In this page we introduce members of Helsinki Special Educational Needs research community.
Pirjo Aunio

Pirjo Aunio is a professor in Special Education and head of Active Numeracy –research group.

Research Themes

Aunio's research focuses on understanding learning of mathematical skills and learning difficulties in mathematics.  Her central aim is to develop evidence-based methods to identify children with mathematical learning difficulties and intervention programs to support learning of core mathematical skills. Currently she is investigating the developmental dynamics of early numeracy, physical activity, motor skills, executive functions and language. Methodologically her work is strong in analyzing and reporting the effects of quasi-experimental educational interventions, patterns in longitudinal data, in addition to validity and reliability evidence of the measurements. Her methodological interest also covers the systematic literature reviews.

Current projects

“The developmental dynamics in motor and early numeracy skills in children who are at risk of mathematical learning difficulties - a cross-cultural comparison across African countries” University of Helsinki, GINTL 2022-2024

 “The developmental dynamics and interaction between motor and early numeracy skills within 3-5 year old children”. Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, National Sport Science Council, Academy of Finland 2019-2022 (extended 2023)

“The developmental dynamics and interaction between motor and early numeracy skills within 4- 6-year-old children” Finnish Cultural Foundation, 2019-2022 

Markku Jahnukainen

Markku Jahnukainen's research and teaching is focused on 1) transitions and life-courses of individuals with diverse educational needs, and 2) comparative educational policy related to inclusive and special education. Jahnukainen currently serves as consortium PI for a Academy of Finland funded project The cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes of inclusive vs. special education placement: a quasi-experimental follow-up study (INCLUSIVE_TUETTU; 2020-2024).

Joseph Calvin Gagnon

Joseph Calvin Gagnon, Ph.D. is a Professor of Special Education in the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Helsinki and former Fulbright Scholar.

Research Themes

Dr. Gagnon’s research focuses on ensuring youth at the greatest risk for educational, behavioral, and social failure are provided the supports necessary for long-term success in school and society. He addresses the needs of youth with emotional disturbance and learning disabilities in inclusive education, as well as those who are incarcerated or in treatment settings. Topical areas of his research include: (a) school-level policies (e.g., curriculum, assessment, and accountability); (b) mathematics and reading instruction; (c) mental health and behavioral supports; and (d) teacher training.

Dr. Gagnon also provides service to the field and works as an advocate for marginalized youth. He has served as Court Monitor and/or Special Education expert on 19 lawsuits, including eight for the U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Civil Rights. He has also presented and conducted training sessions across the U.S., Finland, and in 13 countries including Thailand, Egypt, China, Venezuela, South Africa, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.

Find Dr. Gagnon's ORCID profile here.

Selected Current Projects

Education and Special Education Services in U.S. Alternative Schools: Curriculum, Reading and Mathematics Instruction, Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and Teacher Burn-Out (with Dr. Aaron Perzigian)

Introducing Education to Rule of Law Teaching Modules in the Mozambican Educational System. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and Rule of Law Centre, University of Helsinki. Maputo, Mozambique

Minna Törmänen

Minna Törmänen have been working as Guest Professor at the University of Teacher Education in Special Needs in Zurich, Switzerland since 2019. In addition, she is associate professor in special education at Åbo Akademi University and visiting researcher at University of Helsinki in Finland.

Research Themes

Törmänen`s research interests lie in development and individual learning and educational capabilities within persons having special educational needs or being at-risk. The core of her research interests is in learning processes and especially in cognitive processing, like executive functioning and its development, and importantly, in research-based practices i.e., interventions. She has researched both cognitive and curriculum-based interventions in school settings in several different countries and educational systems. Besides multidisciplinary research on learning capabilities and its background factors she has applied her research in the field of different pedagogical methods including ideologies of inclusion. Her research on inclusive education is based on multidisciplinary and international approach when developing inclusion and equity. 

