Unlearning Violence: Evidence and Policies for Early Childhood Development and Peace
Panel 2 Discussion : Undoing the impacts of violence?: Perspectives from neuroscience and education
- Regina Sullivan, Emotional Brain Institute, Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, New York University
- John Lawrence Aber [comments not available], Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University
- Maryanne Wolf, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, Tufts University
- Moderator: Jayanthi Mistry, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, Tufts University
Thank you very much. It’s really an enormous pleasure to be here and talk about some basic neuroscience to you and why I think it’s important to understand brain development as one thinks about the effects of trauma throughout the lifespan and its enduring effects.
I think people typically think of the brain of a child as simply an immature version of the adult brain. So brain areas come online and then switch on some adult activity. For example, the prefrontal cortex comes on line in adolescence and then the child is all of a sudden able to have prefrontal cortex activities that we have. So it really is important to understand that the young brain is different and understanding how trauma in early life produces vulnerability to later life violence lies in our understanding the unique functioning of the child’s brain. The child’s brain is not an immature version of the adult brain and, of course, all of you know that because if you just think of feeding in the infant, the infant suckles. It doesn’t eat the way we do: the perfect example how the brain is organized for the infant.
The other thing that’s really important is that the infant is designed to attach to their caregiver. Things that happen to the child happen within a context of a brain designed to make sure the caregiver takes care of them. So when we think about trauma, we have to also think about how the attachment system plays a role. The infant brain is structured for unique challenges of early life, attachment, and acquiring nurturing from the caregiver are critically important.
So if the brain is designed for attachment, what does that mean? I love to show this picture of imprinting – Konrad Lorenz showed this in the 50’s. When these baby birds hatch, they attach to the first moving object. And whatever that moving object is, the attachment learning system is activated and it produces very specific behaviors related to proximity seeking. I’m going to argue that the same thing happens in rodents, which I’ll talk about today. In humans there are certain things that have to happen in the environment for the human baby to attach to their caregiver, and it’s important to note which things are or are not important.
Do we really need the entire human to get the attachment or is it certain behavior that the caregiver does to make that attachment take place? Look at this attachment formation. It almost looks as though it’s genetically determined and then at birth the attachment circuitry just occurs, and that’s not the case. And you can look at this picture of chicks following Konrad Lorenz and it really illustrates that the attachment process is not just a predetermined event but there’s learning involved and the infant has to learn who the caregiver is, to show the attachment behavior. During this process they’re also learning about the world via the caregiver behavior to the infant.
So when we think about the brain being designed for attachment, there are two basic things we have to remember. One is that infants learn to identify the caregiver but once learned, that attachment engages a biologically predisposed system supporting infant caregiver proximity. And secondly, during this process of attachment, there’s enduring effects because of brain programming by the caregiver. I’m also going to argue that during this process the child or the infant is also learning a lot and so some of the effects are going to be via learning. And I’m particularly interested in the effects that are caused by learning because I feel that they are more malleable for us for intervention.
So since this isn’t a neuroscience group, I just wanted to show one slide to illustrate the enormous change that occurs in the brain from birth to later life. And it’s not just the size of the infant brain is smaller: it’s that cells are growing. Here’s just one particular part of the cortex that is actually growing: huge numbers of cells grow in complexity over the course of a lifetime with experience and genes working together to program the shape of these neurons and how they connect to other neurons. That’s what’s happening during early life experience. So you’re actually changing the structure of neurons. Evidence shows that you can change some of these structural changes, sometimes you can’t.
So the genes and environment control brain activity throughout life. But early life experience also controls the developing structures of the brain. And here’s a slide I borrowed from somebody in the audience, showing that different brain areas come on at different ages during development. And this is illustrating synapse formation – that’s the connection between neurons. Brain areas for different functioning develop at different ages. The experience that a child has at this age, when vision is developing, is going to impact vision, if the experience occurs later in life, when the prefrontal cortex is developing then the experience will impact higher cognitive function. So when we think about trauma, we need to think not only about the attachment circuitry but at what age it’s happening because that’s the age and which brain area is developing.
In an ideal world, this caregiver relationship should be defining the experience base changes in the brain. Unfortunately, life is not always ideal. In my lab, we focus on the neurobiology of abusive attachments, but what we’ve learned about trauma can be applied to trauma outside of attachment and why it’s so important that the caregiver’s response to the child’s response to the trauma has such strong impacts on outcome. And I’ll try to give you some basic neuroscience data to explain mechanisms. I don’t want this to sound as though we have all the answer or I am going to tell you about the many things that can happen during development. Many, many people are working on this problem and it’s fairly difficult to identify mechanisms. So this is just a small piece of a very complex picture.
