‘Early Experience: Myth and Evidence’ by Ann Clarke and Alan Clarke

Ann M Clarke and A D B Clarke (Eds) (1976) Early experience: myth and evidence London: Open Books 0 7291 0015 4

In 1950 Ann and Alan Clarke chose the unfashionable field of learning disability (or ‘mental deficiency’ as it was then called) and by way of a series of ground-breaking publications managed to overturn many of the prevailing orthodoxies. Alan served as president of the International Association for the Scientific Study of Mental Deficiency (now IASSID International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual Disabilities) from 1973 to 1976 at the time when they were preparing this substantial challenge to the pervasiveness of ideas either promulgated or reinforced by Bowlbyism which implied that early experience was crucial for later development.

Key Points

  • Bowlby failed to separate maternal separation from other factors such as deprivation, cruelty or neglect in a child’s home.
  • Children and animals subject to severe deprivation have been able to recover.
  • Initial recovery from severe deprivation is often very rapid but then slows the closer the child gets to ‘normality’.
  • Recovery from less severe deprivation is never as rapid as from severe deprivation.
  • Marital discord and separation/divorce have far more significant adverse effects for children than maternal separation.
  • Anti-social behaviour is associated with a child’s current environment, not with prior experience.
  • The effects of time-limited interventions last only as long as the intervention.
  • No child cannot be helped.
  • Children are best helped by changing their environments.


In the Preface they set out why they are sceptical “that the environment in the early years exerts a disproportionate and irreversible effect on a rapidly developing organism, compared with the potential for later environmental influences” (p. ix).

In Chapter 1 The formative years? Ann and Alan Clarke review the history of the view that early infantile development is significant for later development from Plato to the present day. They point out that Bowlby’s monograph (1952) took a very broad view of maternal separation and quoted research which included many other areas of deprivation. Their own research had revealed that, while there might be short term effects of deprivation, by adulthood people were much less impaired than Bowlby’s conclusions would have suggested.

There had been an overemphasis on physical separation and a lack of emphasis on cruelty and neglect in children’s own homes. Moreover, children starting life in deprived circumstances tend to stay in them.

Research from animal studies (Novak and Harlow, 1975) and a re-examination of hospital studies show that even prolonged adverse effects can eventually fade if the situation is not repeated. On the other hand, positive and negative changes in children’s environments do have an effect.

In Chapter 2 Formerly isolated children Alan and Ann Clarke introduce some studies of formerly isolated children starting with Itard (1801; 1807) and including the chapters by Kingsley Davis and Jarmila Koluchová. They also mention UK twins born in February 1969 who, after some years of deprivation, were picked up by the headteacher of their nursery school, as a result of which the family was rehoused and supported, resulting in the children’s development returning to normal.

In Chapter 3 Final note on a case of extreme isolation, Kingsley Davis (1947) tells the stories of two girls. Anna, born in 1932, had suffered several years of extreme deprivation and had begun to make a recovery before her death from jaundice in 1942. Isabelle, who had been born around the same time as Anna, was discovered in 1938. A training programme had been instituted and she went through all the normal learning stages from one to six in proper succession, but more rapidly, catching up by eight and a half. At fourteen she was making normal progress in school.

In Chapter 4 Severe deprivation in twins: a case study, Jarmila Koluchová (1972) describes the history of twins born in 1960 whose mother died and whose stepmother kept them in isolation for several years. Following their rescue in 1967, they were placed for adoption with two unmarried middle-aged sisters in July 1969 but made such rapid progress that they were transferred from a special school to normal school in 1970, albeit with children three years older than them.

In Chapter 5 A report on the further development of twins after severe and prolonged deprivation, Jarmila Koluchová brings the story up to date describing how the twins were able to make sufficient progress to catch up a further year and so join children in a class closer to their age. By this time both the twins’ IQs were back to normal and the adoptive parents, who had already had one girl in the family, had taken in another girl who had been removed from home at the age of four and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Though she had not made as much progress as the twins, they had all shown that the prognosis for severely deprived children was not as bad as had previously been thought. She also draws attention to the misdiagnosis of abused children as mentally disabled and calls for detailed assessment and diagnosis in all cases of abuse.

In Chapter 6 Studies in natural settings, Alan and Ann Clarke introduce a number of studies of children in natural settings, starting with Freud and Dann (1951) and Skeels (1966) and pointing out that children from the most adverse circumstances make higher gains initially followed by lower gains whereas those who have been in less adverse circumstances show smaller gains.

