Julia Steiny: A Focus on Brain Development, Relationships Pays Off

Here’s a jaw-dropping stat: A kid’s brain develops 50,000 synapses EVERY MINUTE.

Synapses are the connections made by the brain’s information-carrying cells, neurons, that “wire” our experience into knowledge, skills, and emotions.  Synapses build neuronal strings that form a foundational network that starts in utero and continues after birth when life experiences flood the baby’s brain.

Julia Steiny

Eventually, a typical 22-year-old male has about 105,000 MILES of neuronal strings in his brain.

The problem is that bad early wiring inevitably produces problems later on.

The way Dr. Charles Zeneah puts it, “The brain grows from the bottom up.  If we can establish lower-level capacities, the rest is easier.  Like a house, if the foundation is well constructed, it’s a whole lot easier to fix, if you have to.  As time goes on, the window of opportunity to change the child’s trajectory starts to diminish, and the cost of correcting a maladaptive brain goes up.”

Zeneah was in town to address Rhode Island’s Infant Mental Health Association, on:  “When is it too late?  Intervening after early adversity.”

A professor of psychiatry at Tulane, Zeneah is a board member of Zero to Three.  They collaborated on Neurons to Neighborhoods, a seminal book, fully 2 inches thick, presenting evidence that shows how failing to nurture healthy infant brains, right from the start, has dire consequences.

So even if you only care about tax dollars, know that fabulous mothering at the outset radically reduces the cost of special education, residential placement and prisons.

Still, policy-makers and the public are having a horrible time wrapping their heads around the importance of strong mother/child attachments.  But a healthy young brain is precisely what establishes a resilient, creative, trusting foundation for the inevitable adversities that all children will face when older and more independent.

Zeneah always shows videos, often heart-breaking ones, to make his points.  Today we’ll hang out with “Harold.”  We meet him at 15 months old.  He’s in child-protective care because Mom dropped him off at a neighbor’s and said she’d be back in an hour.  After several days she hadn’t shown up.

In Louisiana Zeneah created an Infant Mental Health Team program that works with child-protective services, the courts, and kids like Harold.  The Team supports both child and mother, if possible, to salvage that relationship.  When they can’t, after plenty of trying, they recommend the termination of parental rights to release the child to a loving mother as soon as possible. (All states need these teams.)

Zeneah insists that all kids need a mom, one specific person committed to the child, who’s nurturing and responsive, over time.  Babies must be “the apple of someone’s eye.”  Food, shelter and clothing are by no means enough.

In the video, Harold is weird.  He sit frozen in an uncomfortable-looking posture.  His biological mother tries to engage him with bubbles, conversation and toys.  He watches her intently, but is otherwise non-responsive.

Often, when researchers observe mother/child relationships, Mom leaves the child alone for a minute and then returns.  When Harold’s mother steps out, he crawls awkwardly to the door, gurgling a creepy, desperate cry.   When Mom returns, Harold acknowledges her with a little smile, but heads right past her out the door.  Not much attachment there.  She picks him up, but he can’t be comforted.

That video was taken when he was living with a first foster mom who was overwhelmed with caring for too many challenged people.  So they gave Harold a new placement where he could get more individualized attention.

The next clip shows us Harold at 18 months, after only 6 weeks with the new foster mom.  He thinks she’s a blast.  He’s walking, chasing the bubbles this time, smiling, verbalizing.  And when she returns after the minute of absence, he throws himself into her arms.

Six weeks.

“Harold’s a new man.  He’s in love, and he’s all right.”

With the right nurture and responsiveness, those 50,000 synapses a minute built Harold a new attitude and approach to life.

Infant brains are hardwired to attach to a mom.  If that early attachment gets screwed up, the child is not “securely attached.”   After 22 months, building a strongly-attached relationship gets harder and harder.  It’s critical to get it right the first time.

Zeneah laments, “The biggest disappointment in my career was in the 1980s, when relationships and relationship disorders were getting attention, but little research was done.  We still don’t have good descriptions of relationships themselves, so we can’t communicate effectively about the problems we are dealing with.  Even so, we know quality parenting matters.  But when it comes to foster care parents, we’re desperate.  Please take this kid.  Do you have a pulse?  Instead, we should figure out who’s really good at mothering and use marketing to recruit them.  So much involves the commitment to the child.  That’s one thing we can improve.”

He recommends finding and paying super-moms.  By all means, do everything you can to improve mother/child relations.  But if and when that fails, intervene with someone really good.

Harold’s behavior tells us his second foster parent has the super-mom chops.  Support more of the likes of her.  Create professional super-mom jobs AND develop a healthier bunch to join the workforce later on.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at www.matthewktabor.com , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.