likely to use emotionally
supportive strategies. These included encouraging their child to express their emotions, cuddling
them, reassuring them, engaging in an activity together, or just being with the child.
“[When he’s feeling upset] I have to get down to what’s making him feel this way, so. . .He does
tell me and I do try to nd a way to get him out of that place where he’d rather be a little bit
happy than being upset or angry.” [P23]
While almost every parent mentioned talking to their children in situations where they needed
to calm down, this was mostly the case after the child had already calmed down on their own
and the focus was on addressing the child’s misbehaviour and on reiterating rules, rather than
discussing their feelings. Parent P17 has for example explained that:
“Obviously, [with] the older one, I always have to come back and explain it to her. Because
she’s a lot older and once I’ve explained my side of it, 9 times out of 10 she will understand. [...]
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160:10 P. Slovak et al.
Obviously, at the time she’ll have a bit of a strop ‘Oh, it’s not fair’ and this, but later when I’ve
come back and calmed down and stu, the situation’s calmed down, she is able to understand.
Overall, the practices described above are strikingly similar to those employed by parents
characterised by ’emotion dismissing’ parenting approach. As Gottman et. al. [
] observed, these
“parents felt that the child’s sadness or anger were potentially harmful to the child, that it was the
parents’ job to change these toxic negative emotions as quickly as possible, that the child needed to
realise that these negative emotions would not last and were not very important, and that it was the
parent’s job to convey to the child a sense that he or she could ride out these negative emotions without
damage.Emotion dismissing parents were further characterised as often using distraction when
their child was sad, and did not view the emotion as benecial or as an opportunity for intimacy
or for teaching; they did not articulate their child’s emotional experience; and many viewed their
child’s anger (even without mis-behaviour) as enough cause for punishment or a time out [49].
Such commonality in approaches suggests that albeit each family might have their specic
practices that will be important for appropriation of interventions (such as what punishment is
used), the underlying broader patterns described by our participants are far from unique. This
strengthens the possibility that interventions designed with this particular case study group could
be, theoretically, transferable to other parenting communities as well.
4.1.2 Parents’ own self-regulation strategies. The patterns observed in parental practices aimed
at calming down their children t well with those employed by parents to calm down themselves,
with disengagement and distraction being the main two strategies. Again, these results are in
line with prior psychological literature on commonly used emotion regulation strategies – cf.,
Section 4.4 and [3,52,128].
Similarly to what was expected of children, parents’ preferred strategy was to ‘take some time
out’, either by sending their children o to their room or by removing themselves from the situation.
This was described by some mothers as a necessary period to regroup before re-engaging with their
children. Their reports overwhelmingly suggest a need to put some distance between themselves
and their children when emotions run high. This appears to provide them with the mental space
needed to manage their emotions and reect on the situation. For example, P18 described it as “if
they’re [...] getting on my nerves and saying too much, I’ll be like, you know, ‘I’ve told you enough
times and now get on with what you need to do and don’t follow me’, I’ll shut the door, I’ll go to the
kitchen and I’ll do everything I need to do.
After disengaging from the situation, most parents’ preferred strategy to regulate their aect
was to distract themselves with another activity, such as listening to music, watching television or
tending to their chores. Parent P20 summarised it as “I think I used to just put in my Walkman, I’d
put in my headset, put YouTube on, put some songs on [...] or anything. Just plug something into my
ear and just listen to that and kind of zone everything outside and carry on with my work or whatever
or housework. Although the specic behaviours diered across parents, the core behaviour of
distracting oneself and disengaging from the emotional situation seemed constants. The following
quote further illustrates the common patterns we observed:
“Me, usually I probably just go on Instagram, nd some funny post that gets me laughing or
maybe go through my Snapchat or just to calm down sometimes go for a little drive, maybe get
out. . . . . . Me-time. Get myself away. [P24]
Finally, a minority sought support from their family in situations where they were overrun by
emotions. This practice mostly served as an emotional release for the parents, rather than help
them resolve the situation which caused their emotional turmoil:
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:11
“Well, when I need to calm down, I just talk, I talk a lot I think. I talk and I’ll just go into my
phone, I’ll put something on or I’ll just ring one of my sisters and I’ll talk to them about it.Cos
we are a big family we all are always there for each other. So, we’re always on the phone anyway.
We just talk about what’s happening and I think it kinda calms you down, yeah.” [P23]
It is worth nothing that a number of parents explicitly expressed their interest in more eective
ways of calming themselves down and managing their emotions, especially in situations of conict
with their children. In Parent 13’s words: “I think I can cope with children, but who’s gonna calm me
down sometimes?”
4.2 Children’s self-regulation strategies
Consistent with the parental approaches, the children we spoke with relied heavily on leaving
the scene and engaging in distracting activities as a means of regulating their aect. Two types of
children’s self-soothing practices were identied, ordered here by the extent to which children would
avoid their emotions rather than work with them: (i) avoidant strategies; and (ii) passive/active
emotional release. In this section, we describe these practices in more detail.
4.2.1 Avoidant strategies: disengage and distract. A combination of disengagement from the
situation and subsequent distraction were predominant. The children would often rst disengage
from the situation and isolate themselves in a calm space. Usually this was imposed to them by
their parents or—less frequently—it was the child’s own choice. Most children mentioned that they
have a particular space in their house where they go when they need to calm down, which in most
cases was their room. For instance, when asked what he does when he is feeling frustrated or angry,
Child 21 said:
“I go to my room or to the bathroom [and] I sit behind the door.” [C21]
The distraction tactics were the second common set of strategies. In most cases, engaging in
distracting activities could be construed as the child’s conscious eort to avoid thinking about the
emotionally challenging situation or dealing with negative aect:
“I watch Youtube, cos when I’m angry [...] I don’t really like thinking. So, I just watch Youtube.”
We identied three predominant distracting activities, listed below in order of how frequently they
were reported: First, the children turned to their
teddy bears or dolls
when they needed to calm
down. Especially in instances of parent-child conict, these objects seemed to provide them with
the comfort that they needed, but could not seek from their parents at the time. For instance,
“I go to my room and I squeeze my teddies and toys and my soft pillow that my mum bought me
for the bunk bed [...] I squeeze them, like I squeeze them so hard.” [C23]
Second, many children
used technology
as a way of calming down, whether that was playing
on their tablets or game consoles. At the same time, these devices often also became the catalyst for
a parent-child conict. Therefore, restricting or prohibiting their use of gadgets was often parents’
preferred form of discipline, with some mentioning that they favoured a more physical release of
emotion by their children, such as playing outdoors. These preferences again did not seem to be
based in how well one or another activity supports child’s emotional regulation, but rather in their
perception of how ‘good’ these actions were for the children:
“If she’s acting up or having a meltdown or a moment or... You know, it’s usually over something
technology related. So, I just tell her she can’t watch TV or take her tablet o of her. Or if she’s
got a phone in her hands, whoever’s phone it is, that’s gone.” [P19]
“I don’t give them like whole day Playstation, whole day laptops. No. They’re not allowed it like
that because it’s not good for them. I want them out in the garden playing. Little bit time for
every single thing. Maybe they don’t have much time to get angry.” [P13]
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160:12 P. Slovak et al.
engaging in arts and crafts activities
, such as drawing or making jewellery, and
reading were two more frequently used methods of distraction. These activities were more positively
viewed by parents who often encouraged them, as they felt they were a good way to ‘keep them
“She gets kind of stubborn very quickly. And she’s dgety as well, like out of the three of them
she’s the most dgety, [...] so it’s harder to kind of calm her down or speak to her or whatever.
