A Deep Dive Into the ‘Science of Adversity’

As we consider the various challenges any nation faces, teaching our children – preparing them with the tools required to be successful, active players in a continually evolving society – is likely one of the most important and hardest.

The challenge is particularly great for children who experience various forms of trauma, including poverty. What’s required – from new insights to teacher training to school design and beyond – to help them succeed?

It turns out, science has something to say about this – something Dr. Pamela Cantor calls “The Science of Adversity.”

Dr. Cantor is President and CEO of Turnaround for Children. She practiced child psychiatry for nearly two decades, specializing in trauma and founded Turnaround after co-authoring a study on the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City schoolchildren. Dr. Cantor recognized that the scientific research on stress and the developing brain that she had learned in medical school should be translated into practices to help children and schools challenged by the effects of unrelenting adversity.

Dr. Cantor started Turnaround to help schools understand the impact of adversity on learning and to put children on a healthier developmental trajectory so they can live the lives they choose. Specifically, Turnaround for Children translates neuroscientific research into tools and strategies for schools serving students impacted by adversity, in order to accelerate healthy development and academic achievement.

Chris Riback recently spoke to Dr. Cantor on Working Capital Conversations:

Chris Riback: Pam, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Pamela Cantor: Thank you so much for having me.

Chris Riback: So let’s get right into it. What is Turnaround for Children? And at a high level, what’s the connection between science and early learning? Because a lot of us come to early learning and may think it’s about access, it’s about cost or money or resources. But you really dive into the connection between science and early learning, so take me through that and Turnaround for Children, broadly please.

Pamela Cantor: Turnaround was founded by me about 16 years ago. And it was founded based on the knowledge of development and the effects of adversity on children’s development. I had been a practicing child psychiatrist and worked for many years with children who had known trauma. And when I first began became aware of our public schools, particularly public schools and high poverty communities, I saw a connection between the children that I had worked with in my practice and the children in our schools, many of whom had been exposed to adversities like the adversity of poverty.

So for me, there was a connection between the ways in which adversity and trauma can derail development and affect learning. And I saw this firsthand as a set of challenges that are presented to teachers and principals every day in our public schools.

Chris Riback: Were you ever a teacher? I mean, you saw this because you were a doctor, I assume, and you were trained in recognizing patterns. You talk a lot about recognizing patterns. Was teaching ever part of your background or you saw this pattern between trauma and learning?

Pamela Cantor: I was never a teacher. When I was in practice as a doctor, independent of the things that had happened to children, they would show up in my office with a pattern of challenges, like being distract-able, being impulsive, having trouble concentrating, or having trouble forming relationships with peers. And then I go to … I sorry, I go to high poverty public schools, and I see a pattern of challenges in those schools.

I see lots of children unready for learning. I see a negative culture, chronic under performance, and I see teachers who are complaining that many of the challenges they’re facing are things that were never part of their training, and they want tools and practices and supports to help them manage these challenges.

Chris Riback: What got you into the school in the first place? Was it because you were working with the children? Did you have a relationship with the local schools? Because it’s that, as an outsider looking at your career and the impact that that Turnaround for Children makes. It’s that connection, you are seeing children I assume in private practice I think. Please correct me if I have that wrong. If it was a different type of practice, and you made that connection between what was going on in their lives and what was going on in the schools. What brought you into the school in the first place?

Pamela Cantor: The connection were the events surrounding 9/11. I was known in the city for my work on trauma and was invited by the New York City DOE to participate and guide a study answering the question: What was the effect of 9/11 on New York City’s public school children? We did it in collaboration with the Mailman School of Public Health, and the data coming out of that study was really stunning for the fact that the children that were most deeply affected from 9/11 were actually not in the Ground Zero schools, they were in schools in the communities of deepest poverty.

So, when I went to visit those schools with the background that I had in trauma, I saw the challenges in a different way than many educators did. I saw lots of children having many of the same challenges as I had seen in my office. But it wasn’t spoken about as a pattern of challenges. I think that when Turnaround was founded it was founded on the core insight that children exposed to adversities of different kinds are going to have effects on their development and learning. Effects that can be surmounted if we recognize them, for sure. Just as had happened in my office with the kids that I worked with, but it needed to be recognized and that’s what we did in founding Turnaround.

Chris Riback: And then significantly in talking with the teacher among their concerns, I guess, to you or maybe to others you heard about it. But one of the things she realized was they did not feel that they were trained. It wasn’t part of their training to manage through children dealing with adverse events, children dealing with trauma and connecting that to learning. Is that right? Am I interpreting that correctly?