Current projects

“Children with pre- and early term birth and their cognitive development and executive functions in families having social burdens”. Longitudinalstudie ZEPPELIN - Förderung ab Geburt (The Zurich Equity Prevention Project with Parents’ Participation and Integration) University of Teacher Education in Special Needs in Zurich, Switzerland, The Swiss National Science Foundation

"Inclusive Education and Special Needs Educational Governance in Europe – Multidisciplinary approach when developing inclusion and equity” University of Teacher Education in Special Needs in Zurich, Switzerland

“Longitudinal intervention study Arts@School in inclusive education: Musical and movement activities and their effects on children`s academic achievements and cognitive functioning”, PI: Mari Tervaniemi, University of Helsinki & Eeva Anttila and Marja-Leena Juntunen, University of Arts, Finland

“The developmental dynamics in motor and early numeracy skills in children who are at risk of mathematical learning difficulties - a cross-cultural comparison across African countries”, PI: Pirjo Aunio, University of Helsinki, Finland

Lotta Uusitalo

Dr. Lotta Uusitalo, Senior University Lecturer, Docent in Special education

Research Themes

Uusitalo’s research interests lie in positive education and strength-based teaching. She studies the connection between student well-being and character strength usage in inclusive settings. Behavioral challenges and social exclusion including hikikomori phenomenon are among her research topics. With her students, Uusitalo runs several positive education interventions in both early childhood education and comprehensive schools. She has produced plenty of practical teaching material (e. g. See the Good! series with Kaisa Vuorinen) which is studied in the interventions. In her projects, mixed-method approaches are privileged. Her newest project focuses on neuromyths and how to tackle them.

Current projects

Teaching kindness and compassion in early childhood education (with Katri Pardon).

Resilience in special education students (with Annukka Töyri).

Neuromyths held by Finnish educators and student teachers (with the Helsinki SEN community).

Kati Sormunen

Dr. Kati Sormunen is a University Lecturer in Early Childhood Education.

Research Themes 

Sormunen’s research focuses broadly on the themes of inclusive learning and teaching, which she investigates in a research practice partnership with actors in the field.  In her co-development work and research, Sormunen relies on the principles of educational design research (EDR), where the data is collected and analyzed multi-methodically using qualitative ethnography and content analysis as well as social and co-occurrence network analysis.

Current projects 

Generation AI project develops early interventions that can facilitate children’s resilience in the face of the technological forces and create and foster cybersecurity mindsets.” Academy of Finland: Strategic Research Council funding (SRC), 2022-2025. 

INCLEAD project investigates leadership in an inclusive educational context of principles and early childhood education and care (ECEC) center.” University of Helsinki, 2021-2023. 

Growing Mind: Educational transformations for facilitating sustainable personal, social, and institutional renewal at the digital age.” Academy of Finland: Strategic Research Council funding (SRC), 2018-2023. 

KETTU project that focuses on sustainable future in the early childhood education.” University of Helsinki and City of Helsinki, 2020-2024. 


Raisa Ahtiainen

Raisa Ahtiainen, PhD (Ed.), is a postdoctoral researcher and principal investigator (PI) at the Centre for Educational Assessment (CEA). Her research in the field of special and inclusive education focuses on educational change, school development work, co-teaching, and leadership in school and early childhood education and care (ECEC) communities. Raisa has contributed to the establishment of the Leadership in Educational Contexts research and training group (LeadEd) at the Faculty, and she is the coordinator of the LeadEd research seminar. At CEA, Raisa manages projects falling under the theme of leadership, and one of her responsibilities is to plan, implement and coordinate research in them. Raisa is inspired by new research ideas, and she collaborates with a number of researchers from different universities in both Finland and abroad. In addition to her research efforts, Raisa supervises doctoral students and takes part in the planning, development and implementation of education at the Faculty.

Olli-Pekka Malinen

Olli-Pekka Malinen is a University Lecturer in Special Education at the University of Helsinki. Currently he also works as a regional expert in Global Innovation Network for Teaching and Learning (GINTL) Coordination Team with primary focus on China partnerships.

Research Themes

During his career, Malinen has worked as a researcher, schoolteacher, teacher educator, international education expert, and a vice director of a multidisciplinary research institute. His research themes cover inclusive education, international and comparative research of teacher efficacy, and evidence-based models of teacher professional development. An example of his on-going research activities is the Teacher perceptions, expectations, intentions and behaviours related to inclusive education project that applies the Theory of Planned Behaviour to study teachers’ perspective to inclusive education.