They call attention to a number of studies in addition to those reproduced in the succeeding chapters. Lewis (1954) had shown that children moved into any more favourable circumstances improved. Trasler (1960) had found that 45 out of the 57 unsuccessful foster placements had been with unsuitable foster parents; a study of refugee children had shown that the only problems had been with two where there had been problems in the adoptive home. Bowlby et al. (1956) had shown that early institutionalisation did not create ‘affectionless’ children. Douglas (1975) had claimed that early hospital admissions had an adverse effect on children; however, the attempted replication by Quinton and Rutter (1976) had found that single hospital admissions had no effects whereas multiple admissions did have adverse effects, except that they were more likely to be of children from disadvantaged homes anyway. Wolkind et al. (1976) had shown that only 20% of mothers in their first pregnancies had had childhood separation experiences but that they were more likely to have come from disadvantaged homes anyway.

They note that only Dennis (1973) and Douglas (1975) reach conclusions different from the general theme of the book.

In Chapter 7 Resilience and continuity in psychological development, Jerome Kagan reviews the way in which the idea that early experiences impact on later has been supported both by Freud and the behaviourists and appeared to be supported by Harlow et al. (1966). But, as the examples of Koluchová (1972), studies with Guatemalan children, Tizard and Rees (1974) and animal studies such as Novak and Harlow (1975), which involved severe deprivation, and Hess (1972) showed, severe effects are reversible and no longitudinal studies have ever supported the long-term impact of early experience.

In Chapter 8 Children of the Crèche: conclusions and implications, Wayne Dennis (1973) reviews the results of his studies of the work of Crèche, a Lebanese social agency; initially all the children had stayed in institutional care and the boys tended to fare better. However, after adoption was introduced in 1956, children adopted before the age of two saw gains to a normal level whereas those adopted after two saw gains but always stayed the same amount behind other children. He claims that other studies support his conclusion that the institution was responsible for the deficits in older adopted children and argues that the girls were more deprived than the boys which was why the boys did better than the girls in institutions. He concludes that children should always be placed for adoption before two.

In Chapter 9 A comparison of the effects of adoption, restoration to the natural mother, and continued institutionalization on the cognitive development of four-year-old children, Barbara Tizard and Judith Rees (1974) summarise the existing literature and describe their study of the development of children placed in nurseries run by voluntary organisations who were later adopted, restored or remained in institutional care. (Further study of the children was published in Tizard (1977)).

In Chapter 10 Parent-child separation: psychological effects on the children, Michael Rutter (1971) recalls the remark by Margaret Mead (1954) that “the campaign on the evils of mother-child separation is just another attempt by men to shackle women to the home” before introducing his epidemiological approach based on a study of nine- to twelve-year-olds in families from the Isle of Wight and London in which one or both parents were in psychiatric care. In summary, on its own

  • a short term separation may lead to short term disturbance;
  • being a working mother has no adverse effects;
  • a transient separation produces greater distress if it involves both parents but anti-social behaviour in these situations relates to marital discord and not to the separation;
  • a permanent separation by death may lead to a very slight rise in delinquency but where divorce/separation is involved it may lead to nearly double the amount of delinquency.

Indeed, delinquency is more common in unhappy unbroken homes than in happy broken homes (McCord and McCord, 1959). However, the association of delinquency with separation by death may be associated with the grief of the other parent or the reduced economic state of the family after a parental death.

Where a child moves from one unhappy family via divorce to another unhappy family, the risk of childhood disorder doubles; also the longer the disharmony lasts, the greater the risk to the child. But if a child moves from an unhappy family to any family that is less unhappy, the risk halves compared with two unhappy families in succession. Also a good relationship with one parent can mitigate, but not remove, the effects of marital discord which in general leads to anti-social behaviour.

He then summarises the results of a number of studies which show that anti-social behaviour is more likely to be associated with the child’s environment including the ways in which others interacted with them in their environment and concludes with an addendum summarising the results published in Quinton and Rutter (1976).

In Chapter 11 Adopting older children: summary and conclusions, Alfred Kadushin (1970) sets out his conclusions from his study of 150 children adopted between the years of five and twelve between 1952 and 1962. The children had mostly been from larger families, in social deprivation and with marital conflict. Positive outcomes were associated with

  • acceptance of the child as a member of the family,
  • no negative associations around adoption.

As the children had turned out to be more normal and less maladjusted than the original home circumstances would have suggested, he summarises other studies of recovery from early adverse circumstances and notes that neurotic children frequently become well adjusted adults and that there is no direct relationship between childhood diagnosis and adult prognosis.

Maybe the children have not reached their full potential and maybe deprivation can lead to maladjustment but certainly not in every case. So people need to get away from the overemphasis on the past and look at the impact of children’s current environments on their development.

