The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour
There is no doubt that early childhood, usually defined as the first three years are critical in the development of a child’s self-perception which in turn drives their behaviour. These years are important for many reasons not the least because up until age three children would not survive without the support of their caregiver. Of course, very few, if any get to enjoy a perfect childhood but for the vast majority of our students it is more than adequate.
The human brain does not burst into existence in a finished state it grows and evolves for at least 27 years but most intensely in early childhood. The two illustrations below demonstrate this progression.
The first illustration shows the emergence of the functionality of the various areas of the brain shown by the changing deep blue and purple colouring. You can see the frontal lobe doesn’t fully develop until the late teens and into the twenties. These ‘blue areas’ also represent the activity of thinking which necessitates the use of memory.
The second diagram illustrates this progression up until they graduate from school. In each period there are what is referred to as ‘windows of opportunity’ times when the brain is prepared to ‘learn’ new skills by providing an abundant supply of myaline used to reinforce the memories that drive the appropriate perception. An example that is usually given for this phenomena is the acquisition of sight. Like all memories it is the pairing of a stimulus with an interpretation of that stimulus that creates a memory. For sight, the eyes project the various wave lengths of light on to the retina which, through the excitement of nerves called rods and cones sends a signal into the visual cortex of the brain for interpretation. These interpretations become our memories of objects still and in motion.
However, if the child does not receive this stimulation before about eight months old, they will never properly interpret sight. This is because for efficiency, once this critical time has past the brain flushes away the unused myaline and more tragically removes the inactive neurons. This phenomena of memory acquisition is similar for all memories and the danger of inaccurate interpretation or lack of stimulation is at the core of dysfunctional behaviours due to early childhood abuse or neglect.
In broad terms there are three types of parenting that lead to children having dysfunctional behaviours. These are:
· Neglect – the absence of appropriate stimulation for the establishment of memories that define a child’s sense of self which in turn drives behaviour. The unused neurons are removed from the brain in the quest for efficiency, they can’t be re-established.
· Poor Modelling – a child learns to behave in ways that are functional in dysfunctional environments, that is the parent’s behaviour is offending to conventional social norms and the child adopts these behaviours.
· Childhood Abuse – this is often seen as the major cause of dysfunctional behaviour and there is every reason to believe this is true. The severe levels of stress generated in those times of abuse do real, physical and emotional damage to the child.
Of course, there are other more obscure causes such as one-off traumatic events or illness that can interrupt a child’s ‘normal’ development. However, too many children get a combination of all three of these destructive ingredients. A detailed discussion of each will take place in the following Newsletters but in this edition we will examine neglect.
Nothing is straight forward and neglect has a series of impacts on the behavioural development. Not the least is the impact on the formation of their sense of self resulting from interference with a child’s sense of attachment. As pointed out above, a child needs a caregiver to survive for at least the first three years. We are hard-wired to form these attachments in early childhood and how this happens will shape the brain.
Children will make an unconscious judgement about the security of that relationship with the caregiver between the seventh and eleventh month. Security is the key, if the child can rely on the caregiver to always (well nearly always) meet their needs then the child will develop a secure attachment. The certainty of outcomes allows the child to build a confident, optimistic sense of self, they are confirmed as being important.
In some cases the attention from the parent is inconsistent, sometimes their parents will pay attention other times they will be ignored. This triggers a fear that they will be abandoned. This is referred to as anxious attachment and children with this profile are often very needy and become clingy to their parents.
Some parents are not responsive to their child, they are emotionally unavailable. These parents are dismissive to the needs of the child. Children raised in this environment learn not to expect a sensitive response to their needs when stressed and so they develop a lack of trust. This is referred to as avoidant attachment.
The final type is referred to as disorganised attachment because the environment they are raised in is chaotic and unpredictable. The child craves attention but it steers clear of the parent because they fear what will eventuate. The secure, predictable home life they crave just doesn’t exist.
The graph above indicates the impact each style of attachment has on a child’s anxiety and how they will avoid relying on adults. Only children with secure attachment find the creation of relationships with others, especially their teachers, rewarding. The significance of attachment is important and these descriptions provide only a rudimentary outline of this process.
Early in this work we discussed the windows of opportunity where the brain is primed for new learning but if the required stimulus is not forth-coming the myaline and the neurons are pruned from the brain. This is particularly important for attachment because, if in the time ‘allocated’ to hard wire the ability to attach securely, the appropriate stimulus was not present it becomes almost impossible to create them later in life. This has significant implications in forming secure adult relationships.
This pruning will take place for all the required learning in the first three years which is the time a child really develops their sense of self. The real tragedy is the amount of neural material that can be reformed or removed. For example:
• The Amygdala, which is sensitive to fear is increased in size which makes the child very anxious.
• Hippocampus is reported to have a 12% reduction in size which impacts on their ability to comprehend incoming stimulus and the formation of memories.
• Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface. It is in this area of the brain, often referred to as ‘the executive’ where complex decisions are made.
• Cerebellum which is the area of the brain that evaluates the potential of danger or opportunity in the environment in relation to needs is reduced in size becoming more inefficient.
• Reduced efficacy of the corpus callosum, that is the coordination between the brain’s hemispheres is compromised.
It is important to note that neglect is not the only cause of these injuries, extreme levels of stress associated with abuse also significantly contributes to the alterations of the neural landscape. This situation will be discussed in a later Newsletter and it is frequently the case, abuse and neglect work in tandem for too many of these children. In any case these injuries result in permanent, intellectual disability.
An extreme example of the damage to the brain is shown in the now imfamous MRI image of children raised in the hell holes which were the orphanages in Romania under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. Too many children were condemned to lie in their cots without ever being attended to beyond their basic needs.
It can be seen just how much damage has occurred and follow-up studies has shown that this disability continues. The difference is, the younger the child was when adopted the better chance they had of partially overcoming this permanent damage.
This neglect is not always deliberate as was the Romanian experience. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, in their extraordinary book ‘The Boy who Thought He was a Dog’ (Publish by Basic Books – 2006) describes the child of an intellectually delayed mother who could not cope with the demands of a new born baby would leave it alone in its cot all day while she travelled around the city. This child lacked any ability to connect with others and became a sociopath, if not a psychopath. Perry describes the factors that created what became a vicious killer and how this young teen could not comprehend why everyone was upset. I highly recommend this and any other work done by Bruce Perry, he is a leader in this field.
These are extreme examples but the damage is on a sliding scale and teachers should be aware that some of the students who you find difficult to engage with are that way because of what happened to them when they were babies. Its not their fault and it is our responsibility to help them overcome their cognitive injuries.