Kisha DeSandies Lester: Welcome back to Notes from The Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester.
Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland. And we are your co-hosts.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: Hi Helen, today we're going to talk about helping children through crises. There are certainly a lot of things going on in the world right now.
Helen Westmoreland: Oh my gosh, Kisha, when I think about the level of crisis fatigue, at this point, I'm exhausted. Since 2020, we've been helping our kids manage a pandemic an attack on the US capitol, violent acts of racial injustice, an epidemic of gun violence, and skyrocketing rates of youth mental health issues. Wow, just reading that list has me feeling in crisis.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: Oh yes, Helen. Not only have we been helping our kids navigate these serious issues. As parents, we're also trying to figure out how to process them ourselves.
Helen Westmoreland: That's so true, Kisha. With all these heavy topics in mind, though, I am really relieved and excited to have an expert here with us today that can help us figure out how we can cope and how we can help our children cope. I'm super pleased to introduce Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder and senior science advisor at Turnaround for Children to the show today. Dr. Cantor is a physician, author, and thought leader on human potential, the science of learning and development and educational equity. Dr. Cantor practiced child and adolescent psychiatry for nearly two decades specializing in trauma. Her work has been highlighted in the major news outlets such as The New York Times, LA Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post. Welcome to the show, Dr. Cantor.
Pamela Cantor: Thank you so much, Helen.
Helen Westmoreland: We are so thrilled to have you here. I'd love to just start out with you telling us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to found Turnaround for Children.
Pamela Cantor: Absolutely. When you study child psychiatry, as I did in med school, and then you work with children, you learn a lot about how kids develop, how they learn, but also what gets in their way. Of all of the things I learned the most important, was that the single biggest influence on development and learning, and even the way our genes get expressed is context, the environments, experiences and relationships in our lives. Most people still think that genes direct things, they don't. They're followers. I was a practicing psychiatrist at the time of the 9/11 attacks and like the pandemic, that event dramatically altered the context of all of our lives. I was asked to help lead a study, looking at the effects of 9/11 on New York City's public school kids, and given the magnitude of destruction at Ground Zero, of course, we assumed that the highest rates of symptoms were going to be in the neighborhoods and schools near Ground Zero. But the data told a different story.
The greatest intensity of symptoms were not in Ground Zero, they were in the children and schools in communities of deepest poverty. So I went to visit those schools and when I walked into a first grade classroom where a teacher was trying to help her kids digest, 9/11, she asked them to make a drawing, and a little boy named Thomas showed me his picture. In it there were two small boxes in the background with smoke coming out and larger and in the foreground were two stick figure children with guns pointed at each other. Thomas' drawing carried the message. It said, I am scared of the violence I see in my community. I'm scared to come to school. 9/11 is very far away.
It was the immediate local context of Thomas's life that was producing fear and activating his body's stress response, and that's what produced a turning point for me. I saw an education system trying to figure out how to improve academics and asking the wrong question. And I saw children whose learning was interfered with because of the stressful context of their lives. That's why I founded Turnaround, I wanted to build an organization that recognized that if we narrowly target academics and don't address how children become learners in the first place, and the forces that accelerate or hinder that children just won't be able to do what we're asking of them.
So Turnaround, wanted to be able to turn any school with tools and practices and services into a positive and academic force in a child's life and to this day, this is what Turnaround's mission is dedicated to.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's really great and amazing, and gosh, that's so much research that you have in talking to these children. What does the science of learning say about the lasting impacts of these type of negative experiences?
Pamela Cantor: Well, as was said earlier, there's been no shortage of stress in these last years, and stress is ubiquitous in the lives of children. But this fact makes it so important that we take a more holistic view of learning, of motivation, of resilience, and think about how to be able to support all of these things at the same time. And if I tell you something about our biology, it might help here. So when we experience stress, the hormone cortisol floods our brain and our body, and it produces that feeling that we all get of fight, flight and freeze. We've all had it. Right? It happens. If stress is mild and it's tolerable, then it's adaptive.
It makes us alert and sharp, and it helps us prepare for a performance or a test. But if children have high levels of stress and that stress is not buffered by the presence of a trusted adult, something else can happen. Children can get locked in that feeling where it just won't let up, that stress hormone cortisol can do a lot of damage to a structure in the brain called the limbic system. That is our learning and emotion center, and today we know that adversity doesn't just happen to children. It happens inside their brains and bodies, through the biologic mechanism of stress, but that's not the end of the story. There is a big upside when we turn to another hormone called oxytocin.
This is the hormone that produces feelings of trust, love, attachment, safety, and that's not all, oxytocin, hits the same structures in the brain as cortisol.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: That’s good to know.
Pamela Cantor: That's good to know. Yet oxytocin is the more powerful, which is really good to know because it can literally protect children at the level of the cell from the damaging effects of cortisol. And the other thing that oxytocin does, it stimulates the motivation centers of our brains causing neurons to fire and connect to other neurons. And this is actually a law. It's called HEB's law. Neurons that fire together wire together. And so when we practice, we are actually wiring our brains and it's what makes us able to do complex things like reading, riding a bike, or solving a tough algebra problem. So the idea that relationships are central to how we manage stress, how we feel safe, how we learn and build complex skills. None of this was understood when our education system was designed.
