I remember working with a young boy with medicated ADHD years ago. His mother had given birth to him when she was 18 and his older sister when she was only 16. Though she clearly loved her children a lot and wanted to do the best she could for them the difficulties she faced in getting (and keeping) a job as well as maintaining consistent hours disrupted any schedule that she had set for them. Schedule and consistency, as we all know, is extremely important with kids who have ADHD. They need regulation. However, as hard as she tried, this young mother couldn’t always give her son what he needed. She constantly confided to me that she couldn’t get him to eat when at home and faced several anger-motivated breakdowns with him that included screaming and throwing objects which bled over to school.
As educational professionals, the relationship between a child’s home life and problems in school is a no-brainer. Much of the training the teachers and school counselors go through focuses on spotting warning signs of home-related problems including violence and addiction that can impact our students and help uncover the reasons behind their actions and behavioral problems. However, a new report suggests that in addition to the immediate consequences of these circumstances a child’s brain development is impacted as well.
Brain Development and the Law
This research, collectively titled “Children, Brain Development and Criminal Law” comes from the U.K. as part of seminar series sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council in conjunction with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. A collection of research in neuroscience has been collated to suggest that the criminal law needs to take home life into account when prosecuting and investigating crimes that involve children and adolescents from difficult homes.
The first of the conclusions reached by scientists is the relationship between early adversity, including a chaotic, non-regulated home, and what is labeled as “hyper vigilance” in response to perceived threats. This reactionary state seems to become hardwired into children who face problems early in life which leads to both greater participation in risky behaviors such as underage drinking and drug use as well as increased impulsivity which can lead to violence. What’s more this alternate wiring of the brain can additionally lead to increased risk for mental health problems in adolescence including depression and anxiety.
In addition to the hard-to-chart social impacts of a rough home life, an additional issue being presented in this body of research is the affects that traumatic brain injury (TBI) can also have on risk as well as an adolescent’s likelihood to be involved in violent crime. Though most people associate TBI with accidents, there are also a large number of adolescents who may have gotten a TBI from assault. One study conducted at the University of Exeter found that upwards of 45% of juvenile violent crime offenders had some degree of TBI.
The lead author of the Exeter study, Dr. Hew Williams, explains, “The latest message from neuroscience is that young people who suffer troubled childhoods may experience a kind of ‘triple whammy’. A difficult social background may put them at greater risk of offending and influence their brain development early on in childhood in a way that increases risky behaviour. This can then increase their chances of experiencing an injury to their brains that would compromise their ability to stay in school or contribute to society still further.”
Hope for the Future
The hope for the future according to this study as well as the conference that encompasses it is a clearer connection and more open dialogue between the scientific community and the justice system (including schools). By paying more attention to the findings of neuroscientists, we are more likely to be able to productively deal with children and teens whose behavioral problems result from more than initially meets the eye.
Even my own young student showed marked improvement as the school year progressed and his godmother took over after school and evening care so his mom could work. A hard, older woman, his godmother set rules, expectations, and a schedule. She communicated with me frequently that the “fits,” as his mother called them, rarely occurred under her care largely because of the consistency and direction that was now the letter of the law at home. This included a regular bed time, meal time, and fun time.
Because of this, the boy showed marked improvement in both his behavioral problems and his overall school performance. In addition, he was able to rely less on his medication for disaster aversion and more for regulation. The hope to be gleaned from this research is that more students like mine can benefit by better educated teachers, counselors, and law enforcement personnel who have science to back them up when making suggestions or mandates. Ultimately, the result will be the betterment of these “problem” children over the long haul.