So it’s really great that this attachment system is so robust and that no matter what happens to a child, they attach to their caregiver. Even a severely abused child loves their caregiver. Social workers can try to rescue the child from this horrible situation but the child longs to go back to their caregiver. Their heart is broken from being separated from their abusive caregiver. And I will venture to say that attachment occurs throughout the lifespan and there are certain aspects and qualities of the attachment that remain constant throughout life. So, for example, a women can also form bonds and maintain bonds with an abusive spouse. It’s very difficult to get her to separate and when you are successful, the women or child many times wants to go back to the attachment figure but there are long-term costs.
I’m going to show you just a few neuroscience data slides to quickly illustrate some neural mechanisms for infant attachment to an abusive caregiver. We know from the literature that this early life abuse, even though it produces attachment, has later-life costs. There’s vulnerability to psychiatric disorders. There’s disruption to brain development. I focused on the amygdala, a brain area associated with emotion and emotional learning. In our research we ask how is the early life abusive attachment programing the brain and what is the child learning about the caregiver and how does this influence what the child learns about the world – is the world safe? When one talks about the child soldier, the attachment formation might be forming in that situation and I just think it’s something to think about as we think about trauma within that context and attachment.
In our research, we use a fear conditioning paradigm, and it’s a very simple procedure. In this room, if I was to do a fear conditioning experiment, I would maybe put some mild electric shock in your chair and have an odor come in just before the shock. You would learn two things from that. One is that this room is not a good place, and that’s called context learning, and it uses a brain area called the hippocampus. Children don’t have that in very early life, which means that they’re not learning about how bad the room is. And the second thing you would be learning is that the odor that I presented just before the shock predicts the shock. The weird thing about early life is that the brain area that supports that learning in us and in adult rats, the amygdala, is not online yet – it is not functional yet because it is still immature. So when infants have a bad experience such as abuse from the caregiver, it is not possible to form fear to the caregiver because the amygdala is not functioning. Instead this conditioning activates the attachment circuit. We have lots of data from our lab that this occurs in the rat. It is not possible to assess the amygdala in children but behaviorally, children do form attachment to abusive caregiver.
Here’s just a very quick example of the attachment learning brain areas – the locus coeruleus, the olfactory cortex and the prefrontal cortex are all involved in the attachment circuitry and the primary neurotransmitter is norepinephrine. At about 10 days old in the rat, the amygdala – the brain center for fear – becomes functional, and the animal can learn fear. But the most amazing thing is that if the attachment figure is present, she actually suppresses learning within the amygdala and the fear circuitry. This means that in the older infant animal, where they should be able to learn fear, this fear learning is suppressed and the attachment circuitry is used. Thus, we have suppression of the adult version of trauma processing in the infant brain and this infant system is reactivated in older infants if the mother is present.
I don’t want to get too detailed but I have to say that we know that this process of fear suppression is due to the caregiver suppressing corticosterone levels using social buffering. The data on humans in a clinical situation suggests that social buffering, which involves reducing the stress hormone, is critically important in producing recovery from trauma.
While the infants’ amygdala is not learning to fear the caregiver, the amygdala is responding to the trauma. Here is information about gene expression and a neurotransmitter called amygdala. After just one day experience with trauma, the dopamine and its related gene expression all decreased. This is the normal response of the infant brain. However, after repeated days of exposure to trauma, we have high level of the stress hormone corticosterone. This high level of corticosteron occurs in abusive relationships, you actually have increasing dopamine and dopamine related genes changes in the amygdala. . This repeated trauma effect in the amygdala is more like the adult amygdala response. Since dopamine is very important for reward and learning in adults and indicate that future attachment learning will not occur since the amygdala will support fear learning. Importantly, since the abusive attachment was already learned by the infant, these amygdala changes will not disrupt the attachment learning that has already occurred to the abusive caregiver. Our data suggests that the there should not be concurrent activation of the fear circuit and the attachment circuit – yet exposure to early life trauma from the caregiver produces this dual activation.
So it seems bad experiences that occur infrequently do not produce the altered amygdala and attachment learning is preserved. However, if trauma happening repeatedly, it produces an adult-like response in the amygdala. One additional problem is that this malfunctioning amygdala now communicates to other newly developing brain and influences how these brain areas develop, such as the prefrontal cortex.
And finally, the most pronounced effects of repeated trauma within attachment occur in later life, as has been documented clinically. I don’t have time to show you our data about this but we find later-life depressive-like behavior following abuse attachment.
