Monday, 27 May 2013

The politics of neuroscience and early intervention

Rosalind Edwards, Val Gillies and Nicola Horsley are presenting the findings from this research at CRFR's international conference in Edinburgh on 11 June. Day rates are available for this three-day conference.

Why would anyone argue against policy calls for increased interventions in children's early years?  Brain scan images comparing the stunted brain of a neglected child agains a 'normal' child seem credible and compelling reasons for government to act. 

And Governments are taking action, across the UK. Significant amounts of public money are being invested in interventions that are in line with the idea that the way children's brains grow and develop early in life determines their lifelong personality, behaviour and emotions, and shapes our whole society. 

The early years foundation framework in England,  changes to health visitor training; and UK-wide programmes such as the Family Nurse Partnership are making use of neuroscience research in ways that arguably are leading to wrong assumptions and interventions around parenting.   

What’s sometimes referred to as ‘neuromania’ is increasingly being challenged including by neuroscientists themselves, for example, read Dorothy Bishop's blog, professor of developmental neuropsychology, on early intervention, the role of parents and early language development.  

As part of our ‘Brain Science and Early Intervention’ study, funded by the Faraday Institute under its 'Uses and Abuses of Biology' programme, we’ve been interrogating policy and practice materials. We've been interviewing health and early years practitioners, as well as people who advocate neuroscience as an evidence base for child and family policy and practice. We want to find out  how accounts of the impact of early experiences on brain development are shaping policy and practice. 

While early intervention is often couched in the gender neutral terminology of ‘parenting’, it is almost exclusively directed at mothers in poor communities as the core influence on their children’s development.    

Mother-child relationships in the early years are claimed to be reflected in the anatomical structure of the child’s neural circuits, with sensitive mothers producing ‘more richly networked brains’. 

This biological emphasis promotes mothers as being 'naturally' better attuned to their infant’s needs. The foundations for secure attachment and optimal brain development are traced back to pregnancy, with the prenatal period identified as physiologically and psychologically crucial – both in terms of neural growth of the fetus and the establishment of a healthy attachment bond between mother and child.  

Family Nurse Partnership practitioners that we spoke to viewed their role as helping to break cycles of deprivation (a notion that research discredits, see for example Joseph Rowntree Foundation's research on on worklessness). We found them to be trained in a mix of misinformed neuroscience and attachment theory.   

At the heart of early intervention is the assumption that poverty and disadvantage are personal failings associated with poor parenting. Disadvantaged families are automatically conceptualised in terms of risk, with little consideration given to wider structural and economic factors.   

Brain science and early intervention are seen as overcoming outmoded ideas about social class  shaping life chances.  As one of the politicians who advocates it told us, neuroscientific ideas ‘break the class spell’, and avoid social determinism.   

So, policymakers no longer have to bother with ideas about redistribution; they can put that aside and focus down on how mothers bring up their children.  How convenient. 

Ros Edwards is Professor of Sociology at the University of Southampton.  Val Gillies is Professor of Social Research and Nicola Horsley is a Research Fellow at London South Bank University.

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