But once she’s gone upstairs, she’s read her book or she’s done some sort of an activity [...] then
she comes out, she’s kind of calm, she’s ready to watch TV.” [P20]
4.2.2 Emotional release. Especially in cases of parent-child conict where parents were most
likely to adopt a more disciplinary approach rather than encouraging their children to express
their emotions, some children resorted to crying in their room to release their feelings and calm
themselves down. Externalising behaviours, such as becoming verbally or physically aggressive,
were much less common and often mixed in with distraction:
“I just sit in my room for long and then until I come down and say ‘I’m sorry to everyone’ [...]
And I sometimes cry in my bed.” [C18]
“Well, what I do if I’m angry? Ummm.. .The person that annoys me I’d hit them. Or I’d just go to
the TV and watch it. Or. .. I might just forget about it and play with my Pokémon cards. So, that’s
one for anger and. . . sadness. So, if I’m sad I’d just play with my Pokémon cards. Cos there’s lots
of answers for my Pokémon cards.. . ” [C24]
In addition, a third of the children (5/15) resorted to writing in diaries or drawing as a means of
expressing and dealing with their feelings when encountering emotionally challenging situations;
and this mostly with girls.
4.2.3 Comparison with existing parenting literature. These ndings are generally consistent with
previous research on parental socialisation of emotion and serve to instantiate ways in which
parents directly socialise children’s emotion-related reactions [
]. Specically, children of
parents who are warm, responsive and supportive have been found to use more engagement and
fewer disengagement strategies (e.g., more positive cognitions [
], more problem-solving strategies
], and less suppression [
]) and may use their parents as resources of informational, emotional,
or instrumental support, and be more likely to approach them during emotion-laden situations
]. On the other hand, the predominantly dismissing parental responses we observed in our
sample have been shown to penalise children’s negative emotions and discourage their expression.
Such experiences can communicate the message that emotions are unacceptable and should be
suppressed, and thus partly explain the use of disengagement strategies by children in our sample
(see also [37,38] for examples from other studies).
4.3 Underlying beliefs
Overall, our ndings suggest that the existing scaolding of children’s self-regulation competencies
is limited and parental strategies are mostly geared towards modifying children’s behaviour rather
than encouraging resolving of the emotions. In this section, we attempt to articulate the beliefs
that—in our interpretation—seemed to underlie the parental approaches to emotion regulation (cf.,
Gottman et al’s ’parental meta emotion-philosophy’ [48]).
4.3.1 Emotions are transient. The parental interviews suggest that they view emotions as tran-
sient; as something that will pass and does not always need to be talked about or worked with.
Thus, parental emotion regulation strategies often relied heavily on shifting the attentional focus
by distracting themselves or by directing their children to other activities, rather than focusing
on their emotional experience. In a particularly pronounced version of this approach, Parent 13
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:13
mentioned that she preferred to bottle up her feelings and ‘keep quiet’ in order to avoid aggravating
the situation by potentially engaging in a conict with her child.
“I was burning inside. Because I warned him like he’s gonna fall on the oor and that’s what
happened. But still, I kept quiet, I didn’t say anything and that’s why he didn’t get upset, I’m
alright as well. [...] Maybe I get more angry inside but then things become better so I become
alright as well.” [P13]
Other parents mentioned that their children ‘just forget’ about the source of their upset after
taking some time out to calm down, and a few reported that they ‘ignore’ or ‘forget about’ the
conict and their child’s feelings and, therefore, do not address them afterwards:
“Sometimes if I remember I’ll go talk to her, I’ll be honest. Other times I don’t even remember
‘Oh my god, yeah, she had this and should I even talk to her’.” [P20]
4.3.2 Expectation of self-soothing. Second, the interviews suggest that there is a strong notion
among parents that children should be able to self-soothe without immediate support from them.
This could perhaps be explained by some parents’ view of children’s outbursts as attention-seeking
attempts, leading them to reject their children’s external behaviour and not encourage the expression
of negative emotions to avoid reinforcing these mis-behaviours: “I know each of them... just need a
bit of space and then they’re right as rain [...] cos they’re doing it for attention most of the time [P16]”.
Another possible motivation for letting children calm down on their own could be parents’ fear
that attempting to intervene when they are already in a state of negative emotional arousal might
lead to further conict, as Parent 14 shared:
“He knows I let him cry, so I know when he’s crying - there’s no point disturbing him when he’s
crying cos it’s just gonna get worse. He’s just gonna get loud and everything and obviously as a
parent you get angry as well cos why your kids are getting loud to you.” [P14]
4.3.3 Calming down as a key life skill. At the same time, most parents considered the ability to
calm down as an essential life skill for their children.
“[I]t kind of moulds what they become. And it’s not just about now, it’s what they become later.
They have to learn to manage their feelings and handle them before they get,you know, go out
of order or they have an outbreak.” [P21]
“I think it is, because. . . it’s just, ehm, necessary. You can’t carry on your day until you are
back to being calm. Otherwise the rest of your day, the rest of the child’s day would be in that
mood. . . In a dark place. And that would have an eect on you and the child,on the long term.
Psychologically, emotionally, behaviour, like, their literal behaviour. . ..” [P24]
Parents also often highlighted how important calming down is for them, being constantly
bombarded by emotional situations. The quotes below provide some illustrations of how parents
expressed these needs.
“That is important because obviously if you’re not calm, it’s like you’re just bubbling up, up, up.
It’s that glass half-full business. So, you’re gonna topple over and just be like, you know, all over
the place. So, for me it’s important to calm down before I feel like I’m having a meltdown sort of
thing. [...] I’ve just got myself together and my son’s decided to go, I don’t know, empty out all
my kitchen drawers, I’m a bit more calm, so I can deal with that rather than if I’m already at
boiling point.” [P16]
“I mean if you don’t [calm down], then it just escalates more and more. And nobody really gets
anywhere. So, I think denitely calming down and dealing with the situation when it’s calmer.
. . . It is good to have strategies and things like that to calm down.” [P17]
Finally, the interviews suggest that parents were not always successful in recognising signs that
their children needed to calm down early enough, resulting in them often trying to calm them
down during already ongoing tantrums.
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160:14 P. Slovak et al.
4.4 Comparing interview data with psychology theories
The primary aim of the interview data is to develop a strong qualitative basis for the design process.