One of our most unexpected results relates to how stimuli associated with early life trauma – such as the odor paired with trauma in infancy. In adulthood, when this odor from infant trauma is presented to an animal that is showing depressive-like behavior, the odor normalizes the behavior and amygdala. That is, we can repair this behavior and the amygdala by presenting cues from the early life trauma. So it just illustrates that during the trauma, we might think that the child is not learning but items or cues associated with the trauma within attachment actually become incorporated into the attachment circuitry. So what does this mean? We think that items associated with attachment acquire some global qualities of attachment, such as safety signals, regardless of whether the attachment was associated with abusive or nurturing caregivers.
Here is our take home message. The immature brain processes trauma differently than adults. It is more likely to be associated with the attachment circuit rather than the fear circuit. This occurs because in the very young animals the amygdala fear circuit is not functional. As infants mature and the amygdala can function in fear, the presence of the mother blocks it so these older animals do not learn fear. In other words, the mother has control over the infant amygdala. While in the short-term, this is beneficial to infants because this preserves attachment, there are enduring long-term consequences, including depressive-like behavior. And in adulthood, we find that the stimuli associated with attachment, even abusive attachment, retain powerful control over the brain and behavior – it can rescue some aberrant behaviors and amygdala. These attachment cues appear to work via increasing serotonin and decreasing the stress hormone corticosterone.
As is listed on this slide, tons of people have worked on this in my lab, with lots of collaborators. Thank you so much.
So we are going to do an absolute whizzing through of a set of wonderful – a story really. It’s a story from neuroscience into areas in Ethiopia – but I could not do any of this without Stephanie Gottwald from the Tufts Center for Reading and Tinsley Galyean from the MIT Media Lab and also the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values.
72 million children basically are either not in school or are absolutely illiterate. 793 million people in our world cannot read. 64% of them are women. But one of the most important things for us who are in neuroscience is the question: what does it mean not to be literate? What does it mean to be able to have a brain that thinks and reads simultaneously? And here I’m bringing us back for those of you who were here last night to the three Kantian questions that are the leitmotif for today: What can we know? What should we do? How can we hope? And so this is going to be 15 minutes of looking at what can we know from cognitive neuroscience that informs our work on global literacy? And it all begins, as you help me begin, with that young reading brain.
Now the reality is that this child is not reading, but rather the child is forming a circuit, a circuit based on the regional structures that are in the brain. Pascal said that nothing is new under this earth, but there is rearrangement, and that is the story of literacy and numeracy. We literally are rearranging existing circuits to make something new. But reading is extraordinarily complicated, and what we are doing is studying it. This slide is from my colleagues at MIT and shows a children’s imaging center with a child’s stuffed animal getting a scan and a picture of the animal brain’s scan for the child. I hope the IRB will not object! That is a tiny bit of deception, but it helps our children enter the scanner, and we literally study how that brain, how that reading brain changes over time. We can look at millisecond to millisecond what structures come online.
Why is that important to the work that we’re talking about today? It’s important because it gives us the basis for what we will ultimately do in interventions. We are ultimately going to take all the areas that are involved in that reading circuit and we are either going to customize apps ourselves or curate existing apps, and that will be the story that will enfold in a minute. We are in what we consider a moonshot moment. It’s a time where our work in technology makes mobile devices for learning ever more accessible. It’s a time when our big data analytics allows our colleagues at MIT, Georgia State, and Tufts to analyze it as it instantaneously comes in. We’re also working very much on another area—and this is where the talks for all of today and Dr. Aber come in here – about how does child driven learning and our work on ethics and transformative values— how can it come together with our work on the reading brain? So, in essence, we are taking multiple disciplines and we’re putting them together, and we’re using this work on a global literacy set of initiatives. The people, some of whom are here, are asking the following question: Can we develop theoretically based digital learning experiences for mobile devices that will enable children to learn to read on their own?
Now so many of our children do not have schools, will never have schools, will never have teachers. Those of you who actually know some of my work in the reading brain know that I am both a critic of technology as an answer for all— and an absolute advocate in how it can be used to help us. And so what we’ve done, we’ve taken this information on the reading brain and we’re using it to build an app map, a set of templates that can ultimately be used in an open -source platform not just for English, which we are beginning, but for any language. And we are taking it to different places, our first two places are in Ethiopia.
The model is this: we’re integrating our understanding of the reading brain. We’re using this for apps. We’re using it with data analytics that allow us to assess in time, in that moment, what a child is doing any minute, so that we can ultimately understand what works best under what conditions, where, and in what language systems. So it’s an iterative process that we’re involved in.
Our first two pilots are in Ethiopia in Wonchi and Wolonchete. And one of the most incredible experiences we’ve had of late, we just heard from a scholar who came from Wolonchete who wants to help us work in the Oromo language. This is an extraordinary experience.
