This nonprofit gives schools the support to help kids affected by poverty and trauma
When stress affects a child’s ability to learn, Renewal Awards finalist Turnaround for Children gives teachers the tools to help them thrive
Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.
As a child psychiatrist who specializes in trauma, Pamela Cantor understands how stress affects the developing brain and what it can do to a child’s ability to learn. Through her nonprofit Turnaround for Children, she is helping schools translate the scientific research into tools and strategies they can use to support their most vulnerable students.
We asked Dr. Cantor to tell us about her journey as a practicing physician to an advocate and leader who is helping to change the way we educate our children. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation. Follow Dr. Cantor on Twitter @DrPamelaCantor and learn more about Turnaround for Children on Facebook and Twitter at @Turnaround.
How is Turnaround for Children supporting students?
Turnaround for Children translates neuroscientific research into tools and strategies for schools with high concentrations of students impacted by adversity to accelerate healthy development and academic achievement. We are committed to creating evidence-based tools that work in schools where many children have had traumatic experiences. Beyond that, we are sharing what we learn about how to help children facing adversity with the goal of helping all children thrive. Our vision is that one day all children in the United States will attend schools that prepare them for the lives they choose.
Turnaround has partnered directly with more than 110 schools since our inception. We have staff in 13 schools this year. We work with individual schools, school districts, and charter management organizations through hands-on support, coaching and consulting to school leadership teams and individual teachers, social workers and staff. We are working to determine effective and scalable approaches for sharing our strategies and services with more schools and students.
Turnaround is also a part of field-shaping collaborations including the Science of Learning and Development initiative, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, and New Profit’s America Forward coalition.
Tell us about the community you serve?
This year, Turnaround will serve approximately 5,000 students and 600 adults. The majority of our students are in grades K-8, are growing up in poverty, and are black or Hispanic. Currently, we have partnerships in schools in New York City; Newark, N.J.; and Washington, D.C., where we also work at the district and charter management levels.
I wanted to help schools understand the impact of adversity on learning and to put children on a healthier developmental trajectory.
The students we work with, like students everywhere, walk into schools every morning with a backpack full of experiences, positive and negative. They do not drop that backpack at the schoolhouse door; they carry it with them in the hallways, classrooms, and playground. Children who are experiencing ongoing adversity often have difficulty paying attention and remembering things. They can be triggered easily. This makes it difficult for them to learn. But this is not the end of the story. In fact, the human brain continues to develop into young adulthood with many opportunities for growth along the way. If educators are equipped with the knowledge of how children develop—for good and for bad depending on the environments and relationships they are experiencing—they can become brain builders. With the right tools and strategies, they can guide their students onto a healthy developmental path so they can reach their full potential, no matter their start in life.
How did you come to start Turnaround for Children?
I practiced child psychiatry for nearly two decades, specializing in trauma. I founded Turnaround in 2002 after co-authoring a study on the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City schoolchildren. In high-poverty schools, I saw students traumatized by the circumstances in their lives, teachers struggling to meet the intense needs of their students, and principals unable to build an environment that was physically and emotionally safe or supportive. I recognized that the scientific research on stress and the developing brain that I had learned in medical school should be translated into practices to help children and schools challenged with the effects of unrelenting adversity. I was stunned that this knowledge had not yet made it into schools, was not being taught to teachers, social workers, guidance counselors, and principals. I wanted to help schools understand the impact of adversity on learning and to put children on a healthier developmental trajectory.
In my private practice, I never changed a child’s circumstances or what had happened to them. What I could change was the impact it had on their lives, how they coped, and ultimately how they could surmount adversity. I founded Turnaround on this core insight—the effects of adversity on stress on learning and development—and the belief that we could design a set of practices and interventions to address the pattern of challenges we see in schools.
What inspired you to do this work?
Unfairness to children. Since as far back as I can remember, the idea that all children could not count on fairness in the people that cared for them, could not count on belief in their ability to become their greatest selves, caused an ache that was physical. I couldn’t stand it and had to do something about it. I was primed both personally and professionally to move into this work. I had a turbulent childhood, with parents who were often unable to support me emotionally or academically. At age 15, I learned about the power of psychiatry. During a family vacation, a woman seated next to me on a plane shared her own troubled family experiences and said she had been greatly helped by a therapist. I asked if she could introduce me to him, and she did. That psychiatrist would change the trajectory of my life. He saw my value when I couldn’t. He became my role model and I was moved to follow in his footsteps.
When I saw children in my psychiatric practice, I was never in over my head—I had been trained for what I saw in my office in medical school. This is not how many teachers feel, especially teachers working in schools where many children have had traumatic experiences.
What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?
Turnaround is connecting schools, students, and educators to the science of learning and development, reflecting a convergence of knowledge from a diverse range of scientific disciplines, to put adults in position to meet children’s developmental needs. Our work positively impacts school culture, classroom effectiveness and student skills for learning, helping schools build a positive environment that accelerates student development and academic achievement.
Often by studying illness, you can discover what creates health. Trauma is one of those processes. Studying it actually reveals a lot about what builds healthy development. Understanding how some children recover from trauma, why some children are resilient to stress and others are not, helps us understand how all children can thrive.
What do you love about your community?
The incredible resilience of the educators, administrators, and social workers in the schools Turnaround serves. We are talking about a community of people who are, by nature, learners, who want all children to live safe, successful, and healthy lives. They are committed to equity and understanding and can help us to achieve that.
What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?
All children cannot only surmount trauma but actually thrive, independent of their start in life. The science of learning and development paints a more dynamic and optimistic picture of human development than has ever existed before. Studies show that the expression of our genetic makeup is not fixed at birth; rather, our brain continuously develops from the moment we are born, directly responding to the experiences, relationships and environments we encounter into adulthood. We can mitigate the impact of adversity on learning, put children on a healthier path and help them reach their full potential. The antidote to stress is trust—it is fuel for healthy brain development. When children are in a safe, calm, supportive environment, they are able to learn the skills and mindsets that are requisite for success in school and in life. If schools are designed to prioritize the integration of a safe environment, positive relationships, essential skills and mindsets, and academic rigor, we could unlock the potential in all children.
What leaders inspire you?
I am incredibly inspired by the innovators who have been with me on this journey to ensure that all children have an authentic, equitable opportunity to thrive. The work I have been a part of at Turnaround is one element of a continuum that builds on the work of so many other scientists, researchers, funders, doctors and practitioners. I think of someone like Dr. Nadine Burke Harris at the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. She has written a phenomenal new book, “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity,” that is already doing much to galvanize communities to acknowledge and address the impact that stress and trauma can have on children’s day-to-day lives. And there are many others: people like Todd Rose, Katherine Bradley, Jim Shelton, Sheila Ohlsson Walker, Kim Smith, Ralph Smith—these people have truly been my mentors and collaborators.