Turning on the light

Camila Batmanghelidjh calls for a revolution in caring for vulnerable children.

Kids Company offers therapeutic educational and social care support to some 36,000 children, young people and vulnerable adults, the majority of whom self-refer to our services having heard about us from their peers.

When I began working with these children, some 19 years ago, I noticed their disturbances were very similar. They would have frenzied tantrums but, instead of hurling toys as toddlers would, they hurled knives. The harm wasn't always directed at others; it would, at times, be levelled at themselves, as they used glass they had smashed to dig deep into their flesh, or empty bottles of alcohol down their throats to drown feelings that might perturb.

I was conscious of the outside world referring to these children and young people as feral. I listened to radio programmes as the public called in to demand that they be exterminated in gas chambers or locked up and the keys thrown away. The most shocking part wasn't the venom of the public, but the presenters' lack of challenge. If this had been a racial or sexually discriminatory contribution, there would have been protest, but it was clearly acceptable to express profound hatred for some of the nation's most damaged kids.

Scouring through academic papers made me realise that scientists were also not very focused on the reasons as to why these children may be so troubled. Armed with a hypothesis that, potentially, overexposure to fright hormones may be driving these children's emotional volatility, we turned to the British Medical Society, which gathered some of the best scientists and focused its attention on the children we work with.

Some seven years later, the research results are producing extraordinary findings, which will change the face of children's services. We used to think that how we were going to deve- lop was fully mapped out in our genes and, eventually, we would grow into the full realisation of it. Actually, neurodevelopmental science is suggesting that the care we receive plays a major part in how our genes get expressed. Think of it as a whole lot of light switches, one responsible for our ability to be cruel, another for our compassion. We have millions of possibilities. If we grow up at the receiving end of hatred and adversity, the light responsible for turning on gene expression that deals with violence will be switched on.

Our biology, therefore, responds constantly and is prompted by our environment. So the children whose rages look random are in fact appropriately adapted to their environments. As part of these studies, fascinating facts emerged. The emotionally driven parts of the children's brains were initially overactive, driving intensity and extremes of feeling. Then some of them arrived at a point of exhaustion where you could see that the brain had become emotionally underactive, making the kids callous, unable to empathise and needing higher levels of risk to be able to feel anything.

Scanning showed us that, with the maltreated children, punishment didn't work well because the moment the children were corrected their brains froze, believing the punisher to be like the perpetrator who had harmed them. Consequently, they couldn't correct their behaviours and kept making the same error whereas their well-looked-after counterparts, and even those who were psychiatrically ill but not maltreated, corrected their behaviours through sanctions.

Early indications for the genetic studies show that childhood adversity is having a negative impact on the development and expression of genes. Based on emerging signs, radical changes need to take place in the children's sector. We should be looking at a resilience-giving model where physical and mental health, environmental care and education are fused together, with professionals immediately available to vulnerable families. Rather than waiting for risks to drive which families we help, we must focus on reducing stress in whatever form it appears in people's lives.

Nurseries and primary schools will need embedded within them on a daily basis mental health and social care teams, who problem-solve constantly so that the corrosive impact of distress doesn't drive biology towards deviation and damage. A new kind of worker will be needed as a well-being practitioner, having a holistic understanding of all modalities, which contribute to well-being. Unless we have an absolute theoretical revolution in the way we care for vulnerable children, we will continue not only to fail them but also to impact negatively the development of the next generation.

The rethink of children's services needs leaders and not leftover ministers.

  • Kids Company is reliant on donations from the public to keep its work going. To donate to the charity's Safe Summer appeal visit www.kidsco.org.uk/summer.

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