Dr. Judy Cameron Speaks on the Impact of Stress on the Developing Brain (March 2, 2021)

 Today begins day 2 of the Texas Symposium on Deafblind Education. What follows are notes from Kate Hurst and are not quotes from the presenter.

During this year of COVID and various lockdowns and restrictions, we have all experienced stress. Some of us have only had mild disruption of our lives while others have experienced extreme hardships and loss. We all face stress, but good things can come out of a stressful situation. In the development of the brain, learning resiliency can offset the stresses that come our way. How do we help children who are deafblind learn resiliency?

Judy Cameron The Impact of Stress on Brain Development

“Foundations of lifelong health are built in early childhood” according to Dr. Judy Cameron, Professor of Psychiatry and Clinical Translation Science, Institute,  at the University of Pittsburgh.  Experiences build the brain, especially in the earliest years. Children who are deafblind are learning to communicate even without hearing, if they have people interacting with them in other ways such as touch or movement.

Building a Brain

We have all the neurons (specialized brain cells) in our brain we will ever have when we are born. The things we experience cause the brain cells to make connections that form many neural networks, in fact, more in the first years of our life than we will use. Between birth and the age of seven years, the circuits in most areas of the brain that don’t get used a lot, will begin to disappear through a process known as pruning. However higher cognitive functioning connections don’t begin until about age 12 and continue thru the age of 25. So the good news is, children will be developing their brains for a relatively long time.  ( Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University – https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/)

The circuits that are used a lot become stronger and more efficient. Think about how much easier it is to do something you have done a million times before, versus something you have only done once. These circuits help connect information between various parts of the brain that respond to vision, hearing, language, touch, movement, and so forth.

Emotions are developing before birth and thru the first 5 years because this is when we are building circuitry in a specific part of the brain. Showing emotions help build strong circuits.

Language circuits are started prenatally and are primarily built during the first seven years of life.

A circuit needs to be used a lot – 10,000 times for example – to become strong. Repetition is key.

As the front part of the brain develops, the area where higher cognitive learning takes place, it has the ability to regulate other parts of the brain, especially the emotional brain. We want to put in place strategies that strengthen the brain and build resiliency. One way to get children to use the front part of the brain is to make learning fun and motivating.

Stable caring relationships play an important role in developing good brain circuitry through what is know as “serve and return” interactions between children and caring adults.

Three Concepts for Building Resiliency

Connection: Connect with how your child is feeling. Reflect your child’s mood and emotions to try to understand where they are at. Don’t ignore or try to cajole them out of their mood when you start an activity with your child. Ask them how they are feeling; let them know you will help if you can.

Serve and Return (Reciprocity): Follow the child’s lead. Let the child serve and you respond to them. Don’t dominate the interaction.

Progression: In the beginning we help with everything and make no demands on the child. As the child develops emotionally, the child needs the opportunity to do things on their own, but with support when they need it. You encourage and support.

(Resource: First Pathways Brain Building games from Working with Kids)

Charging Stations

We all need personal charging stations, places, things, people that help you regain your capacity to cope with life’s challenges. So does your child. Help identify things that “charge” your child up and build a repertoire of these things and activities to make available to your child when they need it. It might be time alone with a favorite blanket, being held and rocked, having a rough and tumble with dad, or any number of other things.

As a parent, you also need to have access to charging stations. What helps you cope with the challenges of raising a child who is deafblind while trying to meet the needs of your family and yourself? Perhaps it is a connection to another family who has a child like yours. Maybe it is gardening, rocking in a favorite rocking chair, going to a movie with your best friend. Whatever activities and people who provide the “something” that you need to be resilient, give yourself permission to reach out to them regularly.

Tennis Racket and Balls
"Tennis Racket and Balls" by Kyle Campbell2011 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“I love the way that raising a child with CHARGE is like playing a tennis match against a very cunning opponent who serves you all kinds of wobbly balls, and you need to remain extremely alert to return every serve and show them that you are paying attention.”

“You follow the child, not the other way around!”

Comments from David Brown

“Strong neural connections are made through experiences. Dr. Cameron emphasizes use of mulit-sensory teaching method to achieve early literacy for deaf-blind students. Repeated practice, serve and return interactions translate neural pathways and various learning skills.”

Comment from Nilam Agrawal

“To paraphrase Dr. Judy Cameron, if adults can let go of control and trust that if you can make learning something the child wants to do, the child’s learning will “go gangbusters.”

Comment from GroovyHill

“Experiences make strong, permanent connections”. – Dr. Judy Cameron.

