A social work perspective on neuroscience research

These short videos and article were created to help you begin to explore how to apply the research shared in Childhood Trauma in the Brain to your social work practice.

A social work perspective on neuroscience

In this short video, social workers James Kargbo and Lauren Crawley share how science conveys a message of hope for a good outcome and gives them confidence in their work. They explain how research informs planning and helps foster carers to have a better understanding of how behaviour is linked to the early childhood experiences of the children in their care.


 
 


 
 

Video transcript

James Kargbo:
For me, neuroscience really gives me a feeling of hope. Often, as a social worker, you can feel quite stuck, quite frustrated. Networks can feel quite stuck and frustrating. But, neuroscience really conveys a message of hope that actually there is a good chance at a better outcome. It gives me confidence in the work that we’re doing. Great confidence that through a sort of shared understanding of a child’s life and a shared commitment towards how we’re going to work with that child, we can bring about a better outcome.

Lauren Crawley:
I think it helps you to move away from focusing on blame and labels. It can be really easy to blame a child for the way that they’re behaving or to label them as just the naughty child. Actually, through understanding a bit more about what’s going on in their brain and what went on when they were experiencing adverse experiences as young children, we can understand why they’re now responding in the way that they are and actually that’s not their fault. Actually, it shows that they’re really resilient. Their brain has adapted to be able to cope with challenging situations. Like James said, it’s not game over – it’s never too late because we know also that the brain is very malleable. That doesn’t just switch off at a certain age. That carries on into adolescence. So, there’s always a chance to make a difference. If you’ve got the knowledge, then you’re equipped with the tools that you need to understand what’s going on and what can be done about it.

The North Pole Analogy for Latent Vulnerability

Lauren Crawley: When I first started learning about this research, I was trying to think of a way to help myself understand it and about what’s happening for a child developmentally. So, the analogy that I’ve come up with is that it’s about your environment. So, if we imagine we’ve got a child growing up somewhere really cold, like the North Pole, and a child’s growing up somewhere hot, like the desert, the child in the North Pole needs different things than the child in the desert. So, the child in the North Pole needs a snowsuit and lots of warm clothes and all the rest of it and the child in the desert needs lots of water and sun cream blah blah blah. Now neither of those children are right. They need different things because they live in different places. And if they were to swap and live in each other’s places, neither of them would be equipped for their new environment. So, if instead of thinking about the North Pole or the desert, we think about a home where for whatever reason parents aren’t able to always be there for the child — aren’t able to give them the attention that they need. Maybe there might be scary things going on that child is going to have adapted. Now we know, through thinking about neuroscience, to cope with that one environment and then we’ve got a child in a home which is maybe a bit more consistent and they’re experiencing lots of love and warmth and going to school and can deal with all the rules at school. If the child from this home comes to live in this home, they’re not going to be able to cope in that environment straight away because, just like the child at the North Pole coming to the desert, they’ve not got the things that they need. That doesn’t mean that the child is at fault, actually, they’ve just come from a different environment where they had to act in a different way. So there’s no point blaming them now for not responding in the way that we’d expect them to in this new environment, like in the foster home or at school. So, for me, thinking about it like that helps me to understand what that might feel like for the child being in that different environment and reframe my expectations of what we want from that child.

How does research inform safe caring plans?

Lauren Crawley: I think the research helps us when we think about safer caring plans for foster carers because it explains why children might be more susceptible to certain risks, children in care might be more susceptible to certain risks. So thinking about a child that maybe came from a home where they were neglected and didn’t have as much attention as would have been good for them, they might be then more vulnerable to seeking that in places that aren’t so healthy or safe, such as on the internet. Or might be more susceptible to being groomed and ending up in a gang or running county lines. I think that’s something that we were aware of, but this research helps understand what’s actually going on for the child and the processes in their brain that have led them to having that latent vulnerability.

The Importance of Social Thinning

James Kargbo: there is a there’s a lot of rejection that can happen for a child who has experienced trauma in their younger life and it sort of manifests itself through, perhaps, sabotage of relationships and being quite difficult to form a relationship with, which then translates into bullying. I think it’s really important that the adults around the child are able to appreciate the knock-on effect of their response to their past trauma and past experiences and just how isolating that can be when it’s rejection after rejection. The effects of that can be really, really difficult for a child. I’m quite keen for foster carers, in particular, to have an appreciation of that because I feel like they can potentially be the one person that really understands what it’s like to navigate a world where you are constantly being rejected based on your survival response and your presentation, that, you know, needs some tweaking, but was, once upon a time, quite rational.

The Importance of the Reward System

James Kargbo: One of the things I hear a lot from foster carers is, I did this for them and I tried this and it just didn’t work. It’s as if they just don’t care. Actually, it’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that those patterns have not actually formed within that child’s brain, but it’s what we would expect of our birth children perhaps or children who haven’t had those challenges — to be able to accept rewards and respond accordingly. But, again, it’s about holding in mind that for this particular child that doesn’t necessarily correlate.

