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How Nurture affects Nature’s Next Generation

What we’ve learned about Kids Company – Practical Help & World-Class Research

IMG_0111On the 18th September at 8pm, two weeks after BrainTrainUK opened our Battersea office, 19-year-old Kyle McDonald was shot dead 90 seconds walk across the road.

A week later we first noticed The Evening Standard’s ‘Frontline London’ Campaign led by reporter David Cohen,that mentioned a charity called Kids Company, led by the colourful and  charismatic Camila Batmanghelidjh.

Kids Company help young people involved in gangs to turn their lives around, and could be one of the most understated charitable organisations in the World.

Kids Company LogoIn one of the articles Camila described how the young people they helped  “need lots of work to calm them down. It’s like they’ve swallowed a helicopter with the propeller turning. They are in a constant hyper-aroused disturbed state.”

This understanding of he highly-aroused nervous system driving behaviour is exactly the model that our approach to Neurofeedback uses, and I know we could help. Combined with the killing of Kyle McDonald across the road, and the fact we had unused capacity, made me resolve that we had to help, if we could.

So we reached out to Kids Company and met with one of their senior people. We have made a specific offer to help, that they are considering,

Whether we can help or not, we embrace Kids Company’s Mission Statement to young people that we’ve reproduced here :-

  • Children are our primary clients, whose needs we always put first.
  • Parents, carers and schools are our secondary clients whose needs 
we address in order to facilitate their support of the child.
  • We recognise children’s vulnerabilities without attributing blame.
  • We see challenging behaviour in the context of emotional hurt.
  • We encourage children to recognise their rights and their responsibilities.
  • We aim to help children grow into gentleness and compassion through our own example of care and empathy towards others.
  • We recognise that every child has a talent, which we help develop and give expression to.

Some of the statistics for the children Kids Company help: 1 in 5 have been shot at and/or stabbed; 1 in 4 of family members or carers had been shot at and/or stabbed; 18% don’t have underwear; 87% have been multiply traumatised, sexually and physically abused.

We’ve learned that Kids Company is providing very practical help to troubled children – in the form of food, clothing, therapy (they are the biggest single employer of psychotherapists outside the NHS). They have a presence in 48 schools where children can go to the ‘Kids Company room’ for help.

But they are also leading the field in terms of research to understand and demonstrate what causes these children to become how they are, how they can be helped and how the system needs to change to avoid future children getting into the same situation.

If you have time, have a look at this TED talk where Camila packs a lot of information in and quotes a number of findings that we summarise below.


Key points are (my paraphrasing):

The system for helping children in this country is broken for two main reasons:-

The cost of delivering child protection plans falls to local authorities who don’t have the money and no-one sees the big picture well enough to change this.

  • This means out of officially 1.5 million maltreated children in this country, only 49,000 in any year will get help, and only 2,700 get help for more than 12 months. 46,000 are moved off child protection plans every year to make room for new children, not because they don’t need help anymore.

The paradigm used to understand and correct inappropriate behaviour in these children is fundamentally flawed:

The current model assumes that if you morally educate a child and correct them through rewards and sanctions, they will eventually behave appropriately.

  • The flaw is this doesn’t work if the child doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to remember the sanctions or to regulate their emotions and behaviour before they do something else wrong. Without loving care the  frontal lobe of the brain that provides this capacity doesn’t develop properly. Also in adolescence the frontal-lobe also re-wires itself, so is weakened in the teenage years.
  • Abused children memorise their traumatic experiences in the emotional centres of the brain, so are constantly revved up and trying to suppress the memory, but it only takes one or two triggers to remind them of the original event and unleash the stored-up emotions.
  • So the violated child, has an overdriven limbic system, a reduced capacity to co-ordinate emotion and cognition, incapacity for self-soothing and self-calming, and accumulated tension at brain level and cellular level.
  • They then realise that behaving aggressively gives them an ‘evacuation of tension’ from the limbic system and cellular level, as a method of self-soothing. This can form an escalating circle where they then behave aggressively with other children who wouldn’t otherwise be involved in such behavior.
  • This child never wanted to become an abuser, a criminal or a killer, but is incapable of responding to the system of rewards and sanctions.

The alternative paradigm is to find ways of allowing them to process the traumatic events so the event is no longer constantly threatening to control them, and to give them the care that allows them the ‘neuro-developmental trajectory’ they have been denied.

A time-bomb is ticking as the latest research shows that nurture affects nature’s next generation.

The behaviour of our genes is determined by our environment, so a violated child finds that to negotiate their dangerous environment, they need to up-regulate the part of their gene responsible for aggressive behaviour in the service of survival.

Epigeneticists now believe that this alteration in expression becomes baseline genetic programming for the next generation.

It’s not about Kids Company, it’s about the system

Modestly, what Camilla doesn’t say is that a lot of these findings have been discovered through research that Kids Company has led with leading universities.

As Camila told the Evening Standard – “Ultimately this is not about a charity called Kids Company. This is about the way we deal with disturbed children in our midst and about the safety of all children in London. If Kids Company were disbanded tomorrow but the system was fixed, I’d be very happy.”