Current projects

Global Innovation Network for Teaching and Learning (GINTL) China and Africa Coordination, University of Helsinki 2021–2024

“Exploring the intentions and practices of teachers regarding inclusive education: an application of the theory of planned behaviour”, University of Helsinki, University of Jyväskylä, University of Eastern Finland

Playfulness pedagogy and self-efficacy among Chinese and Finnish early childhood teachers, University of Turku, University of Helsinki, University of Oulu, Beijing Normal University

Hanna Lampi

Dr. Hanna Lampi works as a university lecturer at the University of Helsinki. Lampi is inspired by co-teaching, inclusive pedagogy, interaction, people's participation, equality and global education. Her dissertation (2017) dealt with the future drawings of children living in different parts of the world. Dr. Lampi’s goal is to continue the work she started in her dissertation by studying the future images of her longitudinal data - now adult Finns and Tanzanians with Tanzanian research colleague. They will work with a qualitative study that examined drawings and interviews using the AtlasTi content analysis program. Dr. Lampi has worked as a teacher from early childhood education through primary school in different roles and in many different class formats. Thanks to working as a supervising teacher, Lampi knows Finnish early childhood education and the school world extensively in different municipalities, also on a practical level.


Juho Honkasilta

Juho Honkasilta, PhD (Ed.), is a University Lecturer at the University of Helsinki. In his research on inclusion in education, and medicalization and psychiatrization in education, Honkasilta applies critical sociological approaches such as Disability Studies to investigate phenomena central to Special Education discipline. Dr. Honkasilta strives to understand and make transparent structures, normative assumptions and ableist ideologies that deem the categorization and labelling of difference meaningful and useful – pragmatic – in education practice. The notion of “students with SEN” is an example of such a labelling practice. Dr. Honkasilta’s recent research has focused on the Relative Age Effect on diagnosing and medicating for ADHD, the paradox of inclusion in education in the context of Finnish basic education governance, the functions of ADHD diagnostic entity as a form of governance in top-down and bottom-up processes in institutional and social spheres of life, and on the essentialist nature of ADHD classification in ICD-10, DSM-5 and DSM-5-TR. He is also conducting research lead by Professor Joseph Gagnon on the trends of evidence-based behaviour supports at schools in Finnish basic education. Dr. Honkasilta is also a member of AGORA for the study of Social Justice and Equality in Education research group at the University of Helsinki.

Sai Väyrynen

Dr. Sai Väyrynen is university lecturer in special needs education but is currently leading the Global Innovation Network for Teaching and Learning (GINTL) Africa and China coordinations, hosted by the Faculty of Educational Sciences. The network aims to enhance collaboration between 20 Finnish higher education institutions for a greater impact in teaching and learning, together with their partners in African continent, China and India. Väyrynen has a versatile teaching career, having worked as classteacher, special needs education teacher, and teacher educator. Internationally, she has worked as programme specialist at UNESCO in Zimbabwe and UNESCO headquarters in France, senior adviser in inclusive education at the Department of Education in South Africa, and Ministry of Education and Vocational Training in Tanzania. In Ethiopia, she worked as counsellor in education at the Embassy of Finland. Väyrynen has worked with a number of development co-operation actors in African countries  Her research interest in education are related to education policies, inclusion and social justice, inclusive pedagogy, teacher education and development for inclusion, and understanding the phenomenon of education realities from multiple perspectives.

Anni Loukomies

Current projects

Learning to Design - Designing to Learn (LDDL) -project is research collaboration between the universities of Helsinki and Johannesburg and aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote continuous learning opportunities for all. We will make research on pupils learning of creative, critical and computational thinking skills in the context of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching and learning. University of Helsinki, GINTL funding, 2022-2024. Dr. Loukomies PI.  

INCLEAD project investigates how the comprehensive school and early childhood education and care (ECEC) centre leaders see inclusion and leadership in an inclusive educational context. University of Helsinki, 2021-2023. Dr Loukomies co-PI  

Oikeus oppia project focuses on developing inclusive school culture.  City of Helsinki Education Division and Viikki Teacher Training School, University of Helsinki, 2021-2023. Dr Loukomies Member of the Project Group  

Meri Lintuvuori

Meri Lintuvuori, PhD (Ed.), is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki in the Centre for Educational Assessment (CEA) and at the Tampere University in the Research group for Education, Assessment and Learning (REAL). In her research, Lintuvuori focuses on support for learning and school attendance, the education policy of basic education as well as equality in education. In her dissertation, Lintuvuori studied the learning and schooling support system and the official statistics of special education.


Nina Heräjärvi

Nina Heräjärvi, PhD (Ed.) and special education teacher, is a University Teacher in Special Education.