Pamela Cantor: Yes. And I think that it is important, in a kind of overarching way, to understand that our 20th century education system was actually not built with a knowledge of the developing brain. So people who are trained as teachers typically don’t get a lot of coursework on development on the neuroscience of learning. This body of knowledge is relatively new and has not been a shaper of education at the higher ed level. Of course, it needs to be, but historically it hasn’t been.

Chris Riback: So talk to me about that, if you would, please. What is the science of adversity?

Pamela Cantor: When we speak about the science of adversity, we’re actually talking about the role of context in children’s lives. And what I mean by context is that children are affected dramatically by the environments and experiences and relationships in their lives. Now that sounds like a no brainer. It sounds like common sense, but let me go one level deeper and explain what I mean by this.

An example of negative context is stress. So, when children experience high levels of stress, especially when that stress is not buffered by an adult that enables a child to feel safe, a system in the body gets triggered called The HPA system. The hypothalamic pituitary access. That system gets triggered, cortisol gets released, it gets released into the brain and body, and it has very dramatic effects on children, which, if un-buffered, can actually significantly affect the learning centers of the brain and also children’s health. This is why we see increased levels of challenges to learning and challenges to health in high poverty communities and high poverty schools.

By the same token, an example of positive context is the human relationship and it too has a biologic correlate in the hormone oxytocin. So when children are in environments in which they feel physically and emotionally safe and cared for, you can trigger the release of oxytocin and you can mitigate the effects of cortisol. So when we think about resilience, what we’re really talking about is the impact of buffering, the impact of caring, and the impact of a neuro-biologic hormone that can oppose the effects of cortisol.

So the science of adversity is the science of stress, it’s the impact of stress on development and learning.

Chris Riback: How do teachers, and I imagine parents as well, all of us know that feeling-

Pamela Cantor: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Fight or flight.

Chris Riback: And the one I’m thinking of as well, is you’re only as happy as your least happy child. And so the stress for any parent and seeing one’s own child, and a teacher of seeing a child struggle to then hear the biology, the science. I guess I don’t know if that’s the biology the combination of the biology and the chemistry behind it, must be really powerful for teachers and for … how did they react when it gets explained to them and then maybe they see a path towards beyond recovery but a path towards normalcy and maybe a path towards excellence? How do they how do they feel when that gets revealed to them?

Pamela Cantor: Actually this is one of the most interesting things that we’ve seen at Turnaround. When teachers learn about the role of stress and the kinds of things that stress causes in children’s lives, there’s a feeling of validation. This explains something that I’m seeing in my classroom. This explains why Johnny is having trouble, and it makes them understand what the triggers are for the behavior that they’re seeing. And by understanding the triggers, it points the way for teachers to actually, in a very knowing way, be helpful to a child.

But the other side of this is even more important, because one of the things that teachers get very excited about is the power that they have to influence the trajectory of a child’s life. So, if we know that tissue in the brain is literally the most susceptible to change from experience of any tissue in the human body, what this means is that a negative context can be turned into a positive developmental experience if we know what to do so.

So there is tremendous optimism in Developmental Science, but there is a reality to understanding what stress does to children. So what’s exciting for teachers is to be able to see this entire arc. The first part of which explains what’s going on in the classroom in a way that they can understand, and then to understand the power they have to bring about a different result with the child.

And when they practice those tools and practice those practices and see the positive effects it’s reinforcing for the teacher. And of course, it’s very positive for the child.

Chris Riback: I would imagine. It must … I don’t know if it removes the … I think it does, it must remove the myth of the lost child. Of gosh, I’ve got 20 terrific kids. But Johnny is lost and I just, I’m not going to be able to recover Johnny because that he’s just a lost child, and the teacher must struggle with that and deal with and mitigate. But this kind of removes … remove might be too strong, but it certainly addresses the myth of the last child, I would think.

Pamela Cantor: There are many myths that are destroyed by the things that I’m talking to you about, now. An example of another myth is the notion of fixed traits.

Chris Riback: What is that?

Pamela Cantor: Okay, you are smart, you are intelligent, and you are not. Okay? Many, many people think that genes are the determinants of traits like intelligence, but in fact, what we know is that genes are chemical followers. That phrase, genes are chemical followers, that the expression of our genetic makeup is a function of the experiences and relationships in our lives.

If I were to tell you that you have 25,000 genes in your genome, and less than 10% of those genes are going to be expressed in your lifetime. What do we think determines which 10% get expressed? What gets expressed is driven by the relationships and experiences in our lives. And if we take that fact and say what does this mean for the preparation of a teacher? What does this mean for parenting? What does this mean for the design of a classroom or the design of a school? The science is optimistic for what that means because of the malleability of the brain.