However, contrasting the empirical ndings with other bodies of literature can help unpack the
expected impacts of the parenting practices that we saw on emotion regulation. Specically, we
highlight two main challenges with the observed practices from the Prevention Science perspective:
rst, a mismatch between the strategies used and those considered adaptive in the long-term; second,
the specic parenting models where self-soothing was expected and little emotion-regulation
support was given. We outline each in turn.
4.4.1 Impact of observed self-regulation strategies. The interview data suggest that the parental
support in this community was predominantly oriented towards changing external behaviour
rather the underlying emotions. Moreover, the parents believed that their children are—or at least
should—be able to self-soothe without their immediate support, with disengagement and distraction
as the main two strategies modelled by parents and reported by the children. The resulting practices
then meant that children went (or were sent) to a particular location, such as their room, where
their remained until they ‘calmed down’; often while playing on a tablet/playstation, with their
toys, or just ‘having a cry’.
In contrast, the key adaptive emotion regulation strategies identied by prior research such
as problem solving, acceptance, reappraisal (cf., for example [
] for reviews) are substantially
underrepresented in our interview data. As such, these are unlikely to be used by the parents and
thus also by the children. In contrast, most of the strategies parents and children did mention are
focused on modulating emotional response after it has reached its peak, and are known to be less
eective. In particular, some strategies such as avoidance or suppression—that correspond to many
of the practices above—are known to be directly mal-adaptive (cf., [18,66]).
4.4.2 Impact of parenting techniques. The interviews show a lack of emotion focused or problem
solving parental engagement, with only a limited direct support for emotion regulation. Previous
research has shown that this can be problematic: for example, psychology literature shows that
harsh or unsupportive parental responses to children’s emotional displays tend to heighten and
extend their emotional arousal in emotion-evoking situations and teach them to avoid rather than
to explore the meaning of their emotions and ways to appropriately express them [
]. Berlin
and Cassidy [
], for example, found that mothers who reported greater control of their preschool
children’s emotional expressiveness had children who were more likely to suppress their emotions
when winning or losing a challenging game. Similarly, in a studyof 9 to 12-year-olds it was suggested
that maternal punitive and minimising reactions to children’s emotions were associated with lower
levels of social competence and constructive coping (cognitive restructuring and support seeking)
and higher levels of avoidant coping in peer conict situations [
]. More broadly, studies suggest
that parental practices that invalidate, criticise or avoid teaching children about emotions are linked
to children’s increased likelihood of adopting fewer adaptive emotion regulation strategies and
generally poorer emotional adjustment [84,129], as well as higher likelihood of internalising and
externalising behaviour problems [74,84,115].
Conversely, research has demonstrated that children whose parents respond in an accepting and
supportive manner to their negative emotional displays acquire more constructive ER strategies
and can regulate their emotions more adaptively [
]. As one example, Gottman, Katz,
and Hooven [
], reported that parental validation of children’s negative emotions, and their
engagement in coaching their children to identify and cope with their emotions, was related to
children’s greater capacity to regulate their emotions, which later predicted higher levels of social
competence. Others have reported related ndings. In addition, children whose parents regularly
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:15
discuss emotions with them have been found to demonstrate a more complex understanding of
emotion experiences and expression [
], with such understanding of emotional state directly
contributing to emotion regulation competency [78].
The previous parts of the paper touched upon aspects of lived experience (interviews), the adaptive
strategies and intervention techniques as identied by prior research (psychology theory), and
technology feasibility (related work). Combining these together is needed to identify the design
opportunities this space; especially if the aim is to identify novel types of interventions that would
not be feasible without the use of technology.
Each of the streams highlights particular facets that would be crucial for successful socio-
technical interventions in this space: The interviews and parenting literature helped us understand
the perceived importance of emotional regulation in everyday lives; the common daily situations
where it needs to be put in practice within the families; the associated notion of self-soothing and
the reliance on specic location in home where such soothing happens; as well as the dependence on
distraction and disengagement as the two key strategies. Similarly, thepsychology theory emphasises
how the family norms and beliefs around emotion regulation (which then play out in the specic
support and messaging that the child receives) can lead to adaptive or mal-adaptive strategies
(Section 2.2); and the necessity for experiential learning in terms of delivering any interventions
(Section 2.2.3). Finally, the existing technology systems discussed in Related Work suggest possible
mechanisms to move towards ‘authentic learning’ approaches (cf., [
]), facilitating parent-child
experiences directly around the situations where self-regulation is needed.
We combine these together to propose
two high level design goals
that embody substantial
conceptual shifts in how prevention interventions could be designed and delivered: the notion of
‘situated interventions’ and ‘child-led rather than parent driven’ approach. In the rest of the section,
we then provide an initial validation of the feasibility of these goals within our specic case study
context as part of the technology probes deployment ndings.
5.1 Design goals
These design goals aim to provide a guidance in how new interventions systems could respond to
the current challenges of relying on classroom-based interventions, where emotion regulation is
practised on toy examples; and the dependence on trained adults to provide support to children
outside of classroom. While these goals are framed around emotion regulation specically, we expect
that they could likely be applied to developing interventions concerning other prevention factors
as well. As such, their articulation is predominantly grounded in combining the psychological
theory and technology feasibility, with the interview data serving to contextualise the overarching
goals in explicit examples and practices we have observed. The next section, 5.2, will then shift
the emphasis towards application of the interview data, outlining a particular instantiation of the
design goals as a proposed intervention.
5.1.1 Goal 1: ‘Situated’ interventions. We envision ‘situated interventions’ as an opportunity to
design technologies that allow the families to draw on—and learn from—specic lived experiences
as part of the intervention. In other words, the aim would be to ip the existing intervention
model that is based on didactic learning (e.g., at an in-person workshop) ‘that is to be applied later’,
towards a model where the intervention empowers and supports both children and parents to learn
from the daily emotional challenges they encounter. This would enable the interventions to embed
experiential learning as part of everyday situations of stress/anxiety/sadness; using these as the
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160:16 P. Slovak et al.
trigger and opportunity for on-going, iterative learning rather than having to rely on vignettes,
role-plays, or the recollection of past experience as is common now.
Psychologically, such ‘situated interventions’ would correspond to the need for experiential
learning that underpins all socio-emotional competencies [
]). As outlined in
Section 2.2.3, the limitations of learning ‘outside’ of the emotional experiences are well known in
SEL: the current model of role plays, vignettes and similar techniques during workshops are, in fact,
an explicit attempt to generate the necessary emotional material at least to some degree (cf., [
For example, the interviews indicate that the reliance on disengagement and distraction oers a
possible locale for a situated interventions. The intervention process could tap into such explicit
attempts to regulate emotions: the alternative strategies aorded by the intervention could oer
more constructive in-the-moment support to deal with the triggering situation (such as scaolding
reappraisal, acceptance, or problem solving). This would allow to tie the intervention support—and
the associated learning—to a specic emotional experience that is personally relevant to the parent
or child. Finally, the Related Work outlined a number of existing technologies that, albeit used in
dierent settings, are suggesting the feasibility of such situated and experience-based learning:
ranging from sensor-based technologies to drive children’s science learning [
], capturing eeting
experiences through smart toys [
], to wearables that promote social engagement and playful
behaviours in everyday lives [65,123] to name just a few.
