Professor Jennifer Wishart (MA PhD FRSE)

Professor Emerita


I joined the staff of Edinburgh University in 1970 as a researcher in developmental psychology, working for the first 25 years in the Department of Psychology, before moving over to the Moray House School of Education in 1996.  My research originally focussed on pre-linguistic social and cognitive development in infancy (we had one of the first ‘baby labs’ in the UK) but then shifted to trying to understand how socio-cognitive development and learning styles emerge and interact in infants and children with developmental disabilities, especially those with Down’s syndrome.  I formally retired in 2009 but still advise doctoral students, mentor younger colleagues, and continue to research, review and publish, albeit all to a much lesser extent than when working.  I was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2007 for my contribution to the biomedical and cognitive sciences and to public understanding of developmental disabilities in childhood.  In 2017, I received  the World Down Syndrome Day Award for my research into learning processes in children Down's syndrome and in recognition of its impact on promoting a better public and educational understanding  of the developmental potential in all children with Down's syndrome.

(Please note:  I no longer personally supervise doctoral students, but Moray House's postgraduate admissions team will be happy to advise you on application procedures and to help in matching your specific research interests to the expertise of current academic staff,   The admissions team can be contacted at   You should  first look though at the wealth of helpful information on postgraduate study here:

Responsibilities & affiliations

I am presently research advisor to the Scottish & UK Down's Syndrome Associations and to Down Syndrome International.  I am also a member of the International Research and Advisory Board of the Down Syndrome Research Foundation (Canada) and a scientific advisor for the World Congresses of the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual Disabilities and Down Syndrome International.

I serve on the editorial boards of the Journal for Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, Developmental Neurorehabilitation (formerly Paediatric Rehabilitation), Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, Down Syndrome Quarterly and Special Educational Needs Abstracts.  

I continue to review for a wide range of journals (mainly in psychology, education and medicine) and to assess grant applications for UK and international research councils, for government bodies and for charities.   Between 1979 and 2010, my research programme was funded mainly by the UK Medical Research Council but has also been supported at various times by awards from the ESRC, Down's Syndrome Scotland, the Down's Syndrome Association (UK), the Baily Thomas Charitable Trust, the Chief Scientist Office (Scotland), the Calvert Trust and the Nuffield Foundation. 

Current PhD students supervised

  • John Crosbie- The value of outdoor education for people with disabilities: An in-depth case study of the Calvert Trust

Research summary

As a developmental psychologist, I have always been especially interested in learning as a process and in how children use their ablity to learn at different stages in their development and in different contexts.

Previous and current research interests include:

  • cognitive and social development in typically-developing children and in infants and children with with Down's syndrome (and other genetically-based learning disorders);
  • motivation and learning;
  • attitudes towards inclusive education for children with learning disabilities;
  • behavioural phenotypes;
  • health and wellbeing in children and adults with special educational needs;
  • speech production difficulties in children and young people with Down's sydrome.

Profile pages allow only a very limited listing of publications.   For a full list of publications (1972-2020), please email me.

Project activity

Development and learning disabilities

Researchers: Professor Jennifer Wishart (Educational Studies), Dr Tom Pitcairn (Psychology), Dr Walter Muir (Psychiatry), Dr Debra Bowyer and Miss Judith Scott (Educational Studies), University of Edinburgh.

Keywords: Learning disability; development; Down's syndrome

Abstract: This project focused on promoting research into some of the major effects of learning disabilities on lifespan behaviour and health, drawing on the complementary knowledge bases and methodologies of psychology, psychiatry, education and genetics. The interdisciplinary group associated with this MRC development grant aimed: to advance understanding of lifespan development in those with learning disabilities, relating this to theories of typical and atypical development; to examine factors influencing developmental trajectories and adult outcomes, relating these to quality of life; to link variability in functioning to underlying neurology and genetics; to inform service provision and intervention strategies for children and adults with learning disabilities*. Down's syndrome served as the 'benchmark' disability because of its high incidence rate and known aetiology and because of the relatively wide variation seen in outcomes within and across different developmental domains. Data on children and adults with other forms of learning disability were also gathered, however, in areas of investigation where previous research suggested that contrasting developmental profiles might emerge.   *information on a number of the group's related projects can be found below.

