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Straight Up Conversation: Addressing the Impact of Adversity in the Classroom

By Rick Hess — March 12, 2020 9 min read
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Pamela Cantor is the founder of Turnaround for Children, an organization that translates research from developmental and learning science, adversity science, and mental health into classroom tools and systems. Prior to founding Turnaround, Pamela earned her medical degree from Cornell Medical School and practiced child and adolescent psychiatry for nearly two decades. She is a visiting scholar at Harvard Graduate School of Education and a leader of the Science of Learning and Development Alliance. I recently got the chance to talk with Pamela about Turnaround and about how she thinks incorporating more developmental science in schools can mitigate the impacts of adversity on learning.

Rick: So, what is Turnaround for Children?

Pamela: Turnaround was founded in 2002 around the philosophy that the daily experiences in children’s lives have profound effects on their development and learning. Trauma is one form of experience that disrupts development and learning, because of its effects on the developing brain. Though accepted in the medical field, this knowledge has not yet permeated education. Turnaround is working to close this gap by building the capacities of educators to buffer the negative impacts of adversity and intentionally promote healthy development and learning for every student.

Rick: So how exactly does all this work?

Pam: We provide a suite of integrated resources that is grounded in science and designed to establish the conditions and adult practices that drive learning and growth. We consult for a variety of partners, including districts, charter-management organizations, schools, and teacher-development organizations. This year, we have partners in Washington, D.C.; New York City; the San Francisco Bay Area; Tulsa, Okla.; and Chicago. We also share knowledge and tools through publications, videos, events, our podcast The 180, and through our leadership in the Science of Learning and Development Alliance.

Rick: You’re trained as a psychiatrist, I believe? Can you talk a bit about how your background in psychiatry and your research shapes the work of your organization?

Pamela: I experienced significant trauma myself as a child and went into child psychiatry to learn about how trauma affects the body and mind to help other children who also experienced trauma recover from it. My education in this field taught me that the limbic system—the part of the brain that controls attention, concentration, organization, memory, behavior, and emotion—is exquisitely sensitive to trauma. When a child experiences trauma, it triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that affects the normal development of the limbic system’s structure. When this happens, children struggle to focus, use their working memory, and control their behavior—all critical skills and habits for productive learning. But I also learned that oxytocin—a hormone produced through trusting relationships—is one of the most powerful factors in blocking the effects of cortisol and preventing damage to the developing limbic system. I realized that students could overcome the effects of adversity on learning if learning environments were designed to reduce stress, promote deep relationships, and specifically build those skills that are vulnerable to the effects of stress, such as self-regulation, executive function, and growth mindset—all in combination with rich instructional experiences.

Rick: OK, so you’ve said that your research on New York City in the aughts led you to conclude that many students were more impacted by the effects of growing up in poverty than by witnessing 9/11. Can you talk a bit about what you found in that research?

Pamela: The research team I co-led in the wake of 9/11 found that while 68 percent of the children we observed had experienced trauma sufficient to impair their functioning in school, the source of the trauma was not 9/11, it was their ongoing exposure to adversities of different kinds, such as growing up in poverty, abuse, etc. The greatest concentration of effects and symptoms that showed up in our data were not in the children in the Ground Zero schools as we had expected, they were in the children and schools in communities of deepest poverty.

Rick: So, is this where the idea for Turnaround came from?

Pamela: Exactly—the 9/11 study was a turning point for me personally. I saw many children in schools whose learning was interfered with because of the stress they experienced when reacting to the immediate contexts of their lives. These reactions were activating the biological mechanisms associated with stress, such as cortisol and the limbic system. I saw schools that were trying to do everything they could to improve academics but were doing so without an awareness of the science that explained the behaviors they were seeing in their classrooms or an understanding of the power they had as educators to buffer that stress and harness the potential in all of their students. In fact, the stressful contexts of children’s lives were exerting effects on exactly those parts of the brain that are essential for learning and success in school. So, I founded Turnaround in 2002. Our idea was to figure out how to design tools, practices, and services that could turn ANY school into a powerful, positive developmental force in children’s lives—and that is our goal and mission today.

Rick: How do you incorporate research into the training and materials you provide?