In summary, we argue for exploring an analogous technology-enabled move towards ‘authentic
learning’ [
] as that which has been successfully investigated in the learning sciences
(cf. Section 2.1.3). In addition, we hypothesise that such situated intervention models would need
to go beyond ‘only’ embedding existing intervention approaches within a Internet of Things or
Ubiquitous Computing systems, but rather require a rethinking of the mechanisms through which
learning happens, over which time-scales, and what design components are needed to support the
learners in actively engaging and learning from these situations within their social contexts (cf.,
5.1.2 Goal 2: Child-led rather than parent-driven. The second key shift we envision technology
can enable is foregrounding the child as the immediate target of the interventions. In the current
prevention science models, the child is either seen as a ‘captive audience’ within the in-school
programs, or as a secondary actor who is impacted by parental training. The reasons for this are
understandable: the existing interventions could not rely on young child to drive the intervention
as it is, for example, unlikely that a 6-year old would be able to teach their parents new parenting
strategies as a workshop coach might; or directly engage (or want to engage) with a written text
on a leaet sent home.
The on-going, in-the-moment scaolding facilitated by technology could address both of these
issues. It could reposition the child as the main actor of the intervention: both in terms of who
is driving the delivery to home as well as the engagement with the intervention once it is there.
Beyond the benets of acting more directly with the child (who is the target population), such a
shift towards child-led interventions also brings the ethical interest in empowering the children to
learn by themselves, rather than re-iterate/amplify their reliance on adults (especially for those
children who might struggle to receive such support).
The interviews suggest that the children are already expected to self-soothe by the parents,
but lack direct support to cope and constructively address emotional issues on their own. This
leads to the possibly maladaptive strategies indicated by interview data, including distraction,
disengagement or ‘crying it out’. The existing emotion regulation patterns of going to ‘your room’
to calm-down, often with toys/electronic devices, and could be particularly amenable to being drawn
upon by a situated, child-led intervention. The ability to directly engage and support children
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:17
on antecedent- focused emotion regulation
focuses on appraisal processes, a relatively
late regulation strategy for cognitive change.
Few studies have examined earlier forms of
regulation such as attention deployment, and
those that do tend to focus on distraction
(Gross, this volume), a withdrawal- oriented
strategy often employed in the face of high-
intensity emotional challenge (Sheppes, this
Mindfulness substantively contributes
to psychological models of emotion regu-
lation by advancing a regulatory model of
approach- oriented attention deployment
(Figure 32.1A). Unlike distraction, mindful-
ness is characterized by acceptance rather
than withdrawal from aversive emotional
experience (Kabat-Zinn, 1982). Through
MT, participants learn nonjudgmental
attention to present- moment sensation,
returning attention their situation rather
than progressing to appraisal processes
and responses (Figure 32.1B). By engaging
cognitive resources in effortful attention
deployment, mindfulness limits the recruit-
ment of habitual secondary appraisals and
reactions. The disruption of automatic reac-
tions and return to sensory attention allows
new aspects of a situation to be perceived,
effectively altering situation construal. This
altered situation perception then permits the
generation of novel responses rather than
mapping experiences into a preexisting con-
ceptual field. The iteration between “top-
down” attentional control and “bottom- up”
sensation forms the basis for how mindful-
ness promotes insight and limits appraisals
of suffering (Teasdale & Chaskalson, 2011).
Since responses following such iteration
are more finely tuned to the idiosyncratic
demands of the situation, they can be more
adaptive and appropriate than habitual reac-
tions (Figure 32.1C). Thus, despite its pri-
mary focus on the deployment of attention,
mindfulness appears to impact additional
stages of the regulatory process: It intro-
duces novel regulatory intentions, facilitates
novel appraisals of emotional experience,
and promotes expression rather than sup-
pression of emotional responses.
What Makes Mindful Emotion
Regulation Unique?
Framing mindfulness within the process
model does not undermine the unique con-
FIGURE 32.1. A process model account of mindful emotion regulation. Mindfulness can be situated
in Gross’s (2002) process model of emotion regulation, acting primarily on attention deployment (Panel
A). Attention redeployment allows new situation perception, without requiring an immediate emo-
tional response, thereby promoting the flexible generation of novel appraisals and responses (Panel B).
The repeated redeployment of attention to sensation serves to interfere with and eventually extinguish
habitual appraisals (Panel C).
Emotion Regulation
Emotion Regulation
Model of emotion regulation (Gross, 2015; Farb et al, 2014)
Target stages for the
Fig. 1. Emotion regulation theory underpinning the proposed intervention (cf., [52]
would be also coveted by Prevention science: it is well known that if parents are the delivery
mechanism/target, training is needed; leading to pragmatic diculties and high cost [8,117,151].
Understanding how an intervention can provide an on-going support and scaolding that would
empower children to learn independently is an important, and so far unsolved, design goal.
5.2 Translating design goals into a possible intervention
The aim of this section is illustrate how the design goals can facilitate articulation of new inter-
vention model. In doing so, we introduce an envisioned intervention design—and a technology
probe exploring a some of the key underlying assumptions—as a way to instantiate the proposed
design goals into a contextualised system. We briey describe (i) the design context; and (ii) an
outline of envisioned future intervention approach. These are then followed by (iii) a design probe
that explores some of the core assumptions in Section 5.3, and nally (iv) ndings from a 2-4
days deployments with 14 families in the same under-privileged community the interviews were
conducted with (but not with the same families) in Section 5.5. The ndings from this design
process, technology probe development and the pilot deployments then also lead to articulating
three more specic design opportunities, outlined in the Discussion section.
5.2.1 Design approach and context. As part of a broader multi-year project, we combined all the
research threads described above as part of envisioning an example intervention. The research team
in addition drew on participatory input from parents, children, and SEL experts across a 8 month
period: this included a series of co-design workshops (2 with parents, 7 with children) and weekly
meetings with SEL experts. This iterative design process will be the focus of a separate paper; here,
we will only briey outline the key aspects of the vision and the initial technology probe prototype,
with a specic focus on how the design choices corresponded to the key assumptions.
Our design process drew on the current parental narratives around self-soothing and the resulting
reliance of children on having existing objects they use to calm down outlined in Section 4. These
practices are not ideal from the mental disorders prevention perspective (cf., section 2.2) and the
ultimate intervention goal would be to change these. However, our position is that this will be
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160:18 P. Slovak et al.
social context that an intervention would need to be deployed within; and thus also designed for.
