Take a permanent interest

16th November 2007 at 00:00
Children need consistent support and kindness. Camila Batmanghelidjh explains why, when it comes to human brains, what you put in is what you get out.At Kids Company, we offer psychosocial support to 11,000 vulnerable children. We work in 33 London schools, providing therapeutic and practical help in school time. We also have two street-level centres, open from morning until 7pm, which are frequented by some of the most disturbed children. More than two-thirds arrive homeless; nine out of 10 have learnt a drug habit from their parent or siblings.

Staff at the centres may start by buying underwear and a toothbrush for a child and find themselves, five years later, driving young people up to university. It's a community resource that functions in a parenting capacity: either strengthening the biological parent or supplementing and substituting their care. On Christmas Day we had 800 of these children with us for lunch. Had we been closed, they would have had nowhere else to go.

Half of what we do is informed by the children's insights; the other half benefits from the latest research in neuro-physiological thinking. Brain science has confirmed what ancient wisdom already knew: that a loving and consistent relationship is the most important ingredient in well-being. These children are disturbed because they have not experienced that kind of relationship.

British culture is fond of punishment. It peddles a simple narrative: aggressive children make poor moral choices and can be corrected by punishment. This assumes that the brain of an aggressive child functions in the same way as a child who is able to make pro-social choices. But the latest brain research proves beyond doubt that there are chemical and structural differences in the brains of children who have experienced neglect and abuse.

Our brain functioning can be defined in terms of "arousal" and "self-calming" capacities. The well-cared-for child, nurtured by a loving carer, will develop more sophisticated pro-social neural pathways and will memorise and use again the calming contact provided by its carer. When this type of child experiences upset or trauma, recovery is easier because its brain is more resilient.

Brain development for the neglected child is very different. Lack of affection results in lack of a personal soothing repertoire. In addition, the limbic area of the brain, which controls the emotions, is overwhelmed by a sense of terror which leaves neurochemical imprints and a pattern of behaviour preoccupied with survival.

The neglected and terrified child anticipates abuse, memorises it - initially as a victim - and then repeats it in defensive or predatory attacks. The terrified child does not take time to appraise situations from all angles, does not think of consequences, not because they are making poor moral choices, but because they are functioning through more basic, survival-driven areas of the brain.

These children have unregulated emotional and behavioural control, which cannot be corrected through cognitive or moralistic strategies.

Their excessive neurochemical arousal has to be reduced by diminishing the amount of external stress and enhancing their self-calming capacities.

In a full classroom, how do staff address the needs of such a child? Dealing with children who cannot control their emotions is a balancing act. Playing with clay, play-dough, boxing a bag, skipping, running and hammering are excellent for release. By contrast, soft music, drawing, painting, guided visualisation, deep breathing, hand massage and peer massage are good for calming down. Sensitivity to food chemicals also needs to be addressed.

But the most important regulator of these children's emotions and energy is the presence of a kind, consistent and interested carerteacher in the classroom. Ideally, there should be more such carers in schools in challenging areas.

This individual needs to make sensitive but consistent contact with the child. This can be a pat on the back, a wink, passing the child an encouraging note or acknowledging them verbally. The child will use the attachment experience to feel regulated and not abandoned to their own neurochemical chaos. They will feel safe and free from attack - able to calm down from their aroused, hyper-vigilant state.

During playtime and lunchtime, these children need to be connected to a carer who functions in the same way. As the child becomes more confident, they will require the presence of the external carer less and less because they have internalised their care function and can do it for themselves. Inevitably, these children will initially behave badly. A shift needs to be made from punishment to a need for reparation. The adult, in partnership with the child, needs to help the child regulate their emotional reactions.

This is not something you can simply teach through a self-esteem workbook: it is the human-to-human contact in the context of consistent kindness that makes the difference.

What brain science is communicating to the world is that the human brain is predominantly experience-dependent. What you put in is what you get out. Put in hate and neglect, you'll have it reflected back in violence. Put in nurture and you'll have it reflected back in pro-social behaviour. The power of loving care has been scientifically proven - a present for the sceptics.

Camila Batmanghelidjh is founder and director of Kids Company (visit www.kidsco.org.uk) and author of Shattered Lives (Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

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