Panel Discussion Transcript

Unlearning Violence: Evidence and Policies for Early Childhood Development and Peace

February 14, 2014
ASEAN Auditorium
The Fletcher School
Tufts University

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, 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



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. 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.