This blog post was written in response to David Brooks, NY Times Op/Ed, September 28, 2012 The Psych Approach

Three years old having tantrumDavid Brooks’ (NY Times Op/Ed, September 28, 2012) recent discussion of Paul Tough’s recent book (How children succeed: Grit, curiosity and the power of character, 2012) suggests that all children need to overcome the adversity of their lives is a change in attitude. In fact, if it were that easy, children would most likely comply. As Ross Greene, author of the Explosive child, 2001 states so eloquently: “children do well when they can.”

A Collective Failure to Protect

Our collective failure to protect young children has serious, long lasting effects on their neurological development. Prolonged exposure to stress changes the structure and chemistry of the brain, disrupting cognitive development in predictable ways. Especially noteworthy are changes in the arousal or stress management system (Bruce Perry, MD). These are physical changes that limit children’s ability to acquire the self-regulatory behaviors that predict academic success.

Chronic stress in early childhood is also correlated with depressed differentiation in the language centers of the brain (Cook, et al., 2005). This can be observed and mapped using MRI technology. At a period of rapid growth in this area, traumatized children fail to develop the vocabulary or language processing skills needed for literacy.

These very real neurological changes limit children’s ability to bring order to their experiences. Unable to control their emotions or articulate their needs, they experience life as out of control. Life happens to them. There is no relationship between effort and outcome.  “Learned helplessness” limits their ability to set goals or solve problems.

Afraid for their Lives

These children are afraid of their lives and for their lives. Fear and despair drive their behavior even in the relative safety of a school. Since the brain filters all new information through the lens of past experiences these children are reluctant to see future caregivers as sources of comfort or support. Rather they are perceived as dangerous or threatening.

Repairing faulty attachment relationships is a Herculean task that requires a willingness to teach rather than judge our children.   When adults are able to respond to children’s needs in a consistent manner, they learn to anticipate a safe response. This predictable pattern of interaction is reparative. It allows the brain to create new neural pathways and children to move beyond early histories of adversity and stress.