Is misused neuroscience defining early years and child protection policy?

Zoe Williams writes for The Guardian:

The idea that a child’s brain is irrevocably shaped in the first three years increasingly drives government policy on adoption and early childhood intervention. But does the science stand up to scrutiny?

A much-used image purporting to show the affect of neglect on children’s brain development

Neuroscience can now explain why early conditions are so crucial,” wrote Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith in their 2010 collaboration,Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens. “The more positive stimuli a baby is given, the more brain cells and synapses it will be able to develop.”

Neuroscience is huge in early years policy. This week, in what’s been characterised as the largest shake-up of family law in a generation, the 26-week time limit for adoption proceedings has come into force, much of it justified by the now-or-never urgency of this set of beliefs, that the first three years (or sometimes first 18 months) hardwire a baby’s brain, either give it or deny it the capacity for a full life. This is the engine of what is known as the First Three Years movement, which has transfixed politicians from across the spectrum. Allen and Duncan Smith’s report opened with an illustration of the “normal child’s” large brain and the shrivelled, walnut brain of the neglected child. With conferences such asTwo Is Too Late (organised by Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom) and papers such as The 1,001 Critical Days, a set of claims are made that echo and reinforce those bold claims made by Allen: first, that we now have a set of scientific findings about the infant brain that can teach us new things about parenting. Second, that concrete events occur – from the production of synapses to the lighting up of areas of the brain on an MRI scanner – that can be interpreted in a straightforward way upon which all science is agreed. Third, with terms such as “critical periods” and “hardwiring”, the thesis is put forward that brains have a finite time window for learning certain things. Fourth, that we can distil the treatment of infants into a set of behaviours that will determine the networks in their brains, either equipping them to empathise, learn, engage and produce, or irreparably failing to equip them. The connections made are endless: babies who fail to make the right neural connections will do badly at school, lack empathy, succumb to criminality, have mental health problems, and end up in a cycle of deprivation themselves.

For instance: “Very early experiences need to be rich in touch, face-to-face contact and stimulation through conversation (or reciprocating baby babble). These stimuli encourage a more richly networked brain, particularly the regions that govern social aspects of life,” wrote Rebecca Brown and Harriet Ward in Decision Making Within a Child’s Timeframe, devised as the definitive document for use in family courts, as the calling of expert witnesses declines and this 26-week deadline is enforced. “Science is helping us to understand how love and nurture by caring adults is hardwired into the brains of children,” notes Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer, in the foreword to The 1001 Critical Days.

The child protection changes are the most extreme end of the policy shaped by neurosciences, but it’s visible across all early-years policy; it can justify the removal of children who have been exposed to domestic violence or even children who may be hypothetically exposed, the mother having been abused before. It’s the foundation of the Family Nurse Partnership scheme, the state intervention at week 16 into a pregnancy that has been deemed “vulnerable”. It’s one of the reasons given for the CanParent pilot, free parenting classes offered as a trial in five boroughs (though likely to be abandoned after only 4% of new parents took them up). A major proponent of parenting “training” is the Sutton Trust, which recently produced its own estimate that 40% of children lack “secure attachments”.

Here’s the thing: what if it’s over-baked? What if the claims made for neuroscience are so extreme that most neuroscientists would disown them? What if the constant references to “brain scans of neglected children” actually just meant one brain scan, from one highly contested study? What if synaptic development were a bit more complicated than “the more synapses the better”, and what if MRI scans tell us much less than we think? Jan Macvarish, author of Biologising Parenting: Neuroscience Discourse, says: “There’s a wow factor to the images that the substance of the research doesn’t merit. We’re not actually seeing inside brains. We’re certainly not seeing emotions written on to the brain that we can then draw conclusions from into how parents should love their children.”

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