In the weeks after 9/11, Pamela Cantor, a child psychiatrist specializing in trauma, was enlisted by the New York City Board of Education to lead a team studying the impact of the attacks on the city’s public school children.

What the researchers discovered surprised them. Many children in city schools exhibited symptoms of trauma—but the problems weren’t clearly attributable to 9/11 nor were they clustered near Ground Zero. Such symptoms were, however, concentrated in schools serving the city’s poorest children. And the students’ sense of threat or insecurity stemmed not so much from terrorism as from exposure to violence, inadequate housing, sudden family loss, parents with depression or addictions, and so forth.

“One-fifth of children met criteria for a full-blown psychiatric disorder, and 68 percent of kids had been exposed to a prior trauma sufficient to impair their functioning in school,” said Cantor.

When Cantor visited a public school in Washington Heights, she was struck by how chaotic—and unsafe—it felt. “I asked myself, ‘What is driving what we’re seeing?’ When we unpacked it, we saw that in classrooms where lots of kids are under varying degrees of stress, one child acting out can set off other kids and shut down the learning environment for everyone. If you have numerous children across the school with issues like that, you can produce a hugely negative culture and shut down learning in the building.”

Brains don’t do well under threat. Tweet This Quote

At the time, researchers were gaining deeper understanding into how stress impedes learning. “There’s a whole sequence of neurological, psychological and physiological responses to threats that disrupts higher order cognitive functions,” said C. Cybele Raver, a professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University, who co-leads the school’s Neuroscience and Education Lab. “Brains don’t do well under threat. We knew some of this but we didn’t know it as well as we do now.” (PDF)

We can see its effects nationally. Across the United States, in six of the nation’s nine largest school districts, average graduation rates have fallen below 50 percent. There is a pattern, says Cantor: Low-performing schools tend to share high stress, negative cultures (lots of yelling, punishments and inconsistent responses from adults), students with low readiness to learn who are two to four years behind grade levels, and teachers and staff members who have never been trained for these kinds of challenges.

“The bad news is that environments that are filled with stress will impact development in ways that negatively impact growth—specifically, important readiness skills for learning,” added Cantor. “The good news is we can use this same knowledge to design environments to both correct for that negative impact but more importantly to set development on a healthy course.”

The science about adversity and the developing brain is sobering, but it also offers hope. Brains are malleable. And adults can take specific actions to buffer stress for children and help them develop the self-regulatory skills they need in school and in life. Much of it boils down to creating trusting relationships and encouraging environments.

How do you do this?

Cantor’s contribution was to found an organization called Turnaround for Children, which focuses on helping public schools in high-poverty areas lay a core foundation that will allow for academic growth. The group now works with 15 schools in New York City, Newark and Washington, D.C., and has worked with more than 80 over the past decade.

Turnaround takes a whole-school approach, inviting everyone in the school community to play a role in transforming the school’s culture. That means the principal must have a vision of a different teaching and learning environment, and commit time and resources to building it; teachers need to acquire new skills and tools to manage classrooms in ways that build trust while engaging students in rigorous instruction; and students must come to see school as important to their success in life, and connect that idea to their own actions in the classroom.

All of that is very hard to do. But it can be done.

Take, for example, the experience of Karrie Hylton, who has been a middle school teacher for 12 years. Over the last three, at the Collaborative Arts Middle School (C.A.M.S.) in a high-poverty neighborhood in Springfield Gardens, Queens, she has shifted the way she interacts with her students, and it has radically changed her eighth-grade science classroom. It’s part of a school transformation in partnership with Turnaround.

“My students come into the classroom with a lot of family issues and outside factors,” Hylton said. “In the past, when children were being disruptive, I would think it’s because they just wanted to be disruptive. Now I see a child being disruptive as a child crying out.”

First, she will try to discover what’s behind bad behavior, and help. She may take the student out to a pizza lunch to get to know him or her better. If necessary, she may ask the school’s social worker to observe the child in class.

She has also changed the way she communicates. Rather than calling out students for misbehavior—“Why are you late to class?” or “Why aren’t you doing the work?”—Hylton redirects them toward better behavior: “I expect you to be working on the assignment on page 29, questions three to eight.” She also makes sure the students understand what she expects. “You think they should know, but sometimes they don’t,” she says. “Often they need to be reminded.”

Hylton has also shifted to a cooperative learning approach, using a range of techniques known as Kagan Cooperative Structures. Gone are the rows of desks; students now work in small groups. “Before, with whole class discussions, many students would have no chance to answer a question or give their opinion,” she said. “These structures make it possible for each kid to have equal voice and participation.”

