The D.O.T. programme comprises a series of interlinked projects across 2018-2021.

We’ve led workshops with thousands of young people aged 10-12 in schools across Lower Austria, as well as interviewing adults who support them and older adolescents who experienced challenging childhoods. From this, we’ve built a new theoretical model of social wellbeing in young people, informed by several comprehensive in-depth literature reviews. We’ve explored what makes peer relations and classroom environments supportive, and what makes them toxic. We’ve also analysed how this generation of early adolescents uses technology, from computer games in the bedroom to social media on smartphones. Every subsequent project component draws on our comprehensive theoretical modelling.

Part smartphone game, part immersive theatre, LINA is a highly novel experience in which an entire class participates together.

“It’s another day at school… your teacher calls the register… but one name’s missing. Where’s Lina? And what’s in the mysterious notebook she’s left under your desk?”

Unfolding over ‘episodes’ of interactive mystery-style narrative, players use augmented reality on smartphones to ‘discover’ artefacts left in their classroom by a fictional classmate. The game steers peers together for face-to-face collaboration, in which they must co-operate to solve puzzles and unlock the story. The narrative explores the pressures experienced by a young person with an atypical background, and the difference between supportive and hostile classroom environments. It gives a class (and their teacher) space to reflect together on prejudice, stigma and social wellbeing, while transforming the familiar space of the classroom into something surprising and new.

BrainZ is a quirky and entertaining smartphone game in which players learn about emotion regulation as they try to repair a brain which has been invaded by a miniaturised zombie!

That pesky zombie is chomping its way through each of the brain’s systems for emotion regulation. Players must repair the damage by demonstrating their understanding of different emo-reg approaches, from positive thinking to attentional control, through mastering a lively assortment of mini-games. Carefully scripted psychoeducation segments support the learning throughout.

Using the well-established computer game genre of an adventure game, School’s a Nightmare throws players into an exciting journey as they learn about interpersonal relations and the different ways we can help and support each other.

When fever keeps you away from school for a day, you return to find everything different… and not in a good way. The kids are fighting, the teachers are rude – even the sweet shop lady’s turned nasty. Then – puff – everyone disappears! Just you and a small group of pupils are left to explore a school turned upside down. Where’s everyone gone? Why are you the only ones not to have vanished? You’ll have to go through a mysterious portal into another world to find out…

Your companions have distinct personalities, and different ways of interacting with the curious creatures you meet. It’s up to you to work out the best approach for each of the increasingly complex social problems you face on your quest to rescue your schoolmates and restore order.

The Hub is a heavily moderated ‘social network’ for 10 to 11-year-olds who have just moved up to secondary school. It provides a safe, monitored and closed-access space in which young people of a similar age can meet online, share experiences, build social skills and solve real-life problems together. A peer-matching system helps new users find appropriate friends. The site structures early interactions with peers around ‘quests’ (from finding things you have in common to playing mini-games together), which helps ‘break the ice’ in forming new, supportive online friendships.
As part of the hub experience, users are paired together online to explore an interactive, on-screen visual novel, in which they can collaborate to decide how characters handle difficult situations. The visual novel follows five young characters, each with their own troubles, as they navigate difficult days at home and at school. At key moments in the narrative, players decide – together – how a character behaves towards their peers. They then witness the consequences of this choice and elect whether to stick with their first decision or try a different approach. This collaborative approach provides peers with a structured environment in which to learn about each other, by contrasting their perspectives on fictional situations, while exploring the impact their actions have on others.
The Online Peer Encouragement Network (O.P.E.N.) provides peer-to-peer mentoring around mental wellbeing needs. Young people are trained to support each other online. The mentoring platform provides an easily and anonymously accessible opportunity for adolescents to discuss any problems with peers. Peer mentors who respond to online request are trained and continuously supervised to ensure their own wellbeing as well as adequate safeguarding of clients. The platform and training concepts are being co-developed with stakeholders from support hotlines, young people who are interested in serving as mentors and young people with a history of personal mental health issues or social and mental health problems in the family.
To consolidate the skills and behaviours promoted through our digital experiences, we are developing a mini-curriculum for teaching social-emotional skills in schools. This curriculum aims to facilitate young people’s understanding of factors that contribute to their social-emotional wellbeing and mental health, and to practice social skills that help build and maintain successful peer relationships. Individual sessions will focus on social roles and identity, mental health, emotion regulation, communication and social media. In order to ensure that curriculum sessions meet young people’s needs and employ engaging activities that facilitate student learning, we are developing these sessions in cooperation with young people.
We see young people, and the adults that support them, as experts. Their involvement in both developing and conducting our research is essential to ensuring that our project components are relevant and responsive to their needs. All project components are therefore being co-developed with early-adolescents, teachers, services representatives and young adults who experienced challenging childhoods. Some have been working with us from the very beginning while others are helping us to solve specific challenges along the way. During the process of co-creation, we are constantly learning from each other. Much of our co-development takes the form of workshops in schools with early adolescents who help us develop fun and engaging games and experiences.

Each of the sub-projects described above is designed to support young people’s social-emotional well-being in slightly different ways. By 2021, each component of D.OT. will be developed to the point of a highly-evolved prototype. We will take each of these experiences into classes of children currently in their first year of secondary school. We’ll use scientific methods to test how well each module achieves its specific goals in pursuit of supporting social-emotional well-being. We’ll also test how eager children are to engage with the experiences and how easy they find it to engage.  We’ll spend a lot of time talking to children about their experience so that we can learn from their perspectives. This testing will help to tell us how to move forward with developing the various experiences more fully, and pulling them together into larger support packages that could be rolled out more widely across schools.