We’re working with 20 children in each village. We tap our computer engineer, who is in Addis Ababa, who brings Motorola XOOM tablets. That will change. We will be using all kinds of different mobile devices in different places.
First, we bring the tablets. Nothing else. Now this is very tough for those of us who work with children. The intervention for us is to see if without intervention from any adult, children can learn on their own to learn precursors of learning, learn to be computer literate and, in this case, learn English. And here is the first child. I can’t tell you enough how shocking it was that in four minutes—remember, these are villages that are off the radar; they have never seen paper, no pencil, no lamp, no anything—yet, in four minutes, this little boy got his tablet on and said, “I got mine on. I’m the lion.” He is the lion because he and the older girls immediately taught the other children. Within one hour, the kids became almost computer literate.
Stephanie and I just heard yesterday from Uganda a similar story again: within one hour the discovery, the child-driven learning of the children is helping them literally teach others. With some of the worst apps you have ever seen! These are so mediocre. I mean, part of our work was we’re actually doing a course between MIT and Tufts on this. We have to build new apps. They are so theoretically impoverished. But that’s not the story. The story is the kids are learning nevertheless.
I was there a year ago. What we were doing, Stephanie and I, involved putting together a reading assessment measure. What we found was that the four major goals were being extraordinarily achieved. First, the kids were computer literate, and by five months, this is no kidding, the lion boy hacked. I do not know about you, but I can’t hack. It’s very good that I can’t. But these children had so much that was going on in computer literacy. In terms of English language learning, they learned a lot of the major concepts. In terms of the precursors of reading like letter learning, almost all of the children knew the letters, could recite the alphabet backwards and forwards, could identify a letter and could write it. They’ve never written. We gave them pencil and paper and they wrote the letters. They have been doing it in the earth before and on the tablets.
And here I want you to see what we found in terms of precursors of reading. This is not reading. This is sight word recognition. We’re not there yet, but we are close. And those two little girls and the lion boy are the teachers. The kids are teaching each other in ways we would never have believed possible. This is the beginning. It’s only the beginning. We want to extend this actually with Jayanthi Mistry and some of her colleagues in India and the venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi who you will be hearing from this afternoon. Through their help we are going into India. Stephanie and I are working in South Africa. We are working on different mobile technologies, different power sources and very importantly, we want to work on different apps. And here’s where Dr. Aber’s talk and ours and the work of Venerable Tenzin and the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics are all coming together.
We want to create stories that will support ethical development so that simultaneously we have stories that are using the principles that we know from the reading brain that will be enhancing their learning of reading, but at the same time have moral dilemmas: stories of animals, stories of children, stories in which ‘other’ is no enemy, but rather, the “ other” is someone to learn from. Stephanie and I are right now working on vocabulary apps in which the children from different villages are exchanging the words for their favorite things and learning from each other as they are learning about empathy, about compassion for others. Very importantly, ultimately we want them to learne how to take on the perspective of ‘other’ and make that “other” not enemy but possible friend. And so some of our work that has begun with literacy is being transformed to work on both literacy and ethical development.
Finally, I come back to our questions: What can we know, What should we do, What may we hope? We hope that this work becomes a platform for other people, other people around the world in which our new deployments can simply be germinating the work of many others. Thanks to Tinsley and Stephanie we’re now working with all kinds of technology groups to get developers to think about these areas. Our real hope is that we will ultimately have something we can give that will enhance – this is very outrageous – 100 million children to be literate at the end of the decade. If we would do that, this would be the equivalent of an ability to reduce poverty by 12% and the gains of health and in gender would be tremendous.
And so what do we hope? This is what we hope. This is Stephanie Gottwald in South Africa in a classroom of somewhere of close to a 100 children with one teacher. It’s not just about not being in places with no schools. It’s being in places with schools with impoverished conditions. But we want to see if we can harness the absolute best knowledge of this moment in time to enhance literacy and through literacy as our vehicle, ethical development and a more compassionate world. Thank you very much.
MISTRY: So as we promised, we have a lot of time, so may I ask the speakers to please return to the panel here? We are very, very pleased to have all of you. We hope to have lots of interaction.
QUESTION: Well, sure. So, oh god, I have so many things to say. Let me just, first of all, I think these are three wonderful presentations and so congratulations on the work that’s behind it as well. So I guess I’m going to put some questions out for which I do not have the answers. I wanted to just kind of see what other people think.
