Childhood adversity, compromised brain development and opportunities for rehabilitation

Addressing development needs during childhood is much easier than trying to resolve trauma as an adult

I attended a fascinating presentation on Thursday, 15th December by Dr Divyangana Rakesh from Harvard University hosted by the Centre for Educational Neuroscience. The webinar topic was “Early adversity, brain development, and mental health during adolescence” so I was obviously interested. 

Childhood Adversity

Dr Rakesh’s research shows that early adversity, including socio-economic status and maltreatment, leads to compromised neurodevelopment in terms of brain structure and functional development. These neurobiological markers are risk factors for most mental disorders. I was introduced to the concept of “brain age” and the notion that many 21 year olds still possess “younger brains” that are associated with weaker executive functions, learning behaviours, sensorimotor integration and language skills.

Dr Rakesh also shared data from Australia that shows how children from low  socio-economic areas aged as young as 9 are already 1.5 years behind their peers. This is a gap that is difficult to close and is likely to widen further during their formative years. 

The good news is that the second half of the webinar provided more hope and cause for optimism. These negative effects of early adversity are and can be mediated by positive parenting and enriching school experiences. These findings echo the research that looks at the work of Evolve: A Social Impact Company and their team of Health Mentors. One trusted relationship with an adult from outside the family network is often all it takes to trigger the neurological rehabilitation that is required. Addressing these development needs during childhood  is much easier than trying to resolve this trauma as an adult such is the greater plasticity potential of childhood brains. 

The current logic model we are using in most so-called progressive and sophisticated educations systems is seriously flawed:

  • Delayed brain development >

  • Compromised cognitive ability >

  • Low academic achievement >

  • Greater focus on teaching and academic progress >

  • Increased stress and trauma >

  • Further delays in brain development >

  • Lower academic achievement > – – –

Instead we should be addressing the root causes of the low academic achievement that schools are unfortunately and solely evaluated against.  

  • Delayed brain development >

  • Compromised cognitive ability >

  • Low academic achievement >

  • Greater focus on positive and enriching experiences >

  • Reduced stress and trauma >

  • Accelerated brain development >

  • Improved academic achievement > +++

Research like this from Dr Rakesh shines a very bright spotlight on what future schools and education systems will focus on. No longer should we expect all children to show up at school with the executive functions, learning behaviours, sensorimotor integration and language skills that they may have had 10, 20 or even 50 years ago. We are all paying a high financial and societal price for not checking, responding and tracking these fundamental development needs.   

You can watch Dr Rakesh’s webinar in full here at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience’s Youtube channel.



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