The world was astonished to see what was behind Romanian orphanage walls after Nicolae Ceausescu’s fall in 1989. Because of restrictions on abortion and contraception, orphanages were filled with unwanted children and the overcrowded institutions were beyond belief.
Though most of the world was appalled, many researchers leapt at the chance to find out what happens to children when they are abused or starved of interaction. What happens to the developing brain under such conditions? Children slept in empty cribs without toys and in silent, colorless rooms. They appeared despondent and evidence was found that lying in a cot all day without affection, interaction or stimulation can leave black holes in the brain where otherwise they should have developed. In a study at the CIVITAS Child Trauma Programs at Baylor College of Medicine of 1,000 abused and neglected children, new brain-imaging techniques determined that these children’s brains were physically 20 to 30 percent smaller than their peers.
An undeveloped brain causes physical and behavior problems in the children. Many showed intellectual delays, attachment disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivitiy Disorder (ADHD). The brain, however, is resilient and can repair itself and catch up to some degree. A study by UW-Madison psychologist Seth Pollak on Romanian orphans found that children were performing well at a later age on visual-perception tasks and reasoning abilities. Yet, more than 50% had severe difficulties in paying attention to verbal information. “When children had to listen to words, remember a task and act quickly, many of them had a hard time.” This means that these children would have a very difficult performing in school and failure could be the indirect reasons for related behavior problems.
Lao children are lucky. They are surrounded by their playful peers and enjoy the affection of extended families and communities. The concern is that they may not be getting enough intellectual stimulation at an early age and this may contribute to underperforming in later years. There are no cribs to be confined to, but spending inordinate amounts of time sitting at desks could be an equivalent. Schoolrooms are drab save a few drawings on the wall. Many teachers often appear fatigued and find ways to spend time elsewhere. I would expect an unsupervised pre-school to erupt into chaos, but I sometimes find despondent children in abandoned classrooms. The demands on the teachers are tremendous and I know they are doing their best, but I’m still startled every time I see an unsupervised class of 8 year-olds. If this were to happen in middle-class America, parents would converge on site quicker than you could spell litigation.
Teachers can let their students study on their own at older ages, but leaving a writing assignment on the board for pre-school children is not likely the best way to make them literate. It’s a given that we should be taking good care of the little ones. Having severe difficulties in paying attention to verbal information means likely failure in school. The inability to understand and follow directions is not going to make any employer very happy. We should consider their brains as the primary human resource of the nation and understand the worth in investing in the growth of them. Black holes become a national deficit and a social burden in later life.