So I think in each of these presentations, there was a kind of a wonderful example of how trying to mine new insights from neuroscience could help us think in different ways, all the way over to the other end of how we might use this knowledge to develop some interesting applications where kids by themselves could learn to read and I think, Larry, your point about how we have all of these data on how teaching social and emotional confidence is a more effective way to produce better reading scores than just focusing on reading. So here’s my question, which is to basically first applaud you for the work that’s being done —
ABER: This always means that he’s about to go…
QUESTION: No, it’s because, to me it’s the bigger challenge that all of us face and we have to figure out how to start moving in that direction. So to pick one piece from each of the presentations. Regina, your comment about the larger context like the auditorium itself and when children are young, they don’t really have a sense of a larger context. And your point, Larry, about that even though we have all these good data on teaching social and emotional skills or competence, that message somehow hasn’t gotten through to people who are on education systems. So I was really intrigued by your notion, Maryanne, of kind of bypassing the adults and going right to the kids to teach them.
So my question is, how could we start to use new insights about the development of the brain to deal with, to generate some new ideas about how to deal with the bigger context, which in the end is kind of most of the ballgame right? So that even if we have some interesting ways for kids to learn how to get some basic foundational literacy skills early on, there’s still the issue of context in which they live and even whether some simple literacy skills will help you to overcome poverty in an environment where it’s much more than just the ability to read that’s holding people back. And if we have so much more knowledge about social and emotional development and the fact that it’s not just warm and fuzzy but it’s as hardwired in the brain as anything else, but so people feel like, ‘oh, these bleeding hearts who care about how kids feel. Let’s just get to the hard stuff’.
So for me, the big question is what about the adults? And what could we learn from neurobiology about plasticity that could help us also come up with some new strategies about how to change the way adult brains work? And particularly because that is the biggest influence on the kids really early on? So I don’t have an answer for it but in the work that we’re doing, we’ve become obsessed now with the fact that one big key to the breakthroughs in early childhood is to start paying more attention to changing the lives of the adults who care for kids rather than just focusing on the kids. So I’d really love your thoughts about this at any level.
SULLIIVAN: I would love to address that. So I have come to realize probably over the last year that the infant rat can’t be assessed on its own, and it’s the mother who is regulating the brain – and I have some data that actually I didn’t show – where you can actually see the mother changing the gamma and the beta waves of the rat pup in just huge amounts. So when you look at the immature organism it’s almost as though it hasn’t developed internal regulations yet. So there’s an external regulator. And unless you take care of the external regulator, the mother or father, can’t regulate the baby. So you’re right. We absolutely need to take care of the caregiver. And I began having a conversation this morning how as a society we don’t understand that the caregiver has to be nurtured and we have such horrible words in our culture for a woman who’s single raising children. I mean you think about that. It’s horrendous. Instead of nurturing her and helping her, we’re the future of the world, we make it worse for them.
ABER: It’s a great question and gosh there’s an explosion of knowledge about successful ways to support parents. We do in my opinion need to keep continuing to deepen that. The vast majority of knowledge is in the north and west of the world, not in the south and that’s changing, too, but there needs to be a very robust parenting research programs in very different contexts than in the context that most of the science is developed up until now. I do believe it’s going to identify a lot of common factors but with important differences. It’s not like parenting is a completely different experience in the Congo than it is in the Bronx, but there are important differences as well. But I’m optimistic about the development of the science. I think the challenges are policy and political challenges in part about how to reorient that and I’m looking forward to this afternoon’s discussions about the policy implications of all that.
But I would say just two things. One is, I’m a believer that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So better global metrics on things that matter. Driving those global metrics into both policy deliberations and the allocation of resources and driving resources in evidence-based directions are all things that I think are much more common today than they were 25 years ago. And it will take nothing less than a global movement toward using our resources smartly in this. I can’t see anything short of that. The only thing I would add is I do believe that unleashing children’s potential on their own is of enormous potential and a great breakthrough. Of course, it’s not on their own because you guys are scaffolding the hell of it. So it’s not on their own. It is assisted in a different way. It will be harder to learn those skills without talented, not only other kids, but especially in the social-emotional domain, adults. So I don’t think we’re going to get rid of teachers. I mean I don’t think that’s your intention. So how to care for the teachers of the world I think is a very big issue and there’s some really fascinating work now on teacher social-emotional development and stress regulation and those of you, anybody here from Wisconsin? Anybody know what the largest cost to the health system in the state of Wisconsin is? It’s for antidepressants for the teachers. That’s a really weird little fact. But it’s profoundly true. So and there are strategies to address that.
WOLF: Well, that’s a hard one to segue to but I will. I’ll segue into health. And here’s a health fact: that is, if we are able to get our young mothers to even one to two years of literacy, their children have a better chance of living until age five. So one of the really amazing aspects is how can we get to these young girls, and it was not coincidence. It was like a petri dish for us to watch these videos and see the older girls take on teaching. It was extraordinary, it was like watching from an anthropological viewpoint the first school. But these girls are part of the issue. How do we help our young women want to learn and take care of their children, etc.?