Start/end date: 2001 - 2004 Funder/amount: Medical Research Council, £84,000

Social cognition in children with Down's syndrome

Researchers: Professor Jennifer Wishart (Educational Studies), Dr Tom Pitcairn (Psychology), Dr Katie Cebula (Education & Society), University of Edinburgh, and Ms Diane Willis (Educational Studies/Nursing), University of Edinburgh/Napier University.

Keywords: Down's syndrome; social cognition; collaborative learning; neuropsychology

Abstract: The stereotype of DS is that affected individuals, despite their cognitive disability, are relatively socially competent. Exploratory work, however, has revealed a specific deficit in facial processing of emotion and a very poor grasp of the rules underlying social interaction, a possible product of a lack of associative or top-down learning. These features are consistent with current knowledge of the neuropathology of DS.   This project explored whether these deficits in social understanding constrain cognitive development and might contribute to the well-known decline in DS developmental rate.  A series of studies investigated: i) the understanding of expressions of emotion (a key component in interpersonal communication in children and adolescents with DS. ii) how these are interpreted when they carry meaning in social contexts, iii) the ways in which social knowledge supports or disrupts interpersonal functioning and the process of learning from others.  Findings had implications for educational practice and also theories of typical/atypical development .  They also contributed to scientific/public understanding of the nature of specific difficulties that children with DS may experience in everyday contexts.

Start/end date: 2001 - 2004 Funder/amount: Medical Research Council, £306,000

Relating experiences of the menopause in women with learning disabilities to carers' perceptions of needs

Researchers: Professor Jennifer Wishart (Educational Studies), University of Edinburgh, Ms Diane Willis (Educational Studies/Nursing), University of Edinburgh/Napier University and Dr Walter Muir (Psychiatry), University of Edinburgh.

Keywords: Learning disabilities; health needs and carers' understanding

Abstract:  Despite an elevated risk of physical and psychological menopausal and postmenopausal problems, little is known about the menopause in women with learning disabilities save that its onset is typically earlier than in other women. Ability to access information and services is clearly reduced in those with learning disabilities and continuing well-being is thus heavily dependent on accurate carer identification of needs. Using individual interviews and focus groups, this study gathered data on the experiences of 40 women with LDs of differing origin and severity, relating these to carer perceptions and knowledge with a view to identifying gaps in health education and training.

Start/end date: 2004 - 2006.  Funder/amount: Baily Thomas Charitable Fund, £55,000

Including children with special educational needs into national health surveys

Researchers: Professor Jennifer Wishart, Ms Judith Scott (Educational Studies), and Professor Candace Currie, (Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit/Physical Education, Sport and Leisure Studies), University of Edinburgh.

Keywords: Health inclusion, special educational needs

Abstract:  This pilot study assessed the feasibility of including children with learning disabilities into national surveys of health behaviours and health needs. Using the long-established, Edinburgh-based WHO Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey tool, a 2-stage iterative process explored i) how accessible the present format is to children with significant learning and literacy difficulties, ii) how much/what kind of adult support is required to assist completion, iii) which areas of the survey present greatest problems of accessibility and which might be suitable for proxy completion, and iv) how question content and response options can be adapted to enhance child completion rates while still retaining instrument validity and child confidentiality.

Start/end date: 2005 - 2006  Funder/amount: Chief Scientist Office, £20,000

Collaborative learning benefits for children with different kinds of learning disabilities

Researchers: Professor Jennifer Wishart (Educational Studies), University of Edinburgh, Ms Diane Willis (Educational Studies/Nursing), University of Edinburgh/Napier University, and Dr Katie Cebula, (Education & Society), University of Edinburgh.

