Monday 27 January 2014

Teaching and the (maltreated) brain

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Professor Dorothy Bishop’s recent blog post on the (often overlooked and/or overly forgiven) limitations of neuroscience in education will resonate strongly with many in the developmental psychology, speech-language pathology, education, and related cognitive science fields.

The central thesis of Professor Bishop’s argument is that what teachers most need to know about is classroom practices that promote good learning outcomes for children, reminding us of course that we don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in order to determine whether such transformations are occurring. We simply need to observe, and in some cases assess learning through rather more paedestrian and far less expensive measures, e.g. teacher or clinician judgement, or the use of criterion or norm-referenced tests. 
All experience (or lack there-of) influences the brain and its neural networks, but our recent ability to “view” the brain at work seems to have blinded us to the fact that from the moment of birth, sensory and motor experiences “sculpt” neural pathways - and this occurs irrespective of whether we can view the process. The advent of fMRI seems to have shifted our language from discussion about what neuropsychology contributes to our knowledge of learning, to what sounds, on the face of it like a more sophisticated paradigm  - talk of neuroscience. In practice, fMRI-based neuroscience may just turn out to be the "fun sister" - interesting to be around, with some fancy (albeit interesting and diverting) accessories, but still to deliver on independent transformation of classroom practice.
Developmental (neuro)trauma and classroom learning
However there is a field of neuroscience (for want of a better term!) which is of immediate translational relevance in the everyday classroom and that is the field of developmental trauma, as exemplified in the work of Professor Bruce Perry, Professor Allan Shore, Professor Besel van der Kolk, to name a few. “Developmental trauma” refers to a collection of adverse early experiences of neglect and/or abuse (collectively referred to as maltreatment) which conspire to work against optimal development of the human brain in the critical developmental period between birth and age 5. In Australia, in 2011-12, there were more than 250,000 notifications to child protection authorities, not all of whom will be victims of substantiated maltreatment, but by the same token, many cases go undetected and are not included in child protection databases. The bottom line though, is that classrooms in towns and cities across the country include children who are living in stressful, suboptimal environments with respect to their developmental needs.
Maltreatment comes in a number of guises, compromising many aspects of the relational space in which language, cognition, empathy, memory, and social skills need to be acquired, refined and rehearsed over many years. Ideally, such learning occurs in the context of warm, trusting, and reliable relationships with caring adults who provide a secure base from which children can explore their world, and develop adaptive "working models" of how to interact and learn.
As the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky taught us, when adults (parents and later, teachers) can carefully scaffold the child’s early attempts at a particular task or skill, they maximise success and gradually consolidate mastery. One only needs to think of how an infant learns to walk, to see this scaffolding in action – parents provide the necessary but minimal support needed for success and incrementally scale this down until those first few tottery but independent steps are taken. Under optimal circumstances, parents seem to have an infinite capacity for scaffolding across a wide variety of developmental domains. Think for example, of how parents co-construct narratives (often in as minimally intrusive a way as they can) with a 5 year old who wants to tell Grandpa about her trip to the park.
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Sadly, though, children who are victims of maltreatment too often miss out on this scaffolding, and instead learn that adults are unreliable, unpredictable, and sometimes unsafe to be around. Such learning has negative implications for self-soothing, forming trusting relationships, and virtually all aspects of cognitive, linguistic, and social-emotional development that promote success in the early years classroom. Children who have experienced maltreatment and/or vicarious trauma (e.g. exposure to domestic violence) are often chronically stressed and hypervigilant to threat; they may also be tired and hungry – hardly optimal conditions for cognitive and linguistic engagement in classroom learning. Such children may appear to the casual observer to be restless, fidgety, inattentive, reticent, disinterested, and/or poorly motivated. The diagnoses that follow are many and varied.
So here we have a problem….
Unlike doctors, allied health professionals, and psychologists, teachers are not typically taught the basics of neuropsychology during their training. In fact (and this is not a criticism of teachers themselves of course) they are probably more likely to be exposed to pseudo-science such as unhelpful and simplistic models of “left brain-right brain” learning  and so-called “learning styles”, than to scientifically derived models of how the brain is organised and develops during childhood. Maybe this is changing with time, but my experience in working with classroom teachers in postgraduate training over the last 8 years has been that they are not well-equipped with basic neuroscience knowledge.
…and the beginnings of a workable solution
It’s encouraging then, that in recent years developmental trauma frameworks have been advanced for use by teachers and others in contact with young children experiencing the corrosive developmental effects of maltreatment. One such framework is that described by Professor Bruce Perry, who explains the hierarchical organisation and development of the central nervous system under optimal conditions, and the ways in which maltreatment can disrupt healthy development and interfere with learning.
Put simply, this framework is built around the way the brain manages its “house-keeping” (homeostatic or brainstem) functions, takes in and relays information from the senses to higher centres, forms memories and emotional associations, and finally organises, stores, and retrieves information in order to respond adaptively to the surrounding world.

Employed in the context of appropriate professional development modules, this neurodevelopmental framework helps teachers and other school personnel understand

  • the role of different “levels” of the central nervous system and their typical development;
  • the effects of maltreatment on the immature brain as an integrated system;
  • the maladaptive ways in which experiences of trauma can manifest in classroom environments, e.g. restlessness and hypervigilance to threat, and
  • ways in which classroom practices can be readily modified to promote optimal learning outcomes for all children.

Two user-friendly teacher resources that can be downloaded free of charge are:

Another helpful resource for teachers and school personnel is this paper by Professor Bruce Perry:

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© Pamela Snow 2014