Why early experience matters: Videos of scientists teach you

Scholars know so much about the importance of early experience–you should too!

A 2010 symposium brought together anthropologists, clinical, developmental and neuro-scientists to discuss early experience in light of evolution and human development. This is necessarily an interdisciplinary area of study because we have to know our history as social mammals, what optimizes our development in our sensitive early years and what undermines the development of a cooperative human nature. The talks are available for free online. Here is a sampling of the speakers with links.

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“Government-Sanctioned Child Abuse”: Separating Kids, Parents at Border

Government officials are doing irreparable harm to families seeking asylum. They are separating children from their families, no matter the age of the child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and over 200 other child welfare organizations, which have become increasingly sensitized to early life stress, have condemned the practice of child-parent separations. The head of the AAP, Colleen Kraft, has written an op-ed against it.

She says: “Officials at the Department of Homeland Security claim they act solely “to protect the best interests of minor children.””

Hardly. Is it ignorance or malice? We don’t know, but the justifications sound both ignorant and malicious.

What ignorance are they displaying? Here is a short description:

Human children are not like other animals. They are born so immature they look like fetuses of other animals till about 18 months of age. In the first years of life, children co-construct their biological and social capacities, organizing their basic features around the experiences they have.  The norms for our species is the evolved nest. One specific need that separation denies is physical affection from known caregivers. This need among social mammals like us was well documented by Harry Harlow’s monkey experiments. Young monkeys deprived of their mother’s touch developed into aggressive and autistic (socially awkward) individuals, never to recover.

Extensive distress shifts development, undermining what otherwise develops in a loving supportive environment –biologically healthy systems and social engagement. Instead extensive distress enhances primitive survival mechanisms in ways that grow to harm self and others—e.g., the stress response becomes hyperreactive. Because the first years of life are so sensitive to experience, the individual may never recover to reach their full potential (although they may recover enough to survive—i.e., what is often called “resilience”).

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Those who separate immigrant children from parents might as well be beating them with truncheons

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Central American asylum seekers, including a Honduran girl, 2, and her mother, are taken into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border in June in McAllen, Texas.

They all agree. Physicians for Human Rights. American Medical Association. American Academy of Pediatrics. American Psychiatric Association. National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners. 

Separating children from their parents or caregivers hurts children. Between April 19 and May 31, nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents. As Celeste Fremon reported in WitnessLa,  that number has now passed 2,300 children (and is increasing by more than 60/day), with another 11,000 locked up in everything from large cages to a converted Walmart. 

“To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma,” says a petition signed by more than 9,000 mental health professionals and 172 organizations.

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Integrating ACEs increases hope for healing at One Hope United in Illinois

Tammy Ambre (l) and Keri Bechelli of One Hope United

Tammy Ambre (l) and Keri Bechelli of One Hope United

One Hope United attempts to lead those affected by childhood trauma down a Healing Path.

That’s the name of a three-year-old program that has brought a different approach to helping people with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The program operates out of One Hope United’s office in Gurnee, IL, north of Chicago, and three others in the metropolitan area.

“It’s specifically trauma-based treatment, rooted in evidence-based practices,” says Jill Novacek, director of programs for the four Illinois offices of One Hope United. The organization works to ensure safe, loving environments for children by educating and empowering them and their parents—or, if need be, foster parents. The program serves children from

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Caveman parenting and adult health

AparentingbookAffection, touch, play—did you have them in  childhood? As an adult, your health and social skills may depend on them.

A paper in press suggests that so-called “caveman” parenting (aka primal or evolved parenting) is related to adult health, wellbeing, sociality and morality.

In a class that just finished, students read The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland which explained

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Alberta Family Wellness Initiative changes minds by informing Canadians about effects of toxic stress on kids’ brains

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A cartoon outline of a child – in a video – stands alone near a cracked sidewalk heaped with obstacles: giant red bricks labeled “neglect,” “abuse” and “parental addiction.” The voice-over says: “It’s possible to fix some of the damage of toxic stress later on, but it’s easier, more effective and less expensive to build solid brain architecture in the first place.”

The four-minute animation—which covers toxic stress, caregiver-child interaction and the role of communities in building healthy brains—has reached many people since its release in October 2013. But the video is just one snippet of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI), a project aimed to better the lives of children and families in one of Canada’s westernmost provinces.

Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president, Norlien Foundation

Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president, Norlien Foundation

The AFWI, launched in 2007 by the private Norlien Foundation, has an ambitious agenda: to promote the use of scientific knowledge about early brain and biological development in order to change beliefs, policies and practices related to children, families and communities—in short, to “bridge the gap between what we know and what we do,” according to a 2013 AFWI report.

The AFWI began its work by capturing the attention and engagement of high-level “change-makers”—government officials, community leaders, policy experts, academics and administrators who could learn the newest science, discuss it in depth, then take that story home to influence research, policy and practice.

“In the early days, the focus of our effort was on policy-makers and professionals rather than the public. You need to start changing the thinking of those in the system who are making decisions before you start focusing on a public audience,” said Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president of Norlien.

AFWI focuses on the “core story of brain development,” a series of metaphors grounded in emerging biomedical science and developed with the help of the FrameWorks Institute  and the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University.

  • Brains are not just born; they are built through a child’s experiences and interaction.

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Echo Parenting & Education rides the trauma wave

Changing the Paradigm keynote speakers Dr. Janina Fisher and Ruth Beaglehole, Founder of Echo Parenting & Education

Sometimes we don’t notice when history is being made. We ride a wave of logical progression and don’t even notice when it peaks – that snapshot moment when we are lifted, arms outstretched, into the waiting air and remain suspended for one glorious second before the wave breaks and pushes powerfully to shore.

What the heck am I talking about? Our Changing the Paradigm conference. Last month, 120 participants, 22 speakers and a slew of volunteers gathered at The California Endowment for our two-day conference on developmental trauma. Everything went off perfectly. The evaluations were glowing (apart from the person who wanted avocado on the lunchtime sandwiches – I guess you can’t please everyone). But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what some of the speakers had to say:

“It was a deep honor and a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful and inspiring exchange of hearts, minds

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