Such an approach is grounded on the long history of socio-technical thinking as considering “the
technical features of the system and social features of the work as fundamentally interrelated [
]”. In
fact, we saw the possibility of facilitating a longer-term, internally driven change in practice—that
can start from and t into where parents and children are now—as one of the key benets of the
situated intervention approach; in contrast to the externally delivered workshop interventions that
expect a more sudden shift in parents’ and children’s behaviour.
Intervention logic model. The psychological theories of emotion regulation suggested two types
of ‘levers’ where interventions could attempt to shift child behaviour as part of the family system,
i.e., the holistic set of family practices and emotion regulation strategies. First are varied forms
of in-the-moment support when emotion regulation is needed, such as introducing/facilitating
the use of constructive strategies when children feel anxious, sad, or angry – cf., Section 2.2)
and Fig 1for the theoretical model underpinning this thinking. Second are attempts at changing
the broader emotion regulation strategies that are available to children in their daily lives, for
example through reshaping the social environment (such as parent-child interactions) and explicit
competence building for children and/or parents. While the latter is key to a longer term change,
we also saw that as much harder to deliver, without the system establishing a strong ‘foothold’
within the family everyday practice rst.
As a result, the proposed intervention model reects these two components as building on each
other in two phases (see Figure 2for a diagram): the rst phase is grounded in directly supporting
children within the moments they would normally attempt to calm down (e.g., by going to their
room). We envisioned that, in such a case, the children would not only receive immediate benets
when they are expected to self-regulate (thus motivating continued use), but also start building a
sense of mastery and physically situated calming rituals through such repeated engagements. The
second phase then builds on this child-oriented support, using the specic experiences with the
intervention to start engaging the parents into the intervention, with the aim of oering alternative
approaches and narratives for emotion regulation on the family level. We envision that a possible
mechanism could rely on the notion of ‘intervention portals’ (cf., [
]), whereby a technology-
enabled experience can facilitate parent-child discussion and continued learning from everyday
Intervention narrative. Developing such vision into a full-edged intervention will require sub-
stantial interdisciplinary eort over the next year. However, the technology probe described below
started to validate the initial steps towards rst intervention phase – exploring possible design
responses to support the in-the-moment emotion regulation in ways that are well-embedded within
existing children’s practices as identied from the interviews.
On a conceptual level, we were inspired by the existing body of work on the soothing eects
of animal therapy [
], including the design narratives of responsibility, care, and
nurture. The proposed design has thus centred around the notion of a ‘
worried pet
’ – a ‘lost’
creature, who is often anxious and can be soothed by calm, stroking movements. This particular
choice of narrative was aimed at creating a sense of relationship between the child and the toy,
drawing on the interactivity and interdependence of the ‘creature’: we hypothesised that framing
the creature in need of assistance would draw on the psychological eects of calming down by
soothing ‘someone else’ (cf., [
]); and the in-the-moment soothing eects of doing so might
result in a shift in the children’s mindset around emotion regulation over time (cf., [
] for
the importance of emotion mindsets). From a more user-centred view, the selection of a plush
animal (as described below) seemed to t—and graft onto—the existing patterns of object-facilitated
self-regulation that children described.
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:19
In the moment intervention:
Child is interacting with the toy during
naturally occuring emotional moments.
Serves as a necessary
step towards ...
Family wide intervention
Complementing the in-the-moment calming down
with skills building/culture shift
The toy's backstory brings in alternative
narratives that can subtly shift parenting
mindsets and approach
Extends to complementary skills building
interventions for the parents, delivered
through a mobile app.
(e.g., emotion coaching intervention)
Toy facilitates new parent-child interactions to
enable more constructive strategies :
(e.g., emotion labelling, engagement, and empathy)
Feelings of mastery
Calming down context
Soothing through...
Attention deployment
Response modulation
Repeated engagements lead to ...
Phase 1
Phase 2
Fig. 2. Logic model of the proposed intervention
We now move to introducing the resulting technology probe as a way to instantiate some of the
proposed design directions in a specic design prototype.
5.3 Technology probe form and design
The aim of this section is to serve as an initial validation of the feasibility of Phase 1 of the proposed
intervention model—and by extension, the design goals that guided its development. As such, it
should be read more as an exploration of the articulated design space; rather than an attempt to
evaluate a fully edged intervention, or show its psychological eectiveness of the technology probe.
In what follows, we briey outline the probe design, and ndings from a pilot 2-4 days deployments
with 14 families in the same under-privileged community the interviews were conducted with (but
not with the same families). The ndings from these deployments and the design process then also
lead to articulating three more specic design opportunities on how the currently limited system
could be extended into the full intervention, outlined in the Discussion section.
Overview. The external prototype takes the form of a hand-crafted plush toy (see Fig 3-a), which
was designed to travel home with the child from school and support in-the-moment calming
down strategies. The interaction relied on a number of sensors embedded in the ‘creature’ that
registered haptic interactions with the toy – see Figure 3-b. In addition, a small vibration motor
was used to indicate the creature’s state by mimicking a frantic ‘heartbeat’. If the creature was
calming down in response to the child’s touching of the sensors, the heartbeat slowed down and
eventually turned into happy purring. These haptic interaction patterns were designed drawing
upon research with children in our initial target age group (8-10) concerning their preferred dget
materials and dgeting patterns [
], as well as research concerning dget materials and their
link to self-regulation in adults [
]. This evidence suggested particular kinesthetic and tactile
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160:20 P. Slovak et al.
Fig. 3. (a) The technology probe design; (b) Overview of the interactive components in the technology probe
Fig. 4. Example design of the information children received
aordances that would facilitate soothing eects. We hypothesised that interacting with a toy
that made use of these aordances would aid in the child’s self-regulation. We envisioned that, in
further iterations, the sensed patterns of use could be utilised as a form of personal informatics
data, both to support the child in understanding/developing calming strategies as well as surfacing
these to the parents to facilitate parent-child discussion.
To accompany the tactile in-the-moment interactions, we included a discovery book to facilitate
parent-child interactions. We took inspiration in cultural probe methods [
] to design
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:21
photo activities for children to do with their parents
. The goals of the discovery book were two-
fold. Firstly, it provided us with the opportunity to collect rich qualitative data in line with prior
use of cultural probes activities. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we aimed to use these
interactions as a rst foray into the family-wide intervention design space: we wanted to explore
if such interactions, together with the soothing-by-caring narrative brought in by the toy, might
start introducing more constructive context into the family practices as well as open up topics that
would not have been discussed otherwise, even with the very limited deployment timeframes.
5.4 Deployment methodology
The pilot deployment had two aims: First, we sought to understand how the toy might be appropri-
ated at home over a short period of time, including how children appropriated the toy and the core
narrative of the lost pet story (hypothesised drivers for child-led, long-term engagement); as well
as whether they would interact with it in moments of stress and whether it had soothing eects
(hypothesised drivers for the in-the-moment emotion regulation intervention). Second, we hoped
to gain initial understanding of the potential social dynamics that would guide the design of the
family-wide components (i.e., potential for extension into Phase 2 of the logic model). Given the
short time span of the deployment, we did not expect to see any of the eects hypothesised to arise
from on-going use, nor substantial changes in family practice. We were, however, interested in
collecting qualitative indicators of how likely such changes might be over longer-term deployments
to guide and inform future work.