Comment from Sheila McIntosh

“My  takeaway  on  Serve  &  Return from  Dr. Judy Cameron: Let the child tell you what they want to do. You respond in a way that shows you “hear”  them.  Made me think of Indiana Jones as if he were my child and I don’t “hear” him.”

Comment from Heather Withrow

Posted March 2, 2021 during the presentation and panel featuring Dr. Judy Cameron at the 2021 Texas Symposium on Deafblind Education.

Panel Discussion with Dr. Cameron

Here are some notes from this panel. These are not direct quotes from the speakers.

Panelists: Donia Shirley, Founding Partner of Florida and the Virgin Islands Carolyn Monaco, President CADB and Instructor at George Brown College, Gloria Rodriguez-Gil

Facilitators: Edgenie Bellah, Deanna Peterson

Carolyn: Individuals who are deafblind experience the world differently, not in a lesser way, just a different way, a way that is often tactual. What are the experiences they have, how are they documented, do they have someone to share these experiences with, and what is their experiences of stress?

“Don’t let them fail recess.” – Jacquie McIness

Donia saw that her son, Jackson,  was regressing during COVID when he was being served virtually. Now that he is being served at home with providers coming into work with him, he is making progress. He is happy and excited about learning and connecting with people in his life.

In Latin America, families have shown their resiliency. Schools and teachers had to learn to teach remotely and family members had to become facilitator of that instruction with their child. Many of the families who are at the Symposium from South America and Latin America have found support and ways to connect in the middle of the pandemic. Some through sharing positive experiences and some through having someone to share a loss with who understands what they are communicating.

A silver lining: for the first time we have families from 11 countries participating in the Symposium.

Deanna: There is a real concern about access to learning during the COVID, but our deafblind students are still building their brains. They are experiencing connections and learning many things. This will impact their emotional and physical health.

Dr. Cameron: Think of the connections you can make and the experiences the child can have even in COVID. Make it a fun activity, something the child can enjoy.

Donia: One of the blessings is that so many of his providers come into the home, this creates a richer environment than he has at school. Our team has been great working together – they have time to talk to each other and to us as they come into our home.

Gloria: There is better understanding and team effort because we know more about each other during this time of COVID. I hope this continues after COVID.

Edgenie: Schools and others have helped families find their charging stations in the midst of COVID such as food, financial resources, emotional support, and so forth.

Carolyn: Relationships that were built in the school between teachers, interveners, and family members have been able to translate over distance platform. BUT this wouldn’t have been possible if those relations did not exist previously. 

Deanna: Through learning about how to have a relationships at a distance these children, many of them, are learning how to make connections with others at a distance.

Question from participant:  What can be done to make up for lost time, a child who did not have enough experiences in the appropriate years?

We continue learning our whole life and build new pathways. It just takes longer; you need more repetitions. Not all of us have pathways that are just the same. We can use other brain circuits to learn or understand things. We learn alternative strategies. We need to figure out strategies to help then do this.

Question from participant: Do you have any suggestions to help a child work on a life skill that may be associated with a negative experience such as receiving a spanking for a toileting accident?

General thought – Think about the interactive concept of serve and return. Let the child show you how they want to do something. Let the child be in charge as much as possible. Help the child find their own motivation for their own accomplishments. Give them some options and let them make a choice. Let go of control as an adult.

Carolyn: So much of what Dr. Cameron says confirms what we know about strategies to teach our students who are deafblind.

Comment from participant: What Dr. Cameron mentioned was very interesting: that we can follow different paths or use different strategies to achieve the same thing. In the case of children with visual and multiple disabilities, they can be encouraged to form connections through touch and express their feelings using concrete objects to represent “I’m fine” or “I’m not in the mood to do activity”.

Carolyn: I think in this field we have to be very creative to figure out what to do with our students. 

Final Thoughts

Dr. Cameron: I am delighted to participate in the Symposium because it leads me to say this. This Symposium is an ultimate charging station. As adults we need to reach out to find our charging stations so we can meet the needs of these children. 

Gloria: I think not only the families but also the professionals need to find our charging stations. We don’t have all the answers. We need to support each other to meet this need.

Deanna: For children, their charging stations are found where the child goes, who they meet. Maybe we need to spread the world that these charging stations need to be close at hand. 

Gloria: We need to grow the places where these charging stations exist into the larger community. Not keep it within the walls of the school or home. 

Edgenie: Family organizations certainly can be those charging stations for others – both families and professionals.

Gloria: We have found new ways to connect during COVID through platforms such as these. 

Carolyn: Lived experiences and the research Dr. Cameron shared, makes it easier for us to understand some of the complex ideas about brain development.  I think we need to fill our classrooms with folks who want to become teachers of students who are deafblind.