From Neuroscience to Policy, Program and Practice

In an article for the December 2014 (issue 9) edition of In Sight, a magazine of the Victorian Council of Social Service, Dr.Bruce Perry* and Dr. Annette Jackson** look at the challenges of moving from policy to practice in incorporating neuroscience understanding into the practice of early intervention, particularly for vulnerable children.

*Senior Fellow at The Child Trauma Academy, Adjunct Professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, and Senior Fellow at the Berry Street Childhood Institute in Melbourne **Director at Berry Street Take Two and Adjunct Associate Professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne

The authors begin by pointing out that neuroscience has now established, “In the four years following conception, the major neural networks that an individual will use for a lifetime are created.”  The brain in this crucial phase of life is a dynamic system in which, “the rapidly organising and developing brain is easier to change, influence, modify, teach and heal” and which “offers a unique and fleeting opportunity to influence the health and welfare of the individual.”  They state that, “early life provides a unique, powerful, efficient and cost-effective opportunity to help children become healthy, creative, productive and humane.”

Perry and Jackson point out that this is not new knowledge, and that “even the neuroscience underlying this awareness has been around for over 30 years.”  So why, they ask, has this not played out in significant routing of funding by governments into preventive programming, and why is it that, even now, “public resources spent on reactive substance abuse, health, mental health and youth justice swamp those for preventative services or early childhood programs.”

Speaking in the context of the governmental structure in which they operate, the state of Victoria, in Australia, which has put significant effort towards developing early childhood programs, and attempting to answer their question of why “if we know these important things and we don’t integrate them into education, child protection, mental health, juvenile justice and, even, early childhood policy,” they draw on three principles of neurobiology that “shed some light on this long and winding road.”

Principle One: Change is Threatening

They discuss how the brain functions in a “state-dependent” fashion in which the default response is to reject innovation.  This acts to create an innate conservatism in group-decision-making bodies.  “Related to this defensive reaction is that the academic or interest group most threatened by the innovations which challenge their existing frame of reference or perspective will be the most vocal and hostile to the new ideas.”  Because innovation cannot be implemented without reallocation of resources and without change to existing policy affecting other governmental structures, it is bound to be a gradual process.  “Until the new ideas become familiar and are adopted by the mainstream groups with power and influence, there is little hope that enduring and pervasive policy change can take place,” they argue.

Principle Two:  Humans are Vulnerable to ‘Tribalism’

The authors point out that human beings are social creatures who survive by forming mutually supportive relationships within ‘clans’, and that, historically, our major predator has been other humans.  As a result, they state, competition occurs in most human organizational endeavour, including academia and politics.  “The brain-mediated tendancy to needlessly compete rather than cooperate contributes to the long and winding road.”

Principle Three:  Human Decision-Making is Based More on Emotion Than Reason

“All information from the outside world comes into our brain through our senses,” they state. “The lower and middle regions of our brain – which are simpler, more emotional, reactive and less capable of abstraction or reasoning – have the opportunity to process and act on this incoming information before it even gets up the neocortex  - the smart part of the brain.”  Their argument is because of this routing of information, “most behaviour – including decisions about policy – is elicited, automatic, ‘fast’ processed and emotional.  Even in the face of overwhelming factual content – such as the return on investment in high quality early childhood programs – bright and good people, when in policy or legislative groups, will often fail to act on this information in a rational way.”  This often leads to frustration for those working in the field of early childhood development, especially those in the front lines of work with young children impacted by abuse, neglect and trauma.

The conclusion drawn by the article indicates the importance of continuing to work towards the goal of developing systematic early intervention programming for young children, particularly for those at higher risk, despite the complexity of moving towards structural implementation.

An opportunity to hear Dr. Bruce Perry speak...

Bestselling author and educator, clinician and researcher in children’s mental health, Dr. Perry will provide an overview of brain development, the impact of abuse and neglect, and intervention implications. Sponsored by the Comox Valley Child Development Association, this day is for a broad audience including child development and early intervention professionals, First Nations Health Authority staff, Aboriginal service providers, mental health clinicians, probation officers, social workers, foster parents, educators, alcohol and drug counsellors, health professionals and community leaders.

Monday, April 4, 2016 9 am-3 pm Native Sons Hall, Courtenay, BC Cost $150 – lunch included

Register by phone with credit card: 250-338-4288

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