Understanding Childhood Development Part 1

It was my privilege and pleasure  in February, to take the long drive up North to the Pen Green Research Centre in Corby. I was attending a series of talks entitled ‘Understanding Childhood Development’ given by Joshua D Sparrow MD, Professor Colwyn Trevathon and Professor Vasudevi Reddy.

The vision, creation and expansion of Pen Green is a wonderful testament to what can be achieved with the right mindset; when the original nursery opened in the 1980’s, Corby was undergoing a terrible spell after the closing of the local steelworks which left 43% of the male population unemployed and the infrastructure depleted and infant mortality rates high due to poor healthcare. Over the last 30 years the nursery has expanded into a centre for children and families and an internationally renown research, development & training base and leadership centre catering for over 1200 families and offering professional development training, degree courses and (of course) seminar, research and conference events.

This particular event focussed primarily on the development of children from their antenatal growth up to a year but its applications and the knowledge can be applied anywhere along the developmental path. I want to give a brief overview of the three talks that happened during the day, full notes and slides are available here: Early Childhood Development 09/02/2013

Joshua Sparrow MD came to present the work of Dr T Berry Brazleton whose career has focussed on the developmental progress of children and the effect that it has on the parents and primary carers, key times that he identified included

  • When a child is able to look further around and may suddenly become distracted during close times with the adult
  • When a child is starting to learn to walk
  • When a child starts to toilet train

The process of such developments is one of regressions, bursts and pauses and can be trying for families as their routine is disrupted in turn by the child’s own disorder. Highlighting these areas made me aware further of the relationships I had with parents when their children were heading through these periods (particularly toilet training), their own worries and stresses and how they found it difficult to see beyond this period. My response has always been one of encouragement and perseverance, following the parents’ lead and offering complementary advice: when I’ve spoken to these parents again after their children have passed through this stage they actually find it hard to believe that they went through that time. As a general rule, following children's developmental paths is far harder than pre-empting it.

Understanding childhood development

Through his talk, I was impressed by the emphasis that touchpoints put on family care rather than child care: practitioners can extend the knowledge of primary carers but have a responsibility and duty to emphasise and learn from their expert knowledge in turn.

  • Gatekeeping: The natural competition felt by any two adults who care passionately about the same child

The point at which relationships destabilise and break down comes when the different forces’ (parents, grandparents, professionals etc...) desire to push their own view of the child and what’s best for them outweighs the desire to work for the overall wellbeing of the child and loses focus on what each adult can bring to the child’s life. To paraphrase a story we were told:

“We (touchpoints) were asked to give a parenting class in one of the most deprived areas of Harlem, we agreed to the session but made it clear we weren’t going to be the teachers. At the first meeting the parents sat down and we asked them what they, as experts, could tell us about their children and each point that was mentioned was written down on a flipchart. By the end of the session the flip chart was full of their knowledge.”

What was the perception of the authorities who asked touchpoints to give a lesson on parenting? How could this session have gone if this view was accepted and not questioned? How do you think the parents felt at the end of the session as it ran? They were the ones who were given a chance to express themselves, whose knowledge was valued and recorded, not through a complicated or rigorous test and an average score, but through an open forum and an attentive, caring audience.

At the end of the opening talk, we were given this quote bringing together what touchpoints sought to achieve and provide:

  • “What parents need to be the kind of parents they want to be for their children”

It took me a few minutes of consideration to fully understand the force behind this statement. Parents need to perceive themselves as competent, they need to feel empowered to make a difference to children’s lives, they need to feel connected to others through supportive networks and relationships and they need to be connected to their pasts, to be emotionally available in the present and dare to hope for their children’s future.

In our day to day work with children we share their pain, their joy, frustrations and resolutions and, all in all, we take them into our hearts... and we share that with their family in whatever form it takes. For everyone involved in a child’s life empowerment is key and with it the power to open up to others, accept their ideas and empower them in turn.

And this was just the end of the first talk... the learning continues in part 2