Participants. The technology probes were deployed in three waves to families of 14 children (6
girls, 8 boys, aged 6-8). These were recruited by a school in the under-privileged community in
a UK city: rst wave deployed with 5 children selected by the school counsellors to represent a
varied range of family situations and special needs. After seeing the creatures, an additional class
requested to participate, leading to 9 more families so far (in two waves, due to limited number of
prototypes available).
Research process. Children who gave explicit assent (and whose parents gave consent) were given
the creature, discovery book, and a simple digital camera by the teacher or school counsellor, to
keep at home for 2-4 days (depending on the day of deployment and school pragmatics). A day or
two after the toys were returned, we interviewed each child individually, in the presence of the
school counsellor. During the interviews the children had a chance to interact with their creature
again, as a way to help them recall and describe their experience of having it at home. We also used
the photos they took as prompts to ask them about their interaction with the toy. Our aim was
to complement the interview data with a richer understanding about how children experienced
having the toy at home. We attempted to recruit parents to be interviewed as well (mediated by the
school counsellor), but with little success, despite being able to oer monetary incentives – leading
to a single informal interview. This low response rate was seen as expected by the school counsellor
and explained by language barriers (English as a second language) as well as general distrust of
speaking to ‘authorities’. Such observations further underscore the issues that prevention programs
face in terms of gaining trust and access to parents, as already described in the literature (e.g.,
Analysis. The analysis process was the same as that outlined in section 3.1 for phase 1 interviews,
with the addition of data from the discovery books. We do not include a full analysis of photo
Nine activities altogether, probing into family emotion practices. For example, we asked the child to “Take a series of 3 to 5
photos explaining what your parents do when they want to calm down.", to “Take a photo of something of someone that helps
you relax.”, or to “Take a photo of something you do with your adults that makes you really happy.
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160:22 P. Slovak et al.
data here; within the context of this study, photos were utilised as an ice breaker activity to create
a comfortable space for discussion, and to stimulate conversation by invoking comments and
memories from children about their interactions with the toy. The results of a more comprehensive
analysis of photo data will be reported in a separate paper.
5.5 Findings
In line with the proposed broader intervention, we discuss the key themes that emerged from our
analysis, with respect to the logic model and the underlying design goals: facilitating child-led
mechanisms through the child-toy relationship; and the situated intervention through in-the-moment
soothing eects of interacting with the toy. To protect anonymity, participants are referred to by
using C for ‘child’, followed by a participant number. The researcher conducting the interviews
is labelled as ‘R’ throughout. Paraphrasing is indicated by words surrounded by brackets, and
non-verbal actions, such as nodding their head in agreement, appear between double parenthesis,
e.g., ((nods head ‘yes’)) .
5.5.1 Emotional connection/aachment to the toy. Our ndings indicate that even in the limited
amount of time children had the toy at their homes, all children appeared to form an emotional
connection to it which in turn drove consistent engagement with the probe. The physical design
and associated narrative of the toy being anxious and needing to be soothed appeared to have
facilitated such emotional attachment: the toy was not perceived as a device and most children did
not refer to it as a toy during the interviews, but rather as a ‘creature’ they had to care for, including
calling it ‘he’ or ‘she’. Children often attributed human-like qualities to the toy, such as feelings
(‘happy’,‘anxious’,‘sad’ or ‘scared’) and intentionality, as well as personality characteristics, e.g.
being ‘shy’. For example, C2 mentioned how
“C2: I think he was scared when he rst met me. R: So what did you do for the toy not to be
scared of you? How did you become friends with it? C2: I hugged him, I stroked him, I let him
sleep and rocked him.” [C2]
Moreover, imbuing the toy with human-like traits and various mental states may have played a
part in children’s continued engagement with it: attributing sentience to the toy seemed to make
children empathise with and take care of it. The quotes below illustrate the types of emotional
interactions children were telling us about during the interviews:
“I also discovered this new thing. Whenever you leave him alone and you’re very far away from
him, he actually gets really anxious. [.. . ] But I would actually never, ever, ever, ever, ever leave
him in his nest alone.” [C3]
“The day I had to bring him back, he came to school with me and met all my friends. [. . .] And
then [another boy] was like ‘Can I punch him?’ and I was like ‘No, I can’t let you do that!’. So
yeah, I told them to rock him or let him sleep or just hold him. Yeah, so they all did that.” [C2]
“It was sad when it was sleeping because it couldn’t go to sleep. R: Oh, she couldn’t go to sleep?
And how did you help her? C: I just closed her eyes ((covers the creature’s eyes with his hand)).
At the end of the deployment study, many of the children said they were “really sad when I had
to leave it” and that they had gotten “attached to it” . In one particular case, a child was so upset
to have to give it away that we let her keep the toy for one more day. The following quotes are
illustrative of children’s reactions to having to give the toy back:
“[I was really sad when] when it had to come back. R: Why? C: Cos he was my best friend!” [C9]
“I was really sad when I had to leave it, because I had such a good time with it and I will never
be the same without it.” [C5]
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:23
These results suggest that the design choice of coupling the toy’s interactivity with the ‘de-
pendency’ narrative was conducive creating a sense of relationship between children and the toy.
Moreover, the responses children gave then indicate that they readily assumed the role of the
caretaker, with a responsibility to nurture and care for the creature. Interestingly, even the very
simple haptic feedback—driven internally by a linear, 6-state automaton—was enough to generate
rich models of the creature’s ‘mental states’, which seemed to facilitate a sustained engagement
with it. While this data is likely aected by novelty and short term deployment, we observed
strengthening (rather than weakening) of the relationship for longer stays. This would suggest
that longer-term engagements could be feasible.
5.5.2 Self-regulation value of toy. Children’s interview responses as well as the photo data
indicate that the toy was perceived to have a calming eect on them; for some it also provided
direct in-the-moment support during emotional moments. All the children mentioned that calming
the toy down was an enjoyable, ‘happy’ experience for them. For example, C14 described that
“[When I tried calming it down] I felt great. R: You felt great? Why? C: Because I like calming people
down.The children often talked about the ‘calming’ interaction during everyday moments. The
following quote illustrates such more mundane moments:
“R: I see you’ve taken a photo of something or someone that helps you relax. Can you tell me
which one it is? C: When he’s going to bed. R: So when he’s going to bed it makes you relax?
