The Brain Story – How Brain Science is Being Embedded in Family Service Programming to Drive Better Long-term Outcomes

The Brain Story – How Brain Science is Being Embedded in Family Service Programming to Drive Better Long-term Outcomes

Why has the brain become “sexy” in the last few years?

“It’s not that neuroscience is new. The brain’s mammalian responses to triggers, to stress, to the environment, have been known and studied intensively for decades,” says neuroscientist Dr. Nicole Sherren, the Scientific Director and Senior Program Officer with the Palix Foundation.

What is new, however, is the translation of brain development into knowledge that is accessible to broader society (versus being held by doctors and neuroscientists). Understanding brain science is becoming essential – not only for family services but also in health care, the justice system, education, parenting and many other areas. Social workers, lawyers, teachers and parents are now studying the brain to understand how it drives people.

That’s why Family Services Canada is featuring The Brain Story: How Brain Science is Changing Policy and Practice to Make a Difference for Families in Alberta during the Annual Community of Learning, 2019. (Learn more here.)

Not All Brains Are Built the Same

Brain science shows that the brain is built through what happens to us. Early experiences are more impactful as the brain “is exquisitely sensitive to the environment until the mid-20s,” says Dr. Sherren. This means that early trauma is literally hardwired into the brain structure. This can drive people to make decisions and exhibit behaviour that leads to lifelong struggles with school, the justice system, and health. The reasons why are only now starting to be widely understood. “Traditionally, we haven’t paid attention to the context people are growing up in,” Dr. Sherren says.

When service providers connect life context with services, it can be a game-changer. “Using brain science as a framework for service delivery opens up new ways of thinking about how we should be supporting people,” says Dr. Sherren.

Early Adoption Leads to ‘Aha’ Moments for Leader, Agency & Clients

One family service agency wanted to improve long-term outcomes. CUPS, a not for profit organization dedicated to helping individuals and families overcome poverty in Calgary, Alberta, opened a child development centre. Palix helped support the centre financially and linked CUPS with critical information about brain science. Carlene Donnelly, the Executive Director of CUPS Health and Education Centre, recalls the impact this made in her career, agency, and clients.

“I’d seen programs or interventions that helped families get well and stable,” Donnelly says. “Then one crisis or another would hit, and they would be knocked ten steps back.” She found it disheartening. At that time, “there wasn’t a system that was looking to build long-term resiliency for families.”

Brain science provided an answer as to why families derailed after initial success. “We learned about health and how it impacts the brain. When I heard that – it was exactly what I had seen for two decades,” Donnelly says. “You can’t manage and plan your life when you feel overwhelmed. You were never taught that. Instead, you go into fight, flight or shut-down.”

This helped connect what Donnelly already knew. “People are not bad,” she says. Often, people facing challenges go into survival mode and make choices driven by the pain of trauma. Instead, they have to learn how to make healthy choices, she says. “Learning brain science helps in understanding what drives people.” This learning led to an agency-wide reflection on approach. “We asked – what does better look like?”

Tools Measure Outcomes for CUPS and Clients

A decade later, CUPS is a model of what better looks like. “We’ve really seen a lot of families who are better able to manage life and struggle through, while working with us, without everything falling apart,” she says. “Families are stable longer.”

How does it work? Each client receives a universal questionnaire that helps families identify strengths and weaknesses in four domains: social/emotional, developmental, economic, and health (which includes mental health). Clients then work with frontline workers to determine current status: are they in crisis, vulnerable, stable or self-sufficient? Next, goals are identified, and then a plan is made to reach those goals.

“Often,” Donnelly says, “it’s the first plan these people have ever made. It’s an ‘aha’ moment for them.” People see there are choices and work to do, in manageable steps. Donnelly says they “open up. They’re motivated.” The tools help people measure progress over shorter-term periods such as six months, or longer terms of two to three years. She says people will come back and report that setbacks in life don’t lead to everything “Falling apart all the time.”

Donnelly says these better long-term outcomes are rewarding on many levels, including the financial. “Economically, we’re challenged to do better with the money we have before determining what is needed to fill the gaps.”

Dr. Sherren agrees that funding challenges are an important aspect of utilizing brain science to drive programming and services. “There’s no new money. We need to start thinking of how we’re using the money we have to do things differently,” she says.

The rewards are many, for agencies, workers, clients and communities.

Learn from The Brain Story at the Annual Community of Learning conference 2019

Dr. Sherren and Carlene Donnelly present The Brain Story: How Brain Science is Changing Policy and Practice to Make a Difference for Families in Alberta. Click to see the agenda of the workshop and bios of the presenters.