Chris Riback: And so, by those experiences, certain genes can, I assume positive … on the basis of positive experiences positive, I’m assuming you please correct me on the science, obviously. I’m assuming positive genes can be brought out the 10% that get expressed can be more strongly populated by “positive genes” based on the can be brought out through positive experiences, am I kind of interpreting that correctly?

Pamela Cantor: I would say that the latent talent and potential that exists in all of us will be brought out in environments designed to do that. So, one of the questions Chris and I often get asked was the question of well does that mean anybody can be a Mozart? The answer is No. Everybody can’t be a Mozart, and that is a gift, and a genetic gift. But what I would tell you is that if we have schools designed to unleash potential, we will find many more Mozart’s.

Chris Riback: So let me ask you about that, you’ve used the phrase twice now in a row and it’s an important point one of your core points. The design. What is that? What does that mean? Design of school, design of education. Describe what that means for me.

Pamela Cantor: By design what I mean are classrooms that are designed to enable very rich relationships between adults and students, and students with each other. I mean classrooms that have a rigorous and challenging curriculum, that can be delivered in highly personalized ways, so that the diverse learners can be in a classroom and progress, and that children can progress at their own pace, because that is what development says, that children develop at different rates, and our classrooms, if not designed for that fact will be designed toward an average, as opposed to designed for an individual.

We know that we want classrooms to be culturally competent. We want them to be physically and emotionally safe, and we want classrooms in which children can discover their own voice in their own agency. So, you can imagine that that traditional picture of a classroom, of kids sitting in rows silent while a teacher talks is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about classrooms designed for productive learning, for collaborative learning and problem solving, and where teachers play a role as a mentor and guide. And where we use one of the things that we didn’t have 20 and 30 and 40 years ago, which is the access to digital technologies, which enable the kind of personalization of content that our classrooms really need to have and in this 21st century.

Chris Riback: Can this approach impact public schools? You don’t need me to tell you, there are some really significant public policy questions beyond underway, and a lot of questions about private, about charter, about the different approaches to education. And some would say there are attempts at a … dismantling might be too strong of a word, but certainly attacks on the public school system.

Can what you’re talking about impact a public school situation? How hard is that? People think about bureaucracy around public schools. How do you work in that area?

Pamela Cantor: Sure. One of the things, when you just asked me the question about design, that I hope came through is that I listed a number of things that need to be integrated to produce a 21st century classroom. It isn’t just one thing, and one of the things that I think has really hindered education progress, unlike frankly in my former field, science and medicine … In science in medicine you never think that you can only do one thing and make a child well, so analogously in education, we can’t just do one thing and think that we are going to give a rich education to all of the children who absolutely deserve it.

So, there have been experiments, and the charter sector I think was a really, really important experiment where the positives are that environments were created and designed to demonstrate that the myth that poverty or race or any of these ecological factors should stand in the way of children being able to have an excellent education and demonstrate academic competencies.

The charter sector also, I think, has to examine another side of the argument, and that is that many kids who come out of these very heavily scaffolded environments often don’t have as much success when they move out of those environments, meaning the skills and competence, competencies that they’ve acquired, aren’t transferable to other environments. So if I’m a charter operator that’s one of the problems that needs to be solved, and it’s an important question about how do we scaffold to the point where children internalize competencies?

But you asked a different question which is, is this harder to do in our regular public education system? The answer is, it is.

It is much more difficult in the regular public education system, because education policy has a political aspect to it. There are rigid structures in place and the vertical alignment of those systems that determine everything from what a teacher is taught, what they are held accountable for. That freedom that I was talking about to design a classroom and design a school is much less present in the public education system.

Having said that, there are states and districts, an example would be Rhode Island, that is taking on this idea of a new design for 21st century schools. Utah has done this, as well. And there are many districts across the country that are looking for how to use science, meaning developmental science and learning science and develop an approach to hold child personalization of learning, meaning to develop the whole person.

But it is going to require something that is, as they say, top down and bottom up. You need a force on the ground that is willing to do this kind of design work, and build schools and classrooms based on the criteria that I talked about before, but you have to have a supportive structure from above either at the district level or at the state level to do this in the public system. And you were right to allude to supportive policies, that’s a very important aspect of this, too.

Chris Riback: Well, you’ll forgive me but I feel like I’m talking with a force on the ground, right here. I guess there surely must be others, but I think I can find one if we want to start there.

Pamela Cantor: Thank you for saying that.

In Part 2, Dr. Cantor discusses more specifically how the program works — and how it integrates with schools. 


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