Overcoming Childhood Adversity: A Conversation with Pamela Cantor
Helping children reach their full potential is central to discussions around poverty and opportunity. And for over fifteen years, the nonprofit Turnaround for Children has been at the forefront of raising awareness around the challenges students face (particularly in high-poverty districts) and in building and promoting scalable approaches to address these challenges. Spotlight recently spoke with Turnaround for Children’s President and CEO, Pamela Cantor, M.D., about the organization’s work, the science behind childhood development, and the best strategies for helping children succeed.
How did you develop this focus on adversity and the impacts it can have on children?
I was a practicing child psychiatrist and had been working with children who had known a great deal of trauma. My practice with kids spanned about twenty years and what was notable was that children coming into my office were dealing with a consistent set of issues: distractibility, inattention, behavioral problems, and trouble with relationships. These problems were the same regardless of the original source and severity of the childhood trauma.
Then, in the post-9/11 era, I was asked by the New York City Department of Education to look into the impact of 9/11 on public schoolchildren in New York City. We did a big epidemiological study and one of the most striking findings was that the kids who were having the largest problems weren’t the ones near Ground Zero, they were the ones living in neighborhoods of deepest poverty. When I examined some of the schools in those neighborhoods, they were experiencing challenges that were very similar to the challenges of the children who came into my office—kids unready for learning, behavioral disruption, etc. The core insight was the impact of adversity on learning and development and how that looks firsthand in schools.
What are some of the strategies for addressing these challenges that Turnaround advocates?
We emphasize an aggressive approach to building capacity in schools to get services to kids who need them. And we couple this with leader and teacher trainings. We help teachers find solutions to problems that aren’t just sending students to the principal’s office or suspending them. We want to give teachers the tools they need and create conditions in the classroom that enable children to become engaged in learning and develop the skills and competencies to be successful academically and in life.
Can you give an example of what this looks like in practice?
I’ll give you one at the individual-level and one at the classroom level.
We teach a practice called 2 x 10. A teacher will take a struggling student and for two minutes every day for ten days will have a private conversation about anything that student wants to talk about. It’s not used as a reward or punishment. It’s two minutes a day talking about something on that child’s mind. There is compelling research on the benefits of this very basic practice. It connects teachers and students and it builds a bond that generalizes to other productive behaviors that students can embrace.
A second classroom practice is not having kids sitting in rows and being asked to be quiet and listen for long periods of time. Instead, you put children in tables of four and give them projects to work on together that involve everyone talking and problem solving. That frees the teacher to walk around and provide individualized support. These aren’t hard ideas to implement and they have very big benefits.
What institutions does Turnaround work with?
We are engaged all over the country in different ways. We have direct relationships with three school districts: New York City, Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. We also have partnerships with charter school operator Summit Public Schools and KIPP DC and we are beginning to partner with technology platforms like Digital Promise and George Lucas’s Edutopia. We are trying to find different ways to scale what we are learning to different audiences.
What are some of your current priorities and areas of focus?
We are heavily involved in a collaborative effort called the Science of Learning and Development initiative. The initiative Is establishing a scientific consensus around a convergent literature which can serve as a guide for the design of a 21st education system. The first part of this was synthesizing current research which we did in two papers that were published in Applied Developmental Science earlier this year.
We want to take what was in those papers and work with practitioners to design practices based on the research. In a 21st century education system we need students with a very different set of skills than what was needed in the 20th century. They need skills like self-direction, tenacity, and perseverance. This collaboration is now building out an R&D effort focused on many of the same types of innovations that Turnaround does on a much smaller scale. Our hope through this initiative is to build a network of states that are adopting these new, innovative evidence-based strategies into policy.
Are there some surprising findings in this research?
You’ll have to tell me whether what I am about to tell you is surprising. We have around 25,000 genes in our genome and in our lifetime fewer than ten percent get expressed. The factors that determine which genes get expressed are not fixed at birth. What science tells us very clearly is the relationships and experiences of children’s lives have a significant impact on brain development.
The brain is malleable: in fact brain tissue is the most susceptible to change of any tissue in the human body. The science overwhelmingly indicates that if we build enriched experiences and learning environments for kids we will unleash the potential that exists in them.
When people hear this they often ask, “Does that mean anyone could be a Mozart?” No. But it does mean we have classrooms today where if there were a Mozart he or she would not be noticed.
The importance of relationships seems to keep coming up both in the work of Turnaround and the research you just described.
Yes, the science is quite clear about the ways in which relationships can counterbalance stress and adversity. Stress produces the hormone cortisol which triggers the fight or flight response. And kids who have a great deal of adversity experience that response a lot. That’s one of the things that interferes with their ability to concentrate. By contrast, positive developmental relationships release oxytocin, which opposes the effects of cortisol. So when we are trying to understand why some children are resilient, there is a neurobiological correlate to relationships that explains how adults can buffer stress for children, and more importantly, how they can nurture development.
Are relationships with teachers and other adults enough to counterbalance an especially stressful home environment?
We have all read stories of kids who seem to have surmounted incredible challenges. What these stories have in common is there is always somebody who saw the pearl in the oyster, who saw the potential when the child couldn’t, and the rest of the world couldn’t. We know if we create these kinds of positive experiences for kids we’ll increase the number of kids who are able to overcome challenging circumstances. In the case of extreme exposure to neglect or violence, it might be difficult for a positive school or afterschool experience to mitigate that type of severe trauma on its own, but coupling those experiences with an individual intervention, such as a therapy, could change the trajectory of that child’s life.
Do you think this science offers a chance to get beyond partisan divides to find common ground?
Yes, and I think the science also validates the experience that many teachers and leaders have in schools. And knowing the “why” behind an idea, such as why physically and emotionally safe environments and trusting relationships are key to healthy child development, is often a powerful motivator in changing practice. One of the key things to be done is to make the science accessible to spur changes in belief and practice.
But of course, when people are strongly predisposed to a set of beliefs, like the idea that intelligence is inherited as opposed to brain development being malleable, it’s hard to change these beliefs. But that is a reductionist narrative and one we know today is not supported in the scientific literature.
It is time to change the narrative about what is possible here. Everything about the science is optimistic about what is possible to enable all children to thrive.
Pamela Cantor, M.D., is President and CEO of Turnaround for Children.