President Obama is investing in our future by investing in early brain and child development. The July 8th event, Rally4Babies, sponsored by Zero to Three, was organized to call attention to the importance of this investment. Obama's "Preschool for All" proposal in its entirety can be seen on the Grow America Stronger website that describes the research behind the Early Childhood Initiative. It includes a link to sign a petition in support.
I was very pleased to learn that while the main focus of the proposal is on preschool, it includes a good deal of funding for programs for infants and very young children. For example, the voluntary home visiting program allocates $15 billion over 10 years to expand home visiting services for families with very young children. The proposal speaks of "evidence-based home visiting programs [that] demonstrate improved maternal and child health in the early years, long-lasting positive impact on parental skills, and enhanced children's cognitive, language, and social-emotional development and school readiness." The Nurse-Family Partnership is one such evidence-based program.
In my book Keeping Your Child in Mind, essentially an argument for his proposal, I outline all of the contemporary research and knowledge at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and genetics supporting this investment in early childhood (although I examine the issue from the perspective of health care, rather than education.) This excerpt offers an explanation for the success of home visiting programs.
John Bowlby, describing the essential role of attachment relationships in survival, spoke of a child’s need for what he called a “secure base” from which to explore the world and grow into a separate person. He also recognized the need for a mother to have a secure base of her own in order to provide this security for her child:
I have referred to the ordinary sensitive mother who is attuned to her child’s actions and signals, who responds to them more or less appropriately, and who is able to monitor the effects her behavior has on her child and to modify it accordingly. . . . This is where a parent, especially the mother who usually bears the brunt of parenting during the early months or years, needs all the help she can get—not in looking after her baby, which is her job, but in all the household chores. . . . In addition to practical help, a congenial female companion is likely to provide the new mother with emotional support or, in my terminology, to provide for her the kind of secure base we all need in conditions of stress and without which it is difficult to relax.
In some cultures an extended family can fill this role. A supportive grandmother can be very important. If a new mother holds in her mind a warm, loving relationship with her own mother, even if the grandmother is not nearby or is deceased, this relationship can provide the secure base she needs when she becomes a mother.
It is not uncommon in our culture for a mother to raise her children without benefit of her own secure base (and most do not have help with household chores!!). Families are fragmented by geography and/or divorce. A spouse may be relied upon both to be the breadwinner and sole emotional support, which can put significant strain on a marriage. Many new mothers I see describe highly troubled relationships with their own mothers, full of grief and loss.
A home visiting program provides such a secure base to at-risk families. In our society today, where many live in poverty and families are fragmented, many mothers are raising children without a secure base of her own.
When a parent herself has experienced abuse, providing such a secure base is especially difficult. The home visiting programs share much in common with Selma Fraiberg's original infant mental health program, described in this excerpt.
This way of thinking about and working with children and families is well described in a relatively new field known as “infant mental health.” The field grew out of the work of Selma Fraiberg, a child psychoanalyst who, in her groundbreaking 1974 article “Ghosts in the Nursery,” described the Infant Mental Health Program. A staff of experienced psychologists and social workers went into the homes of mothers who had been abused. By forming a close connection in a supportive and understanding way while these mothers were interacting with their children in their own homes, the staff were able to significantly improve the parenting capacities of these traumatized mothers. The most important part of this intervention turned out to be the relationship between the therapist and the mother. It was different from therapy with the mother. The aim of the intervention was to help the mother connect with her child in a meaningful way.
This intervention, and others modeled on Fraiberg's approach, actually serves to wire healthy brains, as described in this excerpt (stay tuned for more on this subject in my next post):
Contemporary research in neuroscience reveals that a child’s brain develops in relation to other people, not simply on its own. When parents are attuned to their child’s emotional experiences, new connections are formed that control the way that child regulates her experience. These relationships actually wire the brain. This is particularly true in the first year, when the volume of the brain doubles, but relationships can continue to shape the structure of the brain well into adulthood.
Quality preschool is for all is a good thing. But equally, if not more important, is finding a way to provide a secure base for all new parents, with the aim of supporting their efforts to provide such a secure base for their children. Currently the United States lags significantly behind many countries in the value we place on parents and young children (A lovely alternative example is Finland, where every expectant mother receives a box of baby goods-a baby box- from the Finnish state social services agency.) Fortunately, not only does Obama recognize this fact, but he also understands that remedying the situation is essential for the future of our country.