In Chapter 12 Some contrived experiments, Ann and Alan Clarke introduce a number of studies which sought to manipulate a child’s environment, including the succeeding chapters and Skeels (1966) and Kirk (1958) who had found that, while the experimental groups made gains, the community contrast group caught up later and ceasing the intervention ended its impact.

In Chapter 13 The early training project: a seventh year report, Susan Gray and Rupert Klaus (1970) report on the results of programmes to reverse the decline in attainments of children from low income families. These show a sharp increase following intervention, less thereafter and a decline after the end of the programme. Overall, the children’s performance related to their school experience rather than to the intervention.

In Chapter 14 Is early intervention effective? Facts and principles of early intervention: a summary, Urie Bronfenbrenner (1974) reports that early intervention leads to greater cognitive gains in the first year if the intervention is cognitively structured rather than a play programme but the gains decline from the second year with the most deprived benefiting least and the child’s home significant in whether the child benefits.

Summarising a number of studies, he concludes that

  • no severely disadvantaged child cannot be helped;
  • a change in the environment produces the greatest and longest changes;
  • children need a one-to-one relationship in verbal interaction;

and he sets out his prescription for a family-centred, ecological approach to child development.

In Chapter 15 Overview and implications, Ann and Alan Clarke summarise all the studies and argue that the research has disproved the arguments that:

  • children need a continuing relationship with their mothers;
  • temporary separation leads to later problems;
  • institutionalisation leads to later problems;
  • later adoption is unsuccessful;
  • there are critical periods for development in a child’s life;
  • compensatory education has long term effects;

and conclude that the early years have been overemphasised and that we must emphasise a child’s development at all ages and stages.


It is perhaps difficult for people who were not around in the 1970s to realise how ground-breaking this book was. The 1969 Children and Young Persons Act had been based on the premise that delinquency is a consequence of deprivation and therefore that attention should be focused on the causes of deprivation rather than on the causes of delinquency. But the main causes of delinquency are environmental, in particular the family environment where delinquency is strongly associated with marital discord and the lack of a positive relationship between at least one parent and the child (Rutter, 1971). More recently, Farrington and Painter (2004), in a longitudinal study, have shown that family factors are the most significant for boys who become criminals.

The 1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act had only just brought children with severe learning disabilities back into the education sector, thanks in part to the efforts of Ann and Alan Clarke, after their exclusion through the 1914 Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act. The idea that providing a stimulating environment would enable them to make gains in IQ and social skills was new and, in some respects, unexpected, because the prevailing view was that IQ declined after 26 and so there was no point in developing the IQs of people with learning disabilities as they would decline again anyway. We now know that IQ continues to increase naturally, for most people until their sixties and for some into their eighties (Schaie and Willis, 2001). But this was all in the future.

Social work was also in retreat as criticisms of the effectiveness of welfare programmes under the Johnson administration in the US had spilled over into criticism of social work effectiveness and social workers were being urged to concentrate on work that was brief (Reid and Shyne, 1969) or highly focused (Reid and Epstein, 1972) which could be more easily measured. Yet, as Kadushin (1970) had shown, the benefits of a successful adoption placement might not be entirely clear until several years later as the adoptive child continued to make gains in a positive environment.

The Department of Health and Social Security was building secure units as a short-term response to children who were perceived as problems for the system but the problem was not the children but the system (Cawson and Martell, 1979; Blumenthal, 1985), which was failing to provide environments in which children could develop. Unfortunately, governments have continued to see short term initiatives such as secure treatment centres (Hagell et al., 2000) rather than the provision of child-friendly environments for children throughout their lives as the ‘solution’ to child care problems.

By this time James and Joyce Robertson (1971) had parted company with Bowlby and demonstrated the benefits of a good environment for children in brief separation but it was assumed that this would be an adoptive or foster home (Rowe and Lambert, 1973) for children in long term care. The idea that child care should take an ‘ecological’ approach was picked up by Vander Ven (1981) but has never really been developed, perhaps because, as Tizard (1977) found, it is easier to blame the child’s previous environment when there are problems than to set about changing their current one.

It is also important to say that the idea that ‘no child cannot be helped’ does not mean that every environment can take every child – an idea often promoted by managers to justify inappropriate placements. It means that it is possible to create an environment which will suit the developmental needs of every child and one must admire the courage of the Czechs in placing the twins with two unmarried sisters (Koluchová, 1972) after they had been abused by their stepmother. Yet they had assessed this as the most appropriate environment for the twins and they were proved right.


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