Dr. Pamela Cantor: Education, Poverty & ‘The Science of Adversity’

Our national education 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, President & CEO of Turnaround for Children, calls “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 my guest calls “The Science of Adversity.”

Dr. Pamela 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.

As background, Dr. Cantor is a Visiting Scholar in Education at Harvard University, a member of the Council of Distinguished Scientists for the National Commission on Social, Emotional & Academic Development, and a leader of the Science of Learning and Development Initiative. An Ashoka Fellow, Dr. Cantor was awarded the 2014 Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Impact.

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.

How does it work? That’s what we discussed….

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.

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.