Pamela: Our Vision for School and Student Success framework names the essentials for student success: safe, supportive environments that promote students’ sense of belonging; positive developmental relationships; rich instructional experiences; and integrated skill and mindset development. We have created a suite of tools called the Turnaround for Children Toolbox, which includes professional learning tools, self-assessment tools that help identify gaps in conditions and educator skills, and practice tools that can be used to improve in those areas. One of our district partners referred to the Toolbox as a vital and necessary road map to do everything that will ultimately enhance core pedagogy and enable greater student success.

Rick: OK, so how much does this cost a school or district?

Pamela: It truly depends on the nature of the work with each partner, because Turnaround is not a program. We offer a variety of services tailored to the needs and readiness of a school or school system. These include deep, multiyear partnerships that provide implementation coaching and technical assistance around whole-child development and learner-engagement practices for school leaders, as well as consulting engagements with district and network leaders focused on building organizationwide systems to enable school system transformation. Our partner schools or school networks typically make a fixed annual investment in our tools and services based on the depth and breadth of our engagement. We have charged as little as $5-10K for one-time professional- development sessions and, in other cases, have participated in collaborations driven by multiyear, multimillion-dollar system-level investments. In addition, we rely on philanthropy to provide subsidies to schools or systems that otherwise would not be able to take advantage of our support.

Rick: How effective has your work been? What kinds of evidence do you have at this point as far as impact and outcomes?

Pamela: Since its founding, Turnaround’s purpose has been to analyze and understand the interrelated factors driving persistent academic underperformance, and each chapter in our story has contributed significant learnings. In the early years, our work was primarily focused on the under-recognized role of trauma and building capacities for student support and mental health to ensure students’ needs were met in an appropriate and timely manner. Data was collected from mental-health partners tracking referrals and services provided to individual students, as well as classroom and school-based interventions to benefit groups of students by stabilizing the learning environment. In addition, we tracked reductions in severe behavioral incidents reported to NYSED. Later, we coupled mental-health supports to educator training, supporting school leaders to build multitiered systems of supports and training teachers on best practices for addressing behavioral issues in the classroom. We began to track changes in student and teacher experiences that are the leading indicators of changed student outcomes, as measured by the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). We examined the percentage of schools that increased the number of teachers in the high range and the number of schools with improvement overall from fall to spring. On average, over seven years, approximately 65 percent of schools improved both metrics on Emotional Support and just under 60 percent improved both metrics for Classroom Organization. With our long-term partners, we have also been tracking academic outcomes and see an upward trajectory for all schools.

Rick: What’s an example of a school or system that you’d hold up as an especially successful example of your work?

Pamela: We have a strong partnership with D.C. Public Schools that represents a vertically integrated approach to our work: We work with the chancellor and his leadership team, consult with district-level leaders, work closely with instructional superintendents, train school leaders, and partner with individual schools. We trained every school leader from preschool through 12th grade last summer, reaching more than 600 principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, and teacher leaders. Working with leaders at both the district and school levels has helped to align the district around a vision of student development grounded in an understanding of adversity and its impacts on learning. For example, we have been a longtime partner of Hendley Elementary, a school that had experienced years of challenges that were said to be among the greatest in the district. The school community embraced Turnaround’s approach and was able to create a calm, supportive environment that helped students engage in learning, including the launch of a new STEM program. The school was recently given the DCPS Innovation for Excellence award, which recognizes the improvement efforts that were led by the school. This and other partnerships, such as the one we have with KIPP DC, have enabled collaborative learning and growth that is codified today in our suite of tools.

Rick: Last question. So, it sounds like a lot of this is about retraining teachers and reshaping school cultures. What should teachers be learning during their training and professional development that they’re not currently getting?

Pamela: Much of what we know about developmental science is still not a part of traditional preservice or in-service learning for educators. We are seeing an enormous appetite on the part of educators for knowledge about how children develop and learn and the tools they can use to promote whole-child development and deeper learning in their schools. I believe we are in one of those potentially incredible inflection points, like when antibiotics were discovered in the 1920s and the germ theory was adopted. Just as it changed medicine forever, I believe the knowledge we’ve gained will change how we develop and teach children in school settings.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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