So one tack into yours, Jack, is something that we’ve actually seen on the tablets. Now the tablets take little photos. So we see what’s the environment, who’s doing what. You see parents looking over the shoulder. So a secondary effect is an interest of the parent in becoming literate. And so even though our first phase is to work with children, we would love in some not too distant future to provide the same thing for parents. The people who’ve come into these villages from around the villages, they say, this is a village where the smart kids are. It’s an amazing and an unexpected sequelae of this work, but it’s making people put together literacy and thinking about what they could do next. So one of the most important things we do, I think, is a more secondary goal, in which we hope that in some next phase of our work, we will enhance the development of literacy in the older generation too.
MISTRY: Thank you. Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you. I just wanted to say thank you for your presentations. I found them all amazing. I have two questions. One for Dr. Sullivan and one for Dr. Aber. Dr. Sullivan, you said in your presentation, you were talking about the idea of context and how in early childhood development the hippocampus is offline and that could prevent a child from understanding whether or not their environment is safe. And what are the implications of a child who is growing up in a conflict area where their reality is continuously and perpetually unsafe and what could we see in later development, how that could affect a child’s development into adulthood? And then my question for Dr. Aber, use the case example of the Congo. What are some, you talked a lot about social and emotional learning and I wanted to get your input on how do you make sure that these initiatives stick, especially in areas like the Congo where you have that prevailing atmosphere of conflict and what would be the implications of that when you’re trying to counter acute stress or psychosocial implications?
SULLIVAN: So the inability to learn the context of a trauma is actually one of the core aspects of PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. So we haven’t explored the hippocampal affects very much yet but we do know that it affects how much the context helps you confine your fear to a very particular situation. You don’t have context embedded in the fear. Then it gets generalized to lots of different situations. So a backfiring from a car as a gunshot for somebody who has PTSD is partially abnormal, not because it’s coming from a car, not a gun, but because it occurs in a context where they should be safe. And so there is the issue, they potentially haven’t learned where the fear is but also the flip side, they haven’t learned where to be safe.
ABER: And in terms of making social-emotional learning a broader part of initiatives everywhere, two doctoral students and I have just finished a kind of a policy review of social-emotional learning issues globally. And it’s, of course, not called social-emotional learning in other countries. So in other countries, the two most common forms of discussion of those domains are citizenship education and peace education. And there are underlying common concerns and I think what’s interesting about the learning metrics taskforce is the learning metrics taskforce is charged with conceptualizing and measuring key dimensions of education of learning going forward. And social-emotional learning and moral and ethical development and approaches to learning are all dimensions besides literacy and numeracy. So I actually think that there’s beginning to be an international framework that will allow more attention to this over time.
I was Ghana last month and talking to them about the need to train 27,000 untrained pre-school teachers. And they were explaining to me, we don’t want it to be just reading and math. All the attention is reading and math. How do we include social-emotional learning or things like that? And so I think there’s some kind of shift going on but it will require continued visual incentive to continue.
MISTRY: Yes. I’m going to try and remember and get to people.
QUESTION: Hi. I spent a lot of time working with the program directors of the major agencies that work in these violent situations. And one of the things that strikes me is the issue of child education and its linkages with violence and its effects other than through making people literate so that they can get a job isn’t on the agenda. It’s just not discussed as part of what has to be focused on in those violent conflicts. So the real question I suppose is how do we tell the story in a way that gets it on to their agendas and therefore into their budgets and their deliverables?
ABER: Sure. So one exception to that rule is the International Rescue Committee. And we’d like to skip their early 15 year history of being alone and ineffective in it. But over the last five years, they have developed a commitment to not only becoming an evidence-using organization but an evidence-generating organization. And my own feeling is the most powerful goad to change is failure. And that facing failure requires adaptation. So for me it’s like, are the kids learning enough? If they’re not, what could be some of the constraints and very soon after that, it’s the kinds of things that we’re talking about. If you actually have a sustained conversation with local teachers, local educators’ policy people, it doesn’t take that long. As long as frankly USAID isn’t saying, reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, reading. We’ve got to get the donors to shift because the field is already there but the donors are kind of maniacally focused on the single outcome in my opinion right now.
