Early deprivation can hurt children's ability to learn, but you can correct it, says Oliver James. It's the emotional damage that runs really deep
After the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in Romania in 1989, the plight of its hollow-eyed, bereft, orphaned children captured the public imagination. When a considerable number were adopted by middle-class parents in affluent nations, psychologists queued up to study the consequences. The results have two big implications for teachers: the very early years have a huge impact on subsequent development; but cognitive (as opposed to emotional) deficits can be reversed.
Impersonal care in an institution, with a constantly changing array of carers, drastically impairs physical growth. For every three months spent in an institution, the child loses one month of growth, because lack of care reduces the amount of growth hormones. Cognitive capacities and language development suffer in a similarly dose-dependent fashion. In a definitive study, when given an ability test at the age of six, children adopted before the age of six months averaged a score of 115. Those adopted between six and 24 months averaged almost 100, 15 points less. Even more dramatically, those adopted between 24 and 42 months averaged 90, 25 points less than those adopted at less than six months.
However, all was not lost for those adopted after the age of six months.
When followed up at age 11, although they still had average IQs that were 15 points lower than the early-adopted, the gap had narrowed. Most encouragingly, at 11 there were no significant differences between those adopted at six to 24 months and 24 to 42 months. With the findings of similar studies, this is strong evidence that early experience has a powerful effect on mental capacity.
The likeliest explanation is that early deprivation changes brain chemistry and brainwave patterns, like a thermostat establishing a default position.
In one study, children aged six to 12 who had spent more than eight months in an orphanage, had abnormal levels of cortisol, the hormone that prepares us for fight or flight and is secreted when we are threatened. If the child had spent only four months institutionalised before adoption, the levels were more normal.
Unfortunately, emotional deficits seem harder to correct if they are created by late adoption. Many suffer long-term damage even if they are adopted by loving parents: aggression, delinquency, hyperactivity, emotional insecurity, signs of autism, indiscriminate friendliness. At the age of four, about 70 per cent of adoptees are insecure in their pattern of attachment (the norm is 40 per cent). Aged four to six, 6 per cent of adoptees display severely autistic behaviour, and another 6 per cent have milder symptoms.
The amount of damage depends on the precise care received at specific ages.
If the child is subjected to maltreatment from its biological parents before going into care, he or she is at greater risk. As with cognitive traits, the longer the child spends in an institution, the more the risk.
However, the quality of care the child receives there affects what happens afterwards. Generalised group care, with minimal stimula-tion and a lack of one-to-one relationships with staff, or frequent moves between institutions or foster parents, leads to more damage after adoption than consistent personal care. Finally, poor quality of care by the adopting parents - relatively unloving or inconsistent - is harmful.
These studies are potent evidence that early experience has more effect than later experience, and that it endures. They provide a robust challenge to claims of large genetic influences. The implication for teachers is that you should not be too optimistic about influencing your pupils' emotional development. Unless a child forms a bond with a loving adult at an early age, (preferably before six months), any attempt to help them will be uphill work. But the good news for teachers is that, even if a pupil is severely emotionally damaged, you can have an effect on their academic performance Oliver James is the author of Affluenza - How to be successful and stay sane. The second edition of They F*** You Up - How to Survive Family Life is out now
Impact of institutionalisation: Maclean, K, (2003) Development and Psychopathology, 15, 853-84.
Impact of early versus late adoption on cognition: O'Connor, T et al, (2000) Child Development, 71, 376-90; Beckett, C et al, (2006) Child Development, 77, 696-711.
Raised cortisol levels: Gunnar, MR et al, (2001) Development and Psychopathology, 13, 611-628.
Autism as an outcome: Rutter, M et al, (1999)o Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 537-49.