The Importance of the Autobiographical Memory System

Lauren Crawley: It’s important for foster carers to be taking photos, recording what’s going on, writing their logs, so that they’re there kind of keeping a memory for the child of their time and focusing on the positives. And then I suppose they can use that to remind the child of those good times where the autobiographical memory system might not be, well, was kind of being negatively impacted.

James Kargbo: One of the things we speak a lot about with foster carers is life story work. Identity is very important for everybody but I feel it is a very difficult journey for looked after children because of issues with their autobiographical memory and actually falls on the adults around them to help piece together some of their journey. So, life story work is you know, it’s essentially a book that we would encourage foster carers to create with pictures, significant memories, milestones and the idea is that at some point you know the child can reference that book and have a sort of coherent visual narrative of their journey.

Social relationships are key to well-being

In this short video, Clinical Psychologist Dr Roslyn Law uses the Childhood Trauma and the Brain animation to explain how talking about brain development can help young people and families to develop new ways of thinking about their difficulties.


 
 

 
 

Video transcript
 
I think it’s just really important to think about well-being and mental health as a team effort. The basic idea is that we see so clearly in the film is that our well-being is socially created – we learn about ourselves and other people through our experiences with the people around us. How we are thought about and felt about, how other people behave towards us shapes the way we go on tohe think and feel about other people. And just as our sense of ourselves and other people is socially created it can be socially destroyed or at least damaged. This vulnerability isn’t only in the early years of development but continues across our lives with social thinning, losing people, reducing our opportunities for different kinds of experiences and new learning. But just as we might see the problem arising in a social context so we can find the solution in that social context. The damage that is socially created can also be socially repaired.

LATENT VULNERABILITY – HOW UNDERSTANDING NEW THINGS HELPS

Films like this are so helpful because they help to make things that are all too often invisible and confusing, visible and understandable. Latent vulnerability has the potential to be disruptive because it lies below the surface and out of sight. Being aware of the possibility can significantly reduce its disruptive potential. I talk about how our brains develop a lot with the young people and families I work with and can see the positive impact of having a new way to think about difficulties or relationships, problems that previously were a complete mystery. It’s almost like having these idea in mind creates a foothold that allow us to peek over the top of a high wall to see what is going on on the other side – in someone else’s mind and experience, and that mutual recognition can often be enough to carry relationships through problems that can feel very stuck when all you can see is the brick wall, blocking your view of the other person.

Having someone who can hold you in mind when you can’t do it for yourself is one of the most valuable assets any of us can have. We all wobble at times, have misunderstandings and get things wrong. I do it all the time. It is entirely human and probably essential – we get a chance to learn from our mistakes and learn that our relationships survive mistakes, sometimes they are even made strongerly when we find a way back from them together. What’s important is that we feel safe to try and find our way back when things go wrong and the people around us can help to create an environment in which mistakes are ok and we can rely on having support to turn it around. The idea of social thinning described in the film is very important because it highlights that the problem doesn’t exclusively lie in a damaged child. A breakdown in the give and take and mutual understanding in a relationship can begin on either side and crucially the solution can be found in both sides of a relationship. It gives us a part to play.

THE POWER OF PAUSING

I am a great fan of the importance of pausing – a moment when we take time to try and work out what is going on. It can make all the difference in transforming reactions that are usually quite impulsive and not thought through very well into responses that have an idea of our own and other people’s intentsions behind them. The swimming coach demonstrated that so well – just taking a moment to try to make sense of something that didn’t quite add up opened up the possibility of a whole new sequence of events that affected at least three different relationships. Crucially someone else pausing helped the boy in the film to find his way back – he didn’t have to do it on his own. Having a team around us who will help to create opportunities and map the way back from near misses can be transformational in reshaping a child’s opportunities in life.

ADOLESCENCE AS A PERIOD OF OPPORTUNITY + CHALLENGE

I work mainly with children and young people who are on the brink or in the middle of their adolescence. Developmentally this is a period of huge opportunity and challenges. Social relationships, especially with peers, take on much more significance – this is a hardwired shift in perspective from family to peers. In a more nuanced way than for infants, young people are discovering themselves in others and finding their tribe – the people they will go through life with. The implications of early experience are put even more robustly to the test during this period when social scripts are being played out and the stakes seem higher. But it is important to remember that the rapid brain development that happens over this decade, especially in the social brain – the network of brain regions that help us to make sense of ourselves and others – also means that the potential for learning is huge. We see a sharp upturn in the rates of mental health problems during adolescence and some of this can be understood in terms of latent vulnerabilities coming to the surface when young people navigating their way through new and more complex relationships is one of the most important things they have to do. If young people and the people around them have a map that highlights some of the bumps in the road and signposts the whole team to the alternatives routes that are now available it can have a significant positive impact in limiting the impact of the latent vulnerabilities that we all carry within us and promoting good mental health and resilience.

What to do when we disagree on how to help a child

When professionals disagree on what the problem is and how to best help a child or young person, it is important to take some time out to understand each other’s perspectives. In this article, Dr Dickon Bevington, Consultant in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,  describes how to create a ‘dis-integration grid’ to help create more understanding across the network.

Dr Dickon Bevington, Medical Director at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families
 
 

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