Keywords: Collaborative learning, special eductional needs

Abstract:  This project extended our MRC-funded investigations of the impact of collaborative learning in children with Down's syndrome, focusing on a core conceptual ability, grouping objects by category.  Collaborative learning has its roots in Piagetian and Vygotskian theories of cognitive development and is used very widely in schools with typically developing children but only rarely in special educational contexts.  Our  studies have shown that children with learning disabilities can in fact reap significant cognitive benefit from collaborative learning oppportunities but that children with Down's syndrome, while showing gains, may not benefit to the same extent as other children with equivalent levels of cognitive impairment.  Microanalysis of videotaped collaborative sessions was used to explore why this might be.

Start/end date: 2005 - ongoing  Funder/amount: Down's Syndrome Scotland, £3,000

Assessment and treatment of impaired speech motor control in children with Down's syndrome

Researchers: Professor W. Hardcastle (Speech & Language Sciences) Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, Professor Jennifer Wishart (Educational Studies), University of Edinburgh, and Dr S. Wood (Speech & Language Sciences) Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

Keywords: Speech and language development, electropalatography, Down's syndrome

Abstract:  Many people with Down's syndrome experience difficulties with speech and language which impair their ability to communicate; speech can be difficult to understand or there may be difficulty producing certain sounds. Poor intelligibility can make communicating successfully with others problematic, limiting ability to make friends and impeding access to education and employment opportunities.  This longitudinal project used a technique called electropalatography (EPG) to assess and treat speech disorders in children and young people with Down's syndrome. It aimed  i) to identify in detail the type of speech patterns produced by children with Down's syndrome, comparing these to those seen in typically-development, ii) to evaluate the role of EPG therapy in improving speech production and increasing intelligibility, iii) to explore the relationship between speech intelligibility and cognitive level, speech perception skills, age and general motor development to determine if any of these variables are good predictors of success in EPG therapy.

Start/end date: 2005 - 2008  Funder/amount: Medical Research Council, £348,000

Enhancing speech intelligibility in children and young people with Down syndrome

Researchers: Dr S. Wood, Prof. W. Hardcastle, (Speech and Language Sciences) Queen Margaret University, Prof J. Wishart (Educational Studies), University of Edinburgh.

Keywords: Down's syndrome, speech production, electropalatography (EPG)

Abstract:   Language is usually slow to develop in children with Down syndrome, with speech motor problems often resulting in poor intelligibility. Traditional therapy has had little impact but encouraging results are coming from a an MRC project using electropalatography (see above project).   EPG training allows the child to 'see' where his or her tongue is when trying to say a given word and to correct this as necessary.  This extension to the MRC project evaluated the relative efficiency of different therapy schedules by offering EPG-based therapy to the current MRC control groups.

Start/end date: 2008 - 2010  Funder/amount: Baily Thomas Charitable Fund, £40k

The value of outdoor education for people with disabilities: an in-depth case study based on the work of the Calvert Trust

Researchers: John Crosbie (Graduate School), Prof. P Higgins (PESLS), Prof J Wishart (Educational Studies), University of Edinburgh.

Keywords: Outdoor education, people with disabilities

Abstract:  In general, in the UK and internationally, the effectiveness of residential and outdoor adventurous activities programmes has been the focus of very little academic research. Outcomes are typically not monitored by providers routinely or in any depth and the limited information reported may well be group specific; findings also often differ from one country to another. It is consequently difficult to know if programmes of outdoor education do indeed 'make a difference' for the majority of the participants or to assess the relative effectiveness of the specific inputs within any given programme. This study, carried out as part of a PhD programme of training and research, aimed to gather views on the efficacy and value of the work of a leading UK provider of outdoor activities for children and adults with disabilities, the Calvert Trust. Information was gathered from a range of sources, with converging methodologies used to maximise the validity and reliability of findings.

Start/end date: 2008 - 2013 Funder/amount: Calvert Trust/Zurich UK, £75k (linked PhD studentship)

 Down's syndrome and early intervention websites

The following sites have lots of interesting information on Down's syndrome, developmental disabilities and/or early intervention. They also contain links to other useful sites: