What Schools Need to Know About the ‘Science of Adversity’

Yesterday we published the first half of our conversation with Dr. Pamela Cantor, President and CEO of Turnaround for Children on the topic: “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?

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.

Background: Dr. Cantor 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.

Chris Riback discussed more specifically how the program works — and how it integrates with schools on a recent episode of Working Capital Conversations:

Chris Riback: You mentioned this in terms of the scaffolding, in terms of the outcomes for charter kids, but more generally … connecting the science, the design, and what I assume is the ultimate purpose of education and growing children, which is to enable fully functioning as excellent as one can be reaching one’s human potential adults. How do you translate your work for a professional audience? Can your findings be applied to the workplace?

Pamela Cantor: One of the things that was seminal to Turnaround’s history was the creation of a paper describing a framework called the Building Blocks for Learning. A team of us at Turnaround asked the question, Is there a pathway by which any child, independent of their start in life, could become a productive and engaged learner? And we read a really big scientific literature across diverse fields not actually intending to design a framework, but a framework fell out of the literature. And by framework what I mean is a set of skills that have a certain sequence to them.

So if you think about the way that you learn math or the way that you learn English, you build up from the bottom in building blocks, and the skills that are acquired become increasingly complex. Well, similarly, the ability to have the skills that we want to see in kids, for work or for school, are skills like curiosity, self-direction, tenacity, agency. If you were to ask any employer what skills do you want to have in the people that you employ, those are the skills that they would name.

But the thing about those skills is that they don’t just emerge [inaudible 00:28:25] like suddenly you’re born and you can do long division. It’s just not how it happens. What happens is that there are foundational skills, like self-regulation, executive function, growth mindset. These are prerequisite building blocks skills for those higher order skills that we want all kids to have, and right now, we don’t have an education system that intentionally develops those skills. So imagine if you come to school and you don’t have even development of those skills, and here’s the thing, children exposed adversity and stress often have uneven development of those skills, because the part of the brain in which those skills develop is highly sensitive to the hormone cortisol and the experience of stress. So when children don’t build those foundational skills or have help to build them, they also are at greater risk not to develop the higher order skills that we want all kids to have, like perseverance, agency, self-direction.

So, what we’re advocating for and what our practice is involved with, is actually developing integrated tools that support the development of those skills in regular classrooms, whether those are public district classrooms or charter classrooms. But our big ambition is the 21st century education incorporate the development of these kinds of skills and competencies as a regular part of public education.

Chris Riback: Otherwise we just risk a vicious circle, is what’s going through my mind. What you’re describing, if a kid comes in, doesn’t have a chance to build those skills, goes through an adverse event. The cortisol negatively impacts that part of the brain in particular, further pushing it down. It’s just a vicious circle where not only as a child not having the opportunity because of the framework or the design to build those skills, but also isn’t understanding or there’s isn’t understanding around her on how to combat the science. It just … it feels like a vicious, the potential for a vicious circle.

Pamela Cantor: And the vicious circle also includes the fact that every year that a child is in school, the academic demands on that child increase. So let’s say that you enter kindergarten with uneven development of foundational skills and then you apply greater and greater academic demands to that child. What will happen? They begin to disengage. They feel dumb. They feel like they cannot be a student or can’t be successful in school.

And so when you look at the achievement gap, or you look at who drops out by the eighth grade or who doesn’t master algebra, all of which are indicators of later school failure, these things are directly attributable to children having these kinds of skills and competencies to engage fully in learning.

Chris Riback: So how does Turnaround get integrated with the school? And once integrated, how do you work with the school?

Pamela Cantor: Our organization has been fortunate to have some very wonderful school partners. And with those partners, we function as a kind of R&D organization, because we have been, since our founding, wanting to develop practices, initially to get underneath the effects of trauma and adversity on learning and on school challenges overall. But more recently we’re engaged in building tools that support the development of these skills and mindsets that I was talking about a little earlier. So we have close partnerships with schools in which we do this kind of applied science work.

Once we have tools that have been sufficiently tested and are good enough, we think, to work in other settings, we begin to scale them through other systems. So, two examples of those systems would be DCPS, which is the public district in Washington DC and another would be KIPP DC, which is a charter management organization that has 17 schools in DC. And even more recently, we’re working with other platforms like those, but we’re beginning to put our knowledge in tools onto technology platforms like Digital Promise or Edutopia, where they are literally available online, and something that practitioners can download and use.

So we’re looking to expand more and more, in the sense of the people who have access to this knowledge of science and adversity and human development, and to continuously test and refine the work that we do in a core group of partner schools.

Chris Riback: I want to also ask you about something you said earlier, the malleability of the brain. Is that something that stands as a challenge for children and for learning, or is that also potentially an opportunity?

Pamela Cantor: I think understanding the brain’s capacity for malleability is an enormous opportunity, and here’s what I mean by that. We are mammals, and as mammals our brains are not fully formed at birth. In fact, our cortex, which is our thinking feeling and learning brain, actually is formed largely after we’re born. So our brains actually grow in response to the relationships and experiences of our lives, and neural tissue is the most susceptible to change of any tissue in the human body.

So the good news in that is that if we pay attention to the relationships, the experiences of children’s lives, we can shape their development. Malleability is also a reason that children are vulnerable to stress. But I think the optimism in Developmental Science derives directly from the malleability of the human brain.

Chris Riback: And Pam, just to close out, I find myself thinking about your own journey and your path. Do you feel like you’ve had multiple careers? Do you feel like it’s been one connected path and you never would have gotten to where you are now and been thinking about the things you think about now if not but for the training you had in science and the training and practice as a child psychiatrist? When you think about your own journey, how do you trace it?

Pamela Cantor: I think it is one path, but I can’t tell you that I foresaw all that all the parts of it in advance. What I can tell you is that I went to medical school in order to work with children who had experienced trauma, and this process of working with them and seeing children surmount unbelievable things is a source of endless faith and passion that this is possible for kids, so that’s unshakeable.

And then coming into schools post 9/11, and realizing that we had an education system that actually wasn’t designed based on knowledge that I had learned in medical school in the past decade or two, and that that knowledge wasn’t part of education really opened up this giant aspiration, which is to be part of a set of contributions that people are making to think of 21st century education as something that will be based on a knowledge of the developing brain and how children can reach their fullest potential.

So I do see it as one arc, but I didn’t foresee it, if you understand what I mean.

Chris Riback: I understand, and like the rest of us if only you could have foreseen the valleys. You know, the wonderful parts, those are fine coming as surprises. I’m sure that, like anyone else, you had challenges and opportunities.

Pam, thank you. Thank you for your time, and thank you for the work that you do for and with the kids.

Pamela Cantor: Thank you.

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