Research theme and current project

Heräjärvi has used the quality of life and systems thinking frameworks to investigate the quality of life, upper secondary education, and health care transition outcomes of Finnish young adults with severe physical disabilities with and without a co-occurring intellectual disability. Her goal is to understand how providing individualized upper secondary education and health care services for these young adults after their educational transition from basic to upper secondary education and the transition from child to adult health care in Finland can improve their quality of life. Heräjärvi`s current research focus is on identifying potential gaps in educational, health care, and social services provided to young people with different disabilities. Educational, health care, and social services can be improved to improve the quality of life for young people with disabilities by identifying gaps in these services and by correcting errors in these services to meet the needs of young people. The research of Heräjärvi is based on rigorous quantitative methods.


Terhi Vessonen

Terhi Vessonen is a doctoral researcher in the Active Numeracy research group. Vessonen’s background is in special education and thus, her research interests lie in developing effective interventions and evaluation methods for promoting and assessing students mathematical word problem-solving skills. In her doctoral dissertation, she digs into the individual and contextual characteristics that contribute to mathematical word problem-solving skills. Methodologically Vessonen is interested in intervention designs, measurement validation, as well as conducting systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

Anssi Vanhala

Anssi Vanhala is a university teacher and doctoral researcher in the Active Numeracy
research group. He has a background as a physiotherapist and a master's degree in
exercise physiology. Vanhala's research interests include the effects of physical
activity on cognition, learning and health, and the mechanisms underlying these
associations. His dissertation focuses on the developmental dynamics between
physical activity, motor skills, executive functions and early numeracy in children aged
3-6 years. Methodologically, his research is focused on the analysis of associations
using cross-sectional and longitudinal data and on the analysis of the structure of

Katri Pardon

Research themes

Katri Pardon, M.Sc.(Econ), is a doctoral researcher in Educational Sciences at the University of Helsinki. Her research interests lie in studying the strength-based approach of positive psychology as a part of the Finnish early childhood education. Pardon's interdisciplinary background, combined with more than ten years of experience in business life, bring their own, practical nuances to her research. Pardon uses a pragmatic and multi-method research approach in the form of empirical surveys and interviews.

Current projects

Doctoral thesis: Teaching kindness and compassion in early childhood education, supervised by Lotta Uusitalo and Arniika Kuusisto, 2023–2026

Academy of Finland Project: Child in Time – Existential Resilience in Early Childhood (CiTe), with Arniika Kuusisto, Saila Poulter, Jonna Kangas, Liam Gearon and Lassi Lavanti, 2023–2027 

Natalia Stalchenko

Natalia Stalchenko is a Master of Educational Sciences and a research assistant in the Active Early Numeracy project.

Research Themes

Stalchenko’s main interest is in promoting quality early childhood education and care. As a research assistant, she is involved in identifying factors affecting different aspects of early childhood development, such as early numeracy. This knowledge will aid in developing effective educational strategies that facilitate acquisition of versatile skills and promote children’s well-being and healthy development in an educational context. In her ongoing research, Stalchenko uses quantitative research methodologies to analyse cross-sectional data.

Current projects

Active Early Numeracy project investigates the associations between physical activity and mathematical and motor skills in preschool-aged children (lead by Prof. Pirjo Aunio)

Neuromyths project investigates the misconceptions related to neuroscientific facts held by Finnish educators and student teachers (lead by Dr. Lotta Uusitalo).

Lauri Ståhlberg

Lauri Ståhlberg (M.Ed.) is a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Helsinki. His primary research interest lies in the literacy skills of children and adolescents. Ståhlberg's first article focuses on the validity of the Digital assessment tool eGrader as a reliable grading tool, and the relationship between literacy skills, gender, and birth month. His second article explores the literacy skills of Finnish as a second language (S2) students, and the equitable, appropriate, and ethical allocation of S2 and reading support resources. The third article delves into the use of smartphones by early adolescents and its impacts on literacy skills. Ståhlberg is the owner of Lukuseula Oy (eGrader) and serves as the company's CEO. The company provides assessment services for reading, writing, and mathematical skills. The assessment tool also serves as a learning analytics tool for schools and municipalities.

Hillevi Vyyryläinen

Hillevi Vyyryläinen is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. In her dissertation she studies the nepsy concept, referring to neuropsychiatry, and its use from a critical discourse analytical perspective. The nepsy concept has become a popular way of structuring educational challenges: schools have nepsy coaches and nepsy training is marketed to teaching staff. Vyyryläinen studies this conceptual trend seeking to understand its functions and power relations. She is interested in the spread of psychological and medical terminology and explanations beyond these fields, such as education and educational policy, and their tendency to shift attention from structures to individuals. Vyyryläinen has previously worked as a special class teacher in basic education.