Neuroscience and child development

I was lucky enough to be awarded a fellowship from the Winston Churchill Fellowship Trust (WCMT) in 2010 and spent two months travelling in the USA and Australia under the auspices of work.  That would have been good enough in itself, but the experience turned out to be far greater that I could have imagined, and created opportunities that I hope will contribute to our understanding of, and ways of working with, children who have experienced severe trauma.

The purpose of the trip was to look at early intervention strategies in both countries, primarily to see what could be learned from practice. My interest was grabbed by the work of the Child Trauma Academy (childtrauma.org) which is based in Houston, Texas but also contributes to treatment facilities across the USA, Canada and Australia. It has developed a model which is informed by theories of neuroscience and understanding of the sequential way in which the brain develops.

A child's brain develops to 80% of adult capacity by the age of three and 90% by the age of four so the potential for serious damage to be done in a child's most formative years, as a result of exposure to trauma, is significant.

The starting process for working with this model is getting a snapshot of the child's brain function by using the assessment tool referred to as the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT).

This is a very detailed assessment which maps a child's developmental experiences from the time of conception, in utero to the present and also the extent of 'relational health' which a child has experienced.  This refers to the quality of care and nurturing which they have received and the degree of support they get from all those in their lives, including parents and carers, school or nursery, clubs, activities and any other adults involved in their lives.

All the information is run through a computer program which provides a picture of where the child's strengths and weaknesses might lie, as dictated by the extent to which difficult early experiences may have impacted on their brain development.  With this understanding, interventions and strategies are suggested to help with the child's specific areas of difficulty.

The prognosis seemed so positive and hopeful that I wanted to see if such an approach could translate to our own cultural climate.

Since coming back, I have been working to set up a pilot study with South Lanarkshire Council's Family Placement Team which I hope will answer this question.

The pilot study has been designed for children in foster care who are not able to return home. The objective is to help this group of extremely vulnerable children develop the capacity to self-regulate as, without this, they are unable to progress developmentally.  It is also hoped that it will strengthen their carers' understanding and make use of their huge potential to implement strategies which we believe will contribute to children's recovery.

The prognosis for change appears to be very good because the brain is relatively 'plastic' and suggestible to patterned interventions.  The assessment helps direct interventions towards areas where they are most needed and which are most effective in meeting the child's needs.  We will focus initially on interventions that help shore up the lower levels of the brain as they are responsible for some of our most basic functioning.

The interventions are based on patterned rhythmic and repetitive activities which encourage new neural pathways to develop.  We hope these will strengthen the child's capacity to self-regulate; one of the core foundations of healthy development.

For more information see www.childtrauma.org or contact helen.runciman@ics.s-lanark.org.uk

For details of how to apply to the Winston Churchill Fellowship Trust see www.wcmt.org.uk

Read the full report of Helen's trip