WOLF: I will answer for reading. It’s reading plus, and here I’ll also put on my neuroscience hat. If we understand the reading circuit, one of the things that’s most important is when the children are engaged. And one aspect of these apps, and we really will have evidence some day for that, is to show what is most engaging. And what we want to make most engaging are stories. If you think of John Steinbeck in the middle of East of Eden, he said, what is it that we are most concerned with? It’s our story. Tell our story. And so many of our apps are going to be about “our story “ in wherever that village is. Those stories will be exchanged with others. So at the simultaneous moment in which reading – which is one of the greatest inventions that that has ever made, Peter, as you and I know – it is also a vehicle for instilling also the most aspects of our ability to live with each other. And so to the extent that our very early stories can encourage these kinds of social-emotional aspects of development, I believe we will have evidence in which they are more engaging. Ultimately, the only apps that will be used by kids are those that are engaging, and we’ve already seen that. So our real goal is not reading or numeracy. It’s reading and numeracy as a platform for a better next generation.
ABER: And I completely agree with that. Some of the most effective forms of social-emotional learning programs actually fuse literacy with social-emotional learning and use high quality children’s literature that’s deeply engaging both to teach reading and as a platform for learning about social emotional learning. And doing it in a jujitsu way, throwing the kid the way they’re going anyway instead of a karate way of forcing them to go in that way. And you also pay just the marginal cost. If the children know the story through the literacy instruction, then you’ve already got the body of work to do the social emotional and vice versa. So you’re only paying the marginal costs of new content knowledge to do that. So I agree completely.
MISTRY: Can you please identify yourself as you ask questions?
QUESTION: I actually teach an Education for Peace and Justice course that mostly is an undergrad course although it’s open to grad students as well. And I’m also the co-founder and co-leader of the Massachusetts Consortium for Social and Emotional Learning in Teacher Education. And there is momentum. We’re working on both a policy level, working with the department of elementary and secondary ed. in the state. Also working with deans of schools of education and faculty. We moved the Massachusetts Association of Colleges of Teacher Education to agree to have their spring conference focused on social emotional learning, which was a big movement. But I have to say in this state and in this country, with the race to the top mentality, it is a really tough sell and even though we have the cutting edge neuroscience research it’s very challenging. And I’m just wondering how, given some of the very promising efforts, like, for instance, there is the CARE for Teachers program, which is really gaining momentum and CARE stands for Cultivating Awareness in Resiliency in Education, and it’s looking at contemplative approaches and bringing mindfulness practices into schools. How can we work together in both a national and global way to kind of harness some of the momentum so that we can move this forward? And I completely agree that we really need to expand a wider lens in terms of the metrics that we use.
WOLF: I’m going to begin your question because what I did not give you was a real neuroscience talk on the reading brain. But had I done so, one of the most essential aspects of the reading brain that all of you have is our capacity after 300 milliseconds to go deeper into what we call ‘deep reading’ in which inference, emotional knowledge, all of these things that we hope will be part of social and emotional intelligence are added to it. And so from a neuroscience viewpoint, we really are working on the absolutely essential need for all teachers of literacy to understand the importance of deep reading and all that it involves.
So I really respond. I want you to know that there’s an increasing attention to what we’re calling ‘deep reading’ as part of what is essential for teachers to understand and teach and so that one very important aspect in any child’s learning is not just to understand the information, but to go ever deeper. It’s also one of the threats in American education that we are easily able to become very superficial readers with technology. So we have a real balancing act, but it’s one that we are attending to.
ABER: May I just respond very briefly to two things? There’s a reading brain and the relational brain and the both agree that there’s one brain. So a reading brain and relational brain, and we are siloed. As interdisciplinary as we are, we are still siloed to some extent so there’s going to be continued challenges in integration as well as doubts. The deep reading should make people hear common core standards in deep learning. And there’s a lot of discussions at national policy level now that unless you improve children’s social and emotional learning, there’s no chance of getting to the deeper learning that the common core standards is driving people toward. And a lot of the work in the United States is driven by a national advocacy and research organization called CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. CASEL.org for those of you who want to google them. There needs to be an international movement like that to foster work internationally.
SULLIVAN: So here’s my take on it from my very outside viewpoint. So I must admit that I didn’t really understand the importance of the caregiver initially. And there was some work that came out of Eric Kandel’s lab on the safety signal. So he took some depressed mice and taught them a safety signal – when this cue or signal was presented to the mice when they were acting depressed, this safety signal normalized both the behavior and the amygdala. Let’s relate these results to my results – early life trauma produces adult depressive-like behavior. When we took one of the cues associated with early life trauma – the maternal odor – and presented during the depressive behavior, the adult was no longer showing depressive behavior and it actually changed some of the circuitry in the brain’s amygdala. So we’ve begun to think of the mother as a safety signal for the child. It’s not such a big stretch when you think of child development where the mother provides the child with a sense of safety, although our results suggest that attachment with abuse also produces a safety signal.
ABER: I think Bowlby called it a secure base.
SULLIVAN: A secure base, right. So the issue of the caregiver or perhaps the teacher being able to acquire the ability to produce a sense of safety especially in children in horrible situations might really be a very important component of being able to engaged brain areas so necessary for effective learning.
