Turning lives around

The Benevolent Society's Shaping Brains pilot program aims to make sure that kids who have had disadvantages in the past have a future, writes Sean Mooney.

When Australia's first charity was born in 1813, the colony of New South Wales was itself still in its infancy. Back then, the Benevolent Society's stated aim was to "discountenance as much as possible Mendicity and Vagrancy; and to encourage industrious habits amongst the indigent Poor". What its founders would make of the cutting-edge neuroscience being used by the society to help the State's children nearly 200 years later is anyone's guess.

Even for most modern-day Sydneysiders, the principles of neuroplasticity that underpin The Benevolent Society's Shaping Brains pilot program are a mystery. While it was previously thought that the structure of the brain was 'fixed' after early childhood, there is growing evidence that brain cells actually rearrange themselves throughout life, supporting learning and adaptation through experience. So the basic premise of the program is that gaps in brain development that cause learning or behavioural difficulties can be 'filled' or supported by training specific areas of the brain.

Shaping Brains is the first evidence-based neuroplasticity program that has been made available free of charge to disadvantaged and vulnerable Australian children. It was launched in Sydney and south-east Queensland earlier this year, and its Sydney component will run in Bankstown, Ingleburn and Liverpool until mid-2012.

It all began last year when clinical psychologist Dr Margaret Brechman-Toussaint, who was the Benevolent Society's principal researcher at the time, toured Canada, Europe and the USA to see how the latest neuroscience research was being used in real-world projects. What she saw convinced her to pilot a series of intervention programs to support early learning in a small group of Australian children to improve their educational outcomes. "These programs [for school-age children] use exercises and games that are fun for kids but at the same time are actually targeting and developing specific areas within the brain, such as memory, attention and shape recognition," she says.

Brechman-Toussaint says that while similar projects have already been successfully employed here and overseas, the Benevolent Society's program breaks new ground. "What's different about the Shaping Brains pilot is that we're tapping into our existing support services to identify families who most need assistance and providing the programs to them for free," she says. "This will include parents with limited support networks, families affected by unemployment, financial difficulty, mental illness or substance abuse, and children who have experienced trauma or conflict in early life." The Benevolent Society is well placed to do this, as it supports more than 30,000 vulnerable and disadvantaged people through more than 150 programs across NSW and Queensland.

The program's objectives are to teach participating families how to have a positive impact on their children's brain development in the early years of life, and to help them address any existing gaps in the brain development of older children. This requires a combination of approaches, including the use of a 'Changing Brains' DVD in a playgroup format for preschoolers and their carers, phonics-based reading support for six-to-eight year olds, and several different computer-based attention and memory programs for children aged between four and 12.

The early results of the Shaping Brains pilot are encouraging. The Benevolent Society's media-relations officer Liz Lawrence says that the program is really resonating with parents. "[They] are showing an incredible interest in finding out about what the latest science is telling us about brain development and how they can help their children lay down foundations for future learning," she says. "And we’ve had some wonderful feedback from parents and teachers about children taking instructions better and improving the way they relate with siblings and with other children in the playground."

The NSW project officer for Shaping Brains, Celia Loneragan, agrees and says that most parents involved in the program are very interested and easily engaged. "We get really positive feedback," she says. "Actually, most of the parents ask for more. For example, the ['Changing Brains'] DVD that runs for about five minutes each week for the parents during playgroup has information on early development and how important structured early play is for healthy brain development in babies and children, and we emphasise the effect of experience and how this strengthens the connections in the brain. This also strengthens the relationship and the bond between the parent and the child. Many parents want to take the DVD home; they want to show their friends, they want to watch it again."

She says that the program aims to give children regular positive early-learning experiences. "Vulnerable children often have multiple early negative experiences, lack of structure at home and few routines," she says. "This can leave them poorly prepared for the challenges of school where focus and attention are crucial for early success. Evidence from research suggests that some of the common problems of poor attention and working memory also impact on a child’s developing self-esteem and can create expectations of failure. This project targets these important early years for cognitive development. Working in groups where children engage with one another; working on sharing, impulse control, managing aggression and other behavioural skills can also support early learning, as children are less likely to be attention-seeking or have poor emotional regulation."

Loneragan describes some of the changes a teacher has noticed in a seven-year-old boy undertaking a computer-based program. "He is starting to relate better to other children, five weeks after starting," she says. "He’s more relaxed around his peers, he's sharing, communicates in a better way, notices more detail, can follow instructions. And his mother said at home he seems to be more aware of his frustrations and can stay on task more. The computer-based intervention really seems to have improved his cognitive and mental flexibility."

The Benevolent Society’s chief executive Anne Hollonds is confident that the Shaping Brains program can help reduce the negative effects of family stress, social disadvantage or neglect on children. "It is through cutting-edge programs like Shaping Brains that we can get some insight into how children can overcome the developmental and behavioural impacts of early disadvantage," Hollonds says. "Our hope is that with government support, programs like these based on the latest science will be more readily available to all families who want or need to use them."

This article was first published in the September 2011 edition of Sydney's Child.

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