Parenting programmes and schools are keen on neuroscience, the public are more sceptical

Parenting programmes and schools are keen on neuroscience, the public are more sceptical

Neil Small and Shahid Islam

When Frederick Douglass escaped the horrors of slavery in the 19th century and went on to become a renowned writer and orator, he shared many words of wisdom that are as relevant today as they were whilst he was campaigning for the abolition of slavery.  His quote – “It is far easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”(sic)(1), would find much support from researchers and practitioners convinced that the seeds of lifetime achievement are sown in the first few years of life, and that doing the right things early in children’s lives prevents a whole host of problems later.

But, despite the enthusiasm of professionals, many contemporary studies report low take up of parenting programmes, with rates being particularly low in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. We are involved in an ongoing birth cohort study in Bradford, one of the UK’s most deprived cities. One aspect of this study has been to consider the reach and impact of parenting programmes that seek to enhance children’s social and emotional health.  We explored community readiness, the “degree to which a community is prepared to take action on an issue”, and found little enthusiasm for engaging with this area.  Perhaps one of the reasons for this is a mismatch between the assumptions that inform many such programmes and the priorities of parents in areas like Bradford.

At present we are living through an ascendancy of neuroscience. Its proponents tell us fascinating things. For example neuroscience informs us that a baby’s brain at birth contains 100 billion neurons, roughly as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way.  After birth, and for about 18 months, the brain undergoes some enormous transformational changes and this takes place at an astronomical rate. This activity is not firing around randomly, like shooting stars; it is laying the building blocks for cognitive, behavioral and emotional developments, and the changes taking place during these early years are particularly important because they are the bedrock of what comes after. This is the sort of description that leaves many people saying, “this is the answer” “let’s rely on neuroscience, let’s do things that best builds brains!”  (There was a similar sort of enthusiasm that was around just a few years ago when the Human Genome Project looked like it would provide the answers (2). But, as Rapp has reminded us, “A child surrounds this brain” and, as legions of sociologists might add, a family and then a society surrounds the child.

Seeing neuroscience as key sets us on a dangerous path, if we decide we must prioritise the development of a baby’s brain it is a small step to saying inadequate parents hinder this development and then to say “we must teach them how to do the right kind of parenting”. Rosalind Edwards and her colleagues point to how this sort of reasoning is accompanied by a “veneer of progressive benevolence”. But it is deterministic and reductionist; it is saying that “bad parenting” affects children’s  cognitive wiring in a way that is irreversible, damage is carried forward throughout their lives. It is also saying that we have a simple explanation for a complex problem.

The real insights that come from neuroscience are simplified as they are appropriated by policy makers and practitioners and we end up with messages that talk about how those that do the “wrong type” of parenting need to be taught how to love their babies more effectively. The implied “right type of parenting” is a class, gendered and racialized construct. It’s the sort of approach that fits well with a prevailing neoliberal politics that seeks to legitimize the withdrawal of the state from interventions to address disadvantage but that seeks to police private lives. Edwards and colleagues illustrate this by citing the Director of the Association of Children’s Services who, in 2011, reported a sharp increase in numbers of children taken into care as being due to a “better understanding of the physical damage to brain development associated with poor parenting”.

But it’s not just small children and their parents that neuroscience is targeting, schools are becoming preoccupied with brain-based interventions and “neuromarketeers are confident they are pushing at an open school gate” (3 p106).  One topic of great interest to them is the “teenage brain”, this is to be cognitively enhanced, the teenager’s mental capital will increase and problems in attainment will fall away. But cognitive interventions sidestep socioeconomic reasons why students might have less than optimum mental capital, they overlook that teenagers brains are in teenage bodies and that teenage bodies exist within a web of culture that will enhance some things and cast aside others. It also risks our creating a new education underclass, those who don’t seem to be exhibiting the right sort of brain enhancement being cast aside as uneducatable. If we start to say that these children who we thought had reading difficulties really have dyslexia we better be sure that we are spot-on in identifying dyslexia because if we aren’t we may find that their teachers have stopped offering anything other than the neuroscience orthodoxies on teaching the dyslexic, a similar situation applies to the now widely identified autistic spectrum disorders, “being on the spectrum” (self identified/ lay attributed often), has become a familiar explanation for those schoolchildren who are not doing well.

While cognitive psychology and neuroscience can contribute to understanding children’s intellectual development they do not offer a way of understanding childrearing and they are not a replacement for the nuance, flexibility and awareness of context that is required in teaching. Their appeal to our children’s services providers and to our schools might be couched in terms of their effectiveness, and there is some evidence of positive effects in parenting programmes, but it’s not so easy to attribute these positives to the neuroscience parts and what may work well for families residing in poorer areas may well be different to interventions which are effective in affluent neighbourhoods. The act of over-emphasising brain enhancing interventions, and funding research on them, diverts attention from interventions that might not be as palatable to the prevailing political climate, for example what difference to mental capital might be achieved by having better equipped schools in deprived communities or what might be achieved via measures to ameliorate poverty in families with young children.

There is one barrier to the march of neuroscience that those sceptical of its claims might take comfort in. What deterministic and reductionist approaches underestimate is the canny subjects of their wares. People have a sophisticated relationship to scientific knowledge. Louise Whiteley, in a review of Hilary Rose and Stephen Rose’s book Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds? (4), makes the point that a parent might talk about mental illness as brain disease when advocating for extra resources for their child in school, but will resist this notion outside the school environment. Parents will often be sceptical of being taught the right kind of parenting. They have not been inculcated in the neuroscience orthodoxy. Perhaps they think they know how to be parents, after all they have been doing it, have had it done to them and see it being done all around them! Many will see themselves as having more immediate and pressing concerns; finding employment, dealing with limited budgets and neighbourhood crime for example are higher on their agendas.  Teachers sceptical of neuroscience may also think they have been developing mental capacity for a long time and many will have done that by making connections between their pupils and the worlds they live in rather than looking into cognitively enhancing their brains.

We suspect Frederick Douglass would not be a fan of a reductionist brain science, or of determinism of any sort, slaveholders’ argued that slaves like Douglass lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens and even his supporters in the abolitionist north found it hard to believe that such a great orator had once been a slave (1). But perhaps neuroscience would better engage with those its approach targets if they did as Hilary Rose and Steven Rose suggest and, “show some humility for the expertise of others … and engage with the range of publics germane to specific projects” (3, p 151). We should start with assessing community readiness, build programmes to respond to this and then utilise the real potential of neuroscience to develop interventions that would resonate with communities in need. Then we might have some new tools that do not just appeal to the professionals wish to find “easy” answers and to politicians seeking to blame individuals and escape from root and branch reform.

1.  Trotman, C.J. 2011. Frederick Douglass: A Biography. Penguin Books.
2.  Rose H, Rose S. 2012. Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promise of the New Biology. Verso.
3.  Rose, H., Rose, S. 2016. Can Neuroscience change our Minds?
4.  Whiteley, L. 2016. Putting the brain in its place. Times Higher Education 7 July, 42-3.


Neil Small is Professor of Health Research at the University of Bradford and is on the Executive of  the Born in Bradford birth cohort study. Shahid Islam is Research Fellow at the University of Bradford and Born in Bradford birth cohort study. Twitter @shahid_islam