WOLF: I have to add just one quick thought. Some of our work in the very beginning was influenced by Sugata Mitra, who’s the “slumdog professor in India”. And one of the things that he does is throw a laptop in a village in a crevice and then come back in two months to see whether the kids have learned computer skills. One of the findings he has is that if there is what he calls the “nanny”, some human who makes that environment what you would call safe, the kids are learning more. So one of the things that we want to think about is even if there’s no school, what he’s calling the nanny of that, what would that be? A very quick thing: we are studying that, literally. Melissa Orkin in our department is working with different groups of kids. And the kids who have a sense of safety and belonging do better in any measure.
ABER: It’s why our first intermediate measure was kids perceive the teachers and this is more caring and support. That was the theory of change step number one.
QUESTION: Thank you for a great panel. One piece of work I’m engaged with that I kind of want to workshop, given some of these topics, is I’m very interested in the intergenerational effects of war and violence. And we are now leading a RO1 in Sierra Leone, West Africa, which is an intergenerational study of war where we’ve been following a cohort of children, many of them former child soldiers since they were the age of 10 to 17 up through now young adulthood and now they’re starting their own families. And in this project, we’ll be looking at possible mechanisms by which there could be emotional behavioral disruptions transmitted across generations due to the past trauma. And so we’re looking at some of the classic sort of topics around attachment, self-regulation, also intimate partner violence and family violence.
But I don’t want to miss this chance to have such experts from Larry’s work in the DRC and your work on brain science and even thinking about could there be executive function or school readiness or early learning sort of consequences and what are your thoughts of “the do not forget to look at this”, and then I want to ask some questions about how well have we done in assessing things like attachment in the DRC in different diverse cultures? How do we go about that? And then on the technology front, I’m also very interested – we do a lot of electronic data collection for our surveys – can these apps be used if you are doing things like executive function, can they be used for data collection to help you have a database on performance and how do those go over when you try this in the resource setting? So it’s several questions there. What are the key mechanisms? How do you measure across cultures and then what’s the potential of technology to assess?
WOLF: Mine’s the easiest. It’s the first aspect of our work. We’re absolutely on this.
ABER: You’re absolutely on this?
WOLF: Dr. Aber. This refers to that one slide which showed you actually all of these data hooks which will be used in the future; we’re not there yet. It will be a constantly iterative process in which we get all the data which then activates the scaffolding or mentoring system, which will then give the children the next and the next things they need to learn. But meanwhile, all the data comes back to us. We have more data than one would ever want. But, yes, this is entirely part of it, the overall plan.
SULLIVAN: So we’re very interested in intergenerational aspects of this as many people in development are. But so clearly, and I think Steven Pinker, said this last night, that the impact on brain development and the effects of violence in the world on nutrition and just stress are so overwhelming. So that’s the first line of social transmission of stress because if the mother or father caregiver is stressed, it’s going to produce differences in brain and behavior. But we are more interested in direct transgenerational effects producing the brain programming.
QUESTION: The parents have a heavy trauma exposure in their own childhood. What does that mean for early parenting?
SULLIVAN: Yeah. So we have this experiment that is really interesting that if we give an infant rat a very stressful early life, when they grow up, they really look pretty good and seem to be okay mothers until you stress them. And as soon as you stress the mother, she becomes a horrible mother and scatters her litter. We stress her with predator odor, and she will actually take some of the pups closer to the predator odor and she will approach the predator odor. So she’s still fearful and the amygdala is still involved but her expression of fear has changed so that it’s not adaptive anymore. She’s not hiding. She’s not protecting her baby. She’s actually approaching the fearful situation in a very disorganized way. So our next experiment actually is to see how much the safety signal helps repair that behavior.
ABER: Just on the measurement issue, I am quite optimistic that if we put a little bit of resources into it, we can develop cross-culturally fair and culturally specifically meaningful measures of most of the important phenomena. We should neither assume measurement equivalents across cultures nor should we assume difference. We should investigate. And we’ve done actually a lot of work on measuring kid’s perceptions of caring and support of teacher’s environments. And so we’ve been using multinational datasets to do that. I’d be happy to talk to anybody about cultural equivalent measure development and modeling and that stuff.
MISTRY: So one of the unpleasant tasks of the moderator to keep an eye on the clock and I really, really apologize. I don’t know why I’m apologizing –
ABER: – you shouldn’t apologize –
MISTRY: – for the passage of time because I’m not responsible. You’ve been a wonderful audience. This has been a wonderful set of speakers and the content and again a time for students and all of you for being here and there’ll be plenty of opportunities I hope to grab these folks and ask them your ask questions. Thank you very much.