With whole class discussions, many students would have no chance to answer a question or give their opinion. These structures make it possible for each kid to have equal voice and participation. Tweet This Quote

Those changes in individual teaching methods are not the whole story. What makes Turnaround’s work so compelling is how it has broken down its long-term vision of school transformation into processes and chunks that are themselves teachable to educators and administrators. For instance, the program’s social work consultants have experience in helping schools establish systems to identify and promptly assist students with severe emotional or behavioral needs.

Indeed, in Turnaround partner schools, more than 90 percent of students with behavioral needs get connected to appropriate services, typically within three weeks. This is a departure from the norm; research indicates that only about 20 percent of children or adolescents who need mental health care receive it, with unmet need greatest among minorities.

Timeliness is key. When emotional problems are not identified quickly, students fall far behind on schoolwork and their behavior can disrupt the learning of others. Over the past two years, Turnaround’s partner schools have seen suspensions and serious behavioral incidents drop by 50 percent.

The program also provides a full-time instructional coach within each of its partner schools to support teachers one-on-one and in groups. “A big part of what we do is bring consistency of classroom management and culture,” said Jeta Donovan, Turnaround’s coach for C.A.M.S. “If every teacher in the building is taking a positive stance to student behavior, the overall climate of the school changes.”

Timeliness is key. When emotional problems are not identified quickly, students fall far behind on schoolwork and their behavior can disrupt the learning of others. Tweet This Quote

Donovan helps teachers establish rules and procedures, set expectations, and use techniques like “class builders” or “relationship building lunches” to foster trust. She helps teachers practice de-escalating and redirecting negative student behavior by modeling respect, rather than falling back on power. For instance, if a student is not lining up for lunch, a logical consequence is to require the student to take time from lunch to practice lining up, not to threaten to call the student’s mother.

They anticipate problems—like the normal spikes of misbehavior that occur after holiday breaks—and plan strategies for responding to bad behavior without sharp reactions, which can be counterproductive.

“Prior to Turnaround I would just call students out,” said Sheena Mathew, who teaches eighth-grade humanities at C.A.M.S. “Now I realize each child is different. For some, you need non-verbal signals. For some, the best thing is to walk over and give a tap on the shoulder. ‘Are you actively listening now?’ The worst thing you can do to middle school students is shame them. Some students, if you call them out, they may not talk to you for the rest of the year.”

All of this is part of creating a foundation in which learning can occur. “It’s not ‘care about kids and kids will thrive,’ observes Raver, from N.Y.U. “It’s ‘care about kids and structure classroom environments and opportunities for learning in rigorous ways with high expectations’—and kids will thrive.”

Tammy Holloway, the principal at C.A.M.S., sees the work as critical to the school’s mission: “If you’re in a class where you don’t feel safe, where you feel like kids are going to ridicule you, or the teacher is going to respond in an unkind way, it will stop you. You can’t persist in a place that’s unkind and not encouraging, and our kids need to be persistent to succeed.”

Turnaround’s culture-change work is more difficult to evaluate than traditional academic interventions. It can take years to see higher test scores. So the program enlists independent evaluators who use the well-regarded Classroom Assessment Scoring System, developed at the University of Virginia. That system scores the quality of classroom relationships and the emotional and instructional support provided. By this measure, from fall 2012 to spring 2014, the proportion of teachers ranked five or higher (on a scale of one to seven) rose from 27 to 67 percent. “It’s increasingly likely that people on our staff will be successful because they’re receiving support that’s creating classrooms that are both emotionally and physically safe,” said Holloway.

Turnaround focuses on an important terrain within the school reform movement: how to get a struggling school, in Cantor’s words, to “a place where they can make solid use of academic innovation.”

Her vision is not to spread the program far and wide, but to demonstrate that an intentional focus on the so-called “nonacademic” skills is a prerequisite for success, rather than a frill. If successful, she hopes Turnaround’s principles and practices will spread through a variety of platforms and be adopted by districts so they can improve the ways they train and hire staff, as well as assess school and student success.

“Development of nonacademic skills requires the same intentional and rigorous approach we take to any other instruction, like math or literacy,” said Cantor. “Students need modeling, guidance, support and opportunities to apply these skills just as they do with academics.”

“Children’s cognitive, social and emotional development is wired,” she added. “If we set up environment to be rich in relationships it will allow that development to flourish—and with that the expression of the full potential in every child.”

This post first appeared on the New York Times Fixes blog. Join Fixes on Facebook and follow updates on Twitter. To receive e-mail alerts for Fixes columns, sign up here.

David Bornstein

Author David Bornstein

David is co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and writes a column for the New York Times called Fixes with Tina Rosenberg. He is the author of "How to Change the World," and “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” and is co-author of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

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