At Family Support we have even bigger aspirations beyond providing excellent family support services.
We believe that the best way to reduce demand on specialist services is to better channel resources and energy into identifying and supporting vulnerable families in Hammersmith & Fulham.
Science tells us that lifelong health is shaped by our earliest experiences and that what happens in the first few years of our life has a long-term effect on our brain.
The good news is our brains aren't fully formed until around the age of 25, so there are plenty of opportunities to help young people develop the skills they need and to overcome the impact of earlier toxic stress.
Alberta Family Wellness Initiative
The work of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative shows that most people have a limited understanding of child development. This limits their ability to understand how family life can be improved and how crucial positive childhood experiences are to creating a legacy of happier, more resilient children who thrive as adults.
They have come up with several metaphors making it easier for professionals, communities and families to talk about the implications of brain development on practice and behaviour.
Brain development metaphors
The metaphors below are used to boost people's understanding of brain development.
Our brains are built through a process that begins before birth, and continues into adulthood. Like the construction of a house, the building process happens in a sequence, first laying the foundations, shaping the rooms and later wiring the electrical system.
These things have to happen in the right order. Early experiences literally shape how the brain gets built. A strong foundation in the very early years increases the chances of positive health and learning later on, while a weak foundation increases the odds of having difficulties.
Serve and return
A vital ingredient in a young child’s growth and learning (and brain development), especially from ages nought to five, is the “serve and return” interactions that they have with their parents, caregivers and the people in their communities. Like the serve and return rally in a good game of tennis, young children naturally reach out for interaction with adults through babbling and imitating facial expressions.
This process helps them develop important language, cognitive, and social skills. If adults do not respond by getting in sync with children and returning these kinds of noises and gestures, the serve and return rally breaks down and the child’s developmental process is interrupted. This has negative implications for later learning.
Toxic Stress happens when a child experiences severe and on-going stress – like extreme poverty, abuse, or violence in the community – without consistent supportive relationships. Toxic stress affects the way that the child’s brain develops and can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behaviour, and both physical and mental health.
There are different kinds of stress that very young children – say ages nought to five – can experience: there’s positive stress, buffered (sometimes known as tolerable) stress, and toxic stress. Positive stress is the types of challenges that can actually help children develop, like facing a challenging social situation or preparing for a really hard exam. Buffered or tolerable stress is things that could damage development, but that are buffered by having supportive positive relationships, like having strong adult support when a loved one dies. And then there is toxic stress.
The Brain's Air Traffic Control System
Children’s ability to remember, focus and pay attention is like the air traffic control system at a busy airport. At an airport, some planes have to land and others have to take off at the same time, and there’s only so much room on the ground and in the air. A child’s ability to manage competing demands is a skill that develops over time, requiring practice and support. Likewise children need to develop their brain’s air traffic control system to manage their mental airspace, with the support of caring and sensitive adults.
These ‘executive function’ skills regulate the flow of information and enable children to focus on tasks, create mental priorities, avoid collisions, and keep the system flexible and on time. In children, this air traffic control system needs to be actively built as early as possible.
When a lorry carries too much weight, it can be overloaded to the point of breaking down. And when parents are burdened with stresses like poverty or lack of support, the weight of these problems can overload their mental and emotional capacity to take care of their children’s basic needs. Over time, carrying and managing heavy burdens puts a strain on people, and can weaken their ability to care for their children. And when an especially large burden is loaded onto a person who is already overloaded – such as the loss of a job – it can cause a breakdown in care.
However, just as we can unload an overloaded lorry by bringing in other lorries, or moving some cargo by train instead, we can provide social supports that offloads sources of stress from overloaded parents, and improve their capacity to care for their children.
Think of a child’s development as a scale. The way the scale ends up tipping is like the outcome of the child’s development, so we want it to tip towards the positive side. Positive things like supportive relationships get loaded on one side and negative things like abuse, neglect or community violence get stacked on the other. The goal of every community is to have development tip positive for as many kids as possible. To do this we can offload as much weight as possible from the negative side and we can stack as many factors on the positive side as is possible. This is called stacking the scale.
We also know that we can give kids support early to help them develop coping skills. These skills push the balance point over to one side and make the scale harder to tip negative and able to bear more negative weight and still tip positive. This is what resilience is.