In the United States, there is growing recognition that trauma and other negative experiences in the first three years of a child's life can affect the structure and the development of the brain. But research also shows that these neurobiological changes can be reversed with intensive early intervention.
Infants and young children who have been traumatised or chronically neglected, or who live in consistently stressful environments, have high levels of cortisol in the brain, a stress hormone that can trigger hyperactivity, anxiety and impulsive behaviour. It can also result in dissociative behaviour, where the child switches off and appears uncommunicative.
In education terms, this means that such children have brains that may fail to link up the neural connections needed for later learning.
Researchers at the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina working with infants of low income and uneducated mothers have found that an intensive regime begun with very young children reduced the risk of learning disability and remedied altered brain function.
The babies were put into two groups: the project group received a vigorous five-year programme of child care and activities that involved the parents, while the control group received only free baby milk and nappies.
After three years, the children in the project group averaged an IQ of 105 compared with the control group's average of 85. At the age of 12, the disparities continued, with the project group enjoying a higher IQ and better performance in maths and reading.
The researchers conclude that while reversing neurological patterns of hyperarousal or dissociation is possible in adulthood, it is much easier to do so earlier in life when the brain is more malleable.
Child psychotherapist Robin Balbernie has produced a report based on his observations of specialist infant mental health teams in the US, and will reproduce it on the proviso that it is used for the promotion of infant mental health. To receive a copy, send a blank disk (to be formatted on WordPerfect 6.0) along with correct postage and packaging to: Robin Balbernie, Child and Adolescent Service, Cleeve House, Horton Road, Gloucester GL1 3P.