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Combating Early Childhood Adversity Brief

by CIFAR Jan 4 / 17

Reaching Vulnerable Children at School

On June 29th, 2016 in partnership with PolicyWise for Children and Families (formerly known as the Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research), CIFAR held a Change Makers dialogue to explore how early life experience can impact academic achievement levels, health and well-being over the long term and the interventions that would be effective in reaching the most at risk youth in schools. This symposium brought together Research Fellows and leaders from education, government and community organizations who exchanged insights and understanding to uncover innovations that will help children thrive.

Moderated by Cathie Scott, Chief Knowledge and Policy Officer, PolicyWise, the event included presentations from: W. Thomas Boyce, Co-Director and Senior Fellow, CIFAR’s program in Child & Brain Development, and Professor, University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine; Bryan Kolb, Senior Fellow, CIFAR’s program in Child & Brain Development and Professor, University of Lethbridge, Department of Neuroscience; Teresa Vancise, Assistant Principal, Calgary Board of Education; and Margaret Casey, Psychologist, Calgary Board of Education. This brief provides an overview of the key messages from those presentations and the group discussions that followed. 


Early Adversity and the Developing Brain: The Roles of Sensitivity, Social Orders, and Schools

The brain is a highly complex and plastic organ which undergoes rapid development before and soon after birth. The increased complexity of neuronal and brain circuitry development includes specialization of the cortex, development of language and speech capabilities, and development of higher cognitive functions (e.g. working memory and mental imagery).

Early brain development impacts long term health and well-being. While much of brain development happens during first 1000 days of life, the changes can have implications for the life course. The early years are therefore a sensitive period for intervention if a child has been exposed to negative early life experiences. This points to the critical importance of intervening early, as the rate of return on interventions decreases with age. 

Physical and mental health is partitioned by socioeconomic status (SES). Differential exposures to toxins, diet, health care, housing, adversity, stress, violence etc. in early life can alter health and development of children in different SES settings. Children living in poverty for example tend to have far greater exposure to these early stressors than middle income children, and studies have pointed to a clear association of children with lower SES backgrounds having poorer reading performance. 

Individual differences impact how children react to their experience and environment. There is tremendous individual variation in how children respond to stressors and adverse events but also to supportive social environments. Given the heightened sensitively of certain children, in both positive and negative directions, and given that exposures to stress can have impacts on life-long health and wellbeing, focus should be placed on these sensitive children in educational settings. 

The orchid-dandelion child hypothesis offers suggestions for how to develop effective interventions. In research experiments, children (typically shyer) who were highly sensitive to their environment do great in more predictable environments or where there is a high level of support but sustain higher rates of negative outcomes in unsupportive, adverse settings. These children are referred to as orchids. The outcomes for them therefore greatly depend on their social environment. There are some children that seem to be more resilient to stressful challenges and are lower in biological reactivity to their social environment. These children are referred to as dandelion children as they can thrive in any environment that they are planted. 


Plasticity in the Developing Brain

The brain undergoes enormous growth in the first years of life. It’s not just the events that happen after birth that impact a child’s development and well-being but events that happen before and during pregnancy can have significant impact. 

The environment can greatly influence brain development. Animal studies have been powerful tools to explore the behavioral and structural changes that occur to the brain in response to various forms of stimuli. Positive factors contributing to brain development include diet and tactical stimulation, for example, which can contribute not only to changes in circuits within the brain, but also to the emotional and social behaviors of a child. Negative factors impacting brain development may include preconception stress (both maternal and paternal), stress during pregnancy, and deprivation (e.g. poverty). These factors can contribute to fewer connections in offspring brains, and reduced cognitive, linguistic and motor abilities. These changes in brain and behavioral development are the result of changes in gene expression and epigenetic effects.

Intervention after negative experiences is possible however it is best to do so early to have the greatest chance of success. 


Researching vulnerable children at school: An educator's perspective

Identifying high-risk students can help create opportunities for learning success. Elementary school classrooms may have up to 80% of students with various complex needs and backgrounds such as high adverse early childhood experiences, fetal alcohol syndrome, second language learners, severe behaviour/ ADHD, learning disabilities, cognitive delays, and autism spectrum disorder. These backgrounds can create different impairments such as attachment, affect regulation, dissociation, behavioural, cognition, and self-concept, and therefore present a barrier to learning. It thus becomes important for an educator to understand their classroom’s composition and rationale behind it in order to create supportive learning environments. 

Educators need to have a strong understanding of current research in order to reach the most vulnerable children successfully. The brain exhibits a high degree of plasticity which can create an opportunity for intervention to promote better learning outcomes amongst the most high risk students. 

Interventions need to move beyond a classroom to the whole school system. The education system should operate like an orchestra – with many players, all must be in tune, be highly skilled, have the same information and sense of understanding on research informed interventions to create change.


Approaches to Guide Practice

There is a paradigm shift happening in developing interventions that reach the most vulnerable children. The shift is moving from “what’s wrong with you” to “what’s happened to you”. That is, we are starting to look beyond behaviour to applying a more trauma-focused lens to understand a child’s experience and needs. However, it is important not to assume that all behaviors are due to trauma exposure or adverse experiences and to be curious and find out the true underlying issue. 

Interventions grounded in scientific research will create the best opportunities for academic success. A paradigm shift needs to occur for developing interventions in which educators have a solid understanding of the current research on child and brain development and use science to enhance best teaching practices, improve learning for all children and to create safe learning environments for kids. Getting leadership engaged to support this integration is critical. 

Research-informed frameworks have been successful in translating science to practice in education for reaching at risk kids. ARC (Attachment, Self-Regulation and Competency) is a research-informed framework that recognizes factors that can derail development and works with children, families and systems to build or rebuild healthy development. It focuses on creating safe environments first in order to be able to drive effective teaching. In addition to ARC, other frameworks have also been successful in applying developmental science to education. In some cases, multiple frameworks can be applied together, such as combining ARC with Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT). 

Caregiver affect management is crucial when implementing interventions that reach the most vulnerable children. Support also needs to be provided to front line workers caring for at risk children as there can be secondary traumatic stress as a result of caring for them. 

Interventions need not happen in silos. Team work is important and should include professionals from various aspects of the education system with a common language in place. 

Read the full Symposium Brief