((child nods ‘yes’) R: How does that make you relax? C: When he’s calming down.” [C10]
Moreover, in all instances where children mentioned that they encountered an emotion-eliciting
situation while they had the toy at home, they also described how engaging with the toy helped
them calm down. The following quotes illustrate the kinds of stories we heard:
“He made me calm down by just lying on top of me. He just makes me calm down, I don’t know
how. He just does.” [C3]
“[...] Normally when I have a row with [my sister] I just go back to bed and watch TV, but [the
toy] - cos you’ve got to hug her and stroke her, take breaths in and out - it helped a lot.” [C4]
“C8: I [was] sad because [...] someone pushed me over. R: And what did you afterwards to calm
down? C8: I stroked it and hugged him. R: And did that make you calm down? C8:Yeah.” [C8]
Such experiences would suggest support for two important aspects of the proposed logical model:
the in-the-moment soothing eects that arose naturally through interactions with the creature;
and the choice of utilising the interactions as a deliberate calming strategy at least for some of
the children. The children’s accounts indicated initial support for both of the mechanisms we
hypothesised could drive the in-the-moment calming eects. These included the attention shift of
focus from the emotion-eliciting situation towards the creature as part of the soothing-by-caring
narrative; as well as the eects of the haptic interactions patterns designed to soothe the toy
(suggested by the value children associated with close bodily contact with the toy). Such explicit
awareness of the calming eects is promising and could motivate continued use during longer-term
5.5.3 Appropriation of the toy in families. Children told us that they engaged with toy frequently
throughout the day and included it in their everyday routines and activities – many children
mentioned they “kept taking him wherever [they] went” [C11]. The toy was readily adopted as
a social partner, with children reporting they played games together, watched movies, engaged
in pretend play, or slept in the same bed. In all these instances, the children were framing the
experience as that of a partnership: the toy was actively involved in the activity; or transforming
the experience by being close. For example, C5 mentioned how “I let him have a go at my [game] –
I got his feet and I touched the buttons with them. While the majority of children were fully positive
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160:24 P. Slovak et al.
about the on-going caring experience, we observed a single case where the perceived responsibility
for the toy’s well-being began to interfere with other activities:
“I was in the middle of watching Jumanji and it got angry and I had to calm it down. [...] R: And
after you calmed it down do you remember how you felt? C6: Happy. So I can start watching
Jumanji again.” [C6]
Data from children interviews and photos taken by children as part of the activities they had to
complete suggest that the toy was also engaged with by parents, siblings, other members of the
family (e.g., cousins), and in some cases by children’s friends. Children described how they were
“each having turns to make it calmer [C2]” with their siblings, or were more protective and had to
negotiate who gets to play with it and when:
“I didn’t let [my mum] play with him the rst night. Well, she did a little bit, but then I was like
‘Mum, it’s my rst night with him’.” [C5]
An important part of the notion of child-led, situated intervention was the ability of the probe
to become embedded and incorporated as part of the everyday practice. Based on the children’s
accounts, the creature t well within their daily routines and was frequently and naturally engaged
with over the course of the deployment; while understood and interacted with as a ‘partner’. While
more research is needed (e.g., contrasting interactive vs non-interactive deployment), the current
data could be seen as further supporting the importance of projecting ‘sentience’ and human-like
emotions onto the creature, which in turn lead to the perceived relationship and value of ‘shared
5.5.4 Facilitating parent-child interactions. The ndings are less uniform in terms of how suc-
cessful the toy and probe materials were in facilitating additional parent-child interactions. In
approximately two thirds of families, the parents seemed to be often playing with the toy them-
selves, and helping their children take photos and complete the activities in the accompanying
“My mum helped me nd some of the things [that calm it down] like rocking it.” [C2]
“[In this photo my mum] was cuddling it and then she was reading it a book.” [C10]
“The [...] creature loved my mum when I gave it to her and that’s why it always asked her to
calm it down.” [C6]
In other families, the parents seemed less engaged with the toy, indicated both by interview
data and by fewer booklet activities completed. Finally, we had a single case of a parent who,
according to the child interview, explicitly disliked the creature: “R: What did your mummy think
of the creature? C11: She was annoyed. R: She was annoyed? Why was she annoyed? C: Because I
kept taking him wherever I went.” [C11] The lack of more substantive data around this particular
case (as well as the other aspects of parental involvement) is likely due to our inability to recruit
parents in this community for post-hoc interviews. It also indicates the need for further work on
the parenting side of the intervention, including identifying additional mechanisms of facilitating
parent/child interactions beyond photo-based activities; as discussed in more depth below.
We started this paper by highlighting the very limited body of literature that would examine
technology-enabled interventions within the context of mental disorders prevention; with a focus
on emotion regulation for families of children aged 6-10 as a particular case study setting to start
examining this interdisciplinary area. The key conceptual contribution of this work lies in Section 5.1,
which combines interview data, psychology theory and technology feasibility into an articulation
of two design goals underpinning the rest of this work: the notion of ‘situated interventions’ and
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Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:25
‘child-led rather than parent driven’ approach. To best of our knowledge, these propose a novel
approach to technology-enabled prevention interventions that could imply fundamental changes
in how such interventions are designed and delivered (cf., [
]), while emphasising the inherently
socio-technical nature of such endeavours. The ‘second half’ of the paper then oers an initial
validation of the feasibility of designing such interventions: we presented a proposed intervention
model, followed by a technology probe deployment testing some of the basic assumptions, i.e., the
in-the-moment emotion-regulation support, and the child-led engagement through a relationship
with the toy.
In what follows, we rst discuss how the empirical data from the technology probe deployment
feeds back to the design goals identied in Section 5.1, including the limitations of the current
probe. We then specically focus on the possible design mechanisms that might enable extending
this—and other interventions—to serve as sites for situated, family-wide interventions.
6.1 Linking design goals, proposed intervention model, and technology probe results
Though the technology probe is far from a fully eective intervention, the eld data provide a
preliminary validation for the feasibility of the proposed intervention model and, by extension, also
the design goals: the interview data suggest that children drove the interaction with the toy at home
by incorporating it into their daily routines and frequently engaging with it throughout the day
(situated & child-led). Moreover, the probe appeared to be conducive to facilitating a relationship
and emotional connection from the children, which gave meaning to the soothing interactions
(child-led). What was particularly interesting was the large proportion of children reporting that
the physical, in-the-moment interactions were eective in helping them calm down and relax
(situated). Despite the short time and only initial intervention design, the data suggest that the toy
was interacted with naturally when some of our participants perceived the need to calm down
(situated, child-led); and was seen as a positive change (cf., quotes from Section 5.5.2).
There are however also clear limitations in the probe design as well as the length of deployment,
with the ndings highlighting many of the current gaps that would need to be resolved as part of
extending the current technology probe prototype into the envisioned prevention intervention:
In spite of the positive preliminary data, it is not clear if the existing prototype would lead to
developing new emotion regulation skills for children that would persist after the toy is being taken
away; or ‘just’ serve as crutch that has positive eects while it is around (similarly to, e.g., eects
of the Paro robotic seal [
]). Specically, more research is needed to understand
how similar in-the-moment interactions can be extended to include more explicit intervention,
including particular skills and competencies; as well as how much of the patterns we observed
are due to novelty eects. Similarly, the design choices we made were made in the context of a
particular age group and community; while we would imagine the underlying mechanisms might
work similarly for other communities, the specic form factor, aesthetic, and narrative is clearly
limited to the age group and culture of our participants.
