I’m at a Casey Family Programs conference in Seattle that is looking at applying science to early learning in kids. The people here are learning about brain science and the results of early adverse childhood experiences and what the science can tell us about how we should react in the policy sphere to create healthy kids, families and societies.
The keynote is by Jack Shonkoff, who is a leading brain researcher in this field and who has been sharing some of the basics of what we know about brain science, relationships and healthy societies. Here are some of his key points:
Experiences build brain architecture. What happens is that neural circuits develop to reinforce behaviours, emotions, motor skills and so on. Babies brains build a basic architecture by forming synapses and then a more complex architecture develops on top of that. For the first three year of life, babies’ brains form 700 synapses a second. Genes provide the template for this work, but experiences turn the genes on and off. So early life experiences are built into our bodies, encoded in our brains – for better or for worse. To promote healthy brian architecture you need language rich environments, supportive relationships and “serve and return” interactions with adults are the three things that promote health brain architecture. Prolonged stress and reduced exposure to supportive relationships – in other words, what are known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) – create the conditions for heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases that are a result of disrupted development of organ systems.
Toxic stress derails healthy development. In babies, stress is alleviated by contact with a caring adult. If a child is exposed to stress in large amounts, the brain loses the ability to turn off the stress responses, and the stress becomes toxic. Nurturing, stable and engaging environments are the antidote to stress. It’s interesting that in North America we don’t treat stress with much compassion – “get over it” is a common response. In the USA especially, a hyper individualistic culture diminishes the importance of stress.
Some positive stress is a good thing however – what we call in the facilitation world “The Groan Zone” which helps learning and helps healthy development. There is always stress associated with learning new things or doing things for the first time. In healthy development, adults help kids with this kind of stress and the kids learn strategies for dealing with stress, which amps up the heart rate and blodd pressure and then reduces it. Supportive relationships help children to learn adaptive and coping skills.
Tolerable stress is serious and temporary – death of a family member, natural disasters, war and violence, an experience of extreme despair and other things that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. This kind of stress is also buffered by supportive relationships. Families, extended families, friends, neighbours, supported programs need to step in and provide the buffering that reduces stress to baseline levels.
Toxic stress however is prolonged activation of the stress response in the absence of protective relationships. This includes living alone in violence, or with adults that neglect children or who are unable to care for children because the are sick or depressed. If you don’t have access to caring adults, the stress becomes toxic and the stress system is built into your brain architecture, placing hardship on your organs, your nervous system and your hormones. This is the kind of stress that leads to long term health and development issues.
Neglect can be as powerful as abuse. It doesn’t matter to the baby’s brain whether your lack of relationships come from neglect or abuse. It has the same effect on the brain, and it keeps the stress levels high. Seven hundred synapses a second don’t care what an adult is doing if there are no compassionate relationships. Reducing stress by reducing the numbers and severity of adverse early childhood experiences results in better outcomes. This doesn’t mean that we have to solve poverty and subsistence abuse overnight before we get better outcomes – it means we need to make policy decisions that ask the question about whether we are supporting healthy and supportive relationships. In other words, the social safety net needs to work both at the systemic level to reduce inequalities, and at the acute level to create spaces where people can learn and experience healthy supportive relationships at every age.
I’ve been listening here thinking about the implications for this in organizations and communities. To sacrifice relationships at the alter of work or learning is to not only inhibit the sustainability of what is going on, but also creates the conditions for unhealthy families, groups, communities and organizations.