Moreover, the ndings are much less clear about the success or failure of the probe in starting to
facilitate the broader family-wide intervention, including the facilitation of new emotion-regulation
narratives and practices to the families. While this is partially understandable due to the short-term
deployment, we assume that there are more fundamental issues at play. We expect that much more
co-design and participatory work will be needed to better understand the mechanisms through
which similar interventions could reach—and more importantly provide value to—parents. The
interview data highlighting the importance placed on emotion regulation as well as the perceived
lack of existing resources would suggest that parents might be open to such interventions, if these
are designed sensitively and t into their life-worlds.
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160:26 P. Slovak et al.
6.2 Socio-technical dimensions of the proposed intervention model
The envisioned model of situated interventions is inherently dependent on tting in with—while
sensitively facilitating a change of—social practices in the home. As such, there are multiple aspects
of ‘socio-technicality’ that will come into play [
]; and the initial technology probe described
here has predominantly focused on socio-technical as the t with the child’s life and experience.
However, the ultimate test of the eectiveness of such situated interventions capabilities to extend
beyond such purely child-oriented, in-the-moment support and into the wider family contexts. As
outlined above, the pilot work here has only few answers to oer here, given the limited time-span
of the deployment as well as diculties with gathering parental feedback. In what follows, we
propose a series of three ‘design opportunities’ that outline some of the design mechanisms that we
envision could guide the development of interventions in this space. While far from exhaustive, we
hope these design directions could serve as inspiration for others, and provide a next step towards
instantiating the socio-technical design thinking needed to instantiate the two design goals that
form the crux of the paper here. The design opportunities outlined below emerge from our attempt
to articulate, reect on, and abstract the conceptual choices that underpinned the intervention logic
model design in Section 5.2.
6.2.1 Opportunity 1: Physical objects as ‘intervention portals’. The rst opportunity concerns the
use of interactive physical objects as stable ‘sites’ of the intervention that also serve as ‘portals’ to
other interactive content. For example, the technology probe ‘intervention’ was centred around
a physical toy, aording a set of situated actions children could do to self-soothe. These in-the-
moment interactions however also served as a starting step towards a range of associated narratives
and parent-child interactions beyond the immediate toy use. Prior work has already shown how
physical objects are well suited for in-the-moment support (e.g., [
]), can become associated with
rich behavioural/emotional connotations over time (e.g., [
]); and thus serve as (sub)conscious
reminders just by being around (e.g., [
]). Finally, we envision that, in contrast to more transient
lesson-based interventions, on-going interaction with a physical object can have dierent properties,
with the intervention content slowly developing through continued use; such as illustrating skills
development over time (‘leveling up’). For example, a number of projects have explored the power
of combining digital and physical to drive complex games [
], social interactions (e.g. [
and is also at the heart of many situated learning approaches in formal education (e.g., [7,113]).
6.2.2 Opportunity 2: Family intervention as a narrative change. Long term situated interventions
might not necessarily require explicit skills building, but rather aim to change ways in which families
think about or approach emotional aspects. For example, the interviews indicate that the notion
of emotions as transient and uncontrollable is common. Targeting and changing such narratives
could, by itself lead to positive eects [
]. Similarly, the intervention could
target facilitating the identication of emotions and discussing it with one another. Psychologically,
such process of ‘labelling’ emotions is at the heart of many existing curricula: it been shown
to directly support emotion regulation by strengthening executive control [
]. In addition,
involving parents in such discussions is crucial for the shift from emotion dismissing to more
emotion-aware parenting approaches, associated with more adaptive ER strategies [
Interactive technologies have been demonstrated to bring parents and children [
] as well as
siblings [
] into productive relationship with one another particularly within the ’magic circle’ of
play [
]. Interactive technologies such as games are additionally becoming a part of everyday
family life, helping to foster relationships and positive emotional connections [
]. Across all these
examples, the intervention itself might lie not in teaching parents or children specic calming down
Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 2, No. CSCW, Article 160. Publication date: November 2018.
Socio-Technical Prevention Interventions in Families 160:27
strategies (such as tactic breathing or remembering to count), but rather in how it re-conceptualises
the way in which emotion is perceived and socially constructed within the family.
6.2.3 Opportunity 3: Facilitating new interactions. Finally, we envision the new situated interven-
tions as catalysts for deeper emotional connection within the family, rather than further siloing the
individualist interactions that the interview data suggest is happening. This is important not only
due to concerns around the changes to family structure technologies can bring (cf., Sherry Turkle’s
work [
]), but also due to the psychological literature that shows the strong impact of family
strategies on children’s emotion regulation and the emotion-attentive parenting approaches that are
conducive to adaptive strategies . As such, an intervention—technological or otherwise—that would
aim to further individualise and separate would likely be unsuccessful. Technologically, we suggest
that situated interventions could co-opt approaches similar to the on-going work in psychotherapy,
where the introduced technology facilitates interactions that were seen as problematic before or
for which there were no words. For example, the work on gNats island [
] provides one
example where a game provides am eective space for teen and a therapist to interact around,
together. Digital games and play oer many examples of intervention to support rich interpersonal
interaction and the deepening of social connections [
]. Ultimately, the goal of successful
interventions is to ‘teach and disappear’ [
] – we argue that facilitating the emergence of new
parent-child interactions and family narratives could be one opportunity for such a stable change.
Preventative interventions that develop protective factors against mental health disorders can have
substantial impact on life outcomes of children. Focusing on emotion regulation as a case study
example, this paper brings together an understanding of existing family practices with psychological
theories and review of technology feasibility. As a result, we propose that technology-enabled
interventions could lead to a new model of situated, child-led interaction, that could fundamentally
alter how preventative interventions are designed and delivered; as well as the type of resources
needed for their eective functioning. These research agenda setting goals were then instantiated
within a proposed intervention model and an associated technology probe, with promising results
from real-world deployment with 14 families. These provide a preliminary validation for the
feasibility of the proposed framework.
However, the technology probe deployed in the research described in this paper was only a
rst foray into the design space that has been articulated. Next steps in this research program
would include further renement of this particular technological intervention and development of
more extensive accompanying scaolding for building children’s skills and for encouraging dialog
between parents and children, toward a more extensive pilot test. We plan to work closely with
educators and psychologists to situate this and other interventions to appropriately supplement
the current state-of-the-art in social emotional learning tools and techniques.
We thank our participants for their time, support, and the deep engagement with which they
took part in the design process. We are also thankful to Committee for Children, a non-for-prot
organisation who has supported parts of this research. The rst author is additionally particularly
indebted to Geraldine Fitzpatrick for her support and kind guidance as this research developed; as
well as to Paul Marshall and Nadia Berthouze for inspiring conversations. Petr Slovák has been
supported in this work by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) under the Schroedinger Fellowship
Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 2, No. CSCW, Article 160. Publication date: November 2018.
160:28 P. Slovak et al.
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