Helen Westmoreland: Yeah.
Pamela Cantor: So can you imagine what learning and schooling would be if we did fully use this knowledge that we have today? That's what my career and life are dedicated to, and as you can tell, it's a passion.
Helen Westmoreland: I'm so glad that you are out there sharing this information and helping our schools rethink the way they're supporting our kids with all of this in mind. And I feel a little hopeful hearing you cuz when you first heard, I was like, Oh gosh, this is hard. But that these crises around us, will not cause permanent damage. There are things we can do to help ourselves, help our children, not just survive, but thrive. So I wanna ask you a little bit more about that, Dr. Cantor.
Pamela Cantor: I wanted to give you some good news, right now. The impact of traumatic experiences is reversable. This is what I want your audience to take in. Now, this might surprise you. We know that the events are not reversible. But what coping and recovery and resilience are all about has to do with the reversibility of the impact of trauma. And so I wanna go a little bit into the biology of all of this, because that's where the answers lie around strategies.
In the pandemic, there was a paradox, we all remember this. To be physically safe, we had to be physically distant, yeah, from some of the most important relationships in our lives. This has been incredibly tough on adolescents. You referred to the youth mental health crisis, and a part of what's driving that, and particularly driving that in this age group. This is an age group for whom social connectedness is one of the most important things. Adolescents have suffered mightily, and they still are, because they missed out on many of the positive relationships and experiences with coaches, with teachers, with mentors that are central to healthy development.
They also came to depend more heavily on social media, which often gave them a distorted reality, giving them the false sense that just about everybody was better off than they were.
Helen Westmoreland:Oh my gosh.
Pamela Cantor: Right. So having said all of that, I don't want you to get the idea that I'm pessimistic, because I'm not. I'm not at all pessimistic about what a time like this could mean for young people. Resilience happens when we start to use new muscles to cope with new experiences that we never expected.
Whether we are an athlete, or a kid having weathered the pandemic. We discover new things about ourselves during trying times. So there are a few specific things that make me optimistic. One is medicine. I practiced as a doctor and I worked with young people every day, and I used to talk to them about their magic muscles, the muscles that they would have because they had surmounted specific and difficult challenges. And I watched them not just get better, I watched them succeed mightily. When you see this up close as I did and as often as I did, nothing can convince you about what's possible for young people if given the relationships, the opportunities and the experiences, and if these experiences are optimized and remember one important and trusting relationship can do it.
Then the other thing that makes me optimistic is the knowledge we have. And to me, one of the most stunning things is how this knowledge could produce a roadmap for unlocking the potential in all of our kids, in all of our learning settings, not just schools, all learning settings. If we use the knowledge we have about the brain, about learning, about development.
So here's the most important thing to take away from this talk the human brain is the structure in the human body that is made up of tissue that is the most susceptible to change from experience of any structure in the human body. In other words, we are malleable to experience and context, environments, experiences, relationships. Context drives our development, how we learn who we become, our performance, and the expression of our genes. So the science tells us that any child can grow, learn and achieve to their fullest potential, no matter their beginnings, no matter the obstacles, if given the relationships, experiences, and opportunities.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's really great that you say that, because as a parent, I'm listening and, I'm thinking about my son in particular who's in first grade and, all the things that he goes through. Besides the news, no major crises or things like that. But we've had other things that have happened, of course, over the pandemic, and one of the things that we do is we talk about superpowers. Cuz he's really into Spider Man, right now. And so my husband really talks about using like his muscles of superpower, his brain is a superpower, and using his brain and learning how to kind of unlock all of the things in his brain. And when you were talking about, the lasting impacts and the stress, a lot of times for children, they don't even know how to express that stress, and so we really try to help him think about like your superpowers, learning how you're still learning and growing and you will just get stronger and stronger like, you know, the superheroes and things like that. So what you're saying is really resonating with me.
Pamela Cantor: You know, Kisha, I have to say that there's something so powerful in the story that you just told.
First of all, the idea that you and your husband spent time noticing the strengths and the assets that your son was bringing to the conversations that you and he were having, and the idea that you found a way to frame coping. With what was going on around him as a potential superpower, which is exactly what it's going to turn out to be. I mean, it is such an important thing now to not have only the worry, worry, worry. But to also be noticing strengths because, you know, if somebody points out something that you are doing really well or some strength that you are bringing, it makes you stronger and it makes you even wanna get stronger.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: I wanted to know just also, you know, what can we do? Like I said, my son hasn't had a lot of like in direct crises, that we couldn't handle. But he hears about things that happen in the world when we had the shooting in, in Uvalde and you know, it's really big for PTA when there's a school, a shooting at school. And that one was really tragic and he heard that there were 18 people that died. He said, You know, they're 18 people in my classroom, mommy. He was in kindergarten at the time and my heart just broke, because I don't know what else he was thinking, but he realized what the news impact was and what the real people impact was.
So what can families do to really help, share with children what's happening in the news or, or what, like the issues of what's happening in current events and also help them manage what they're thinking and feeling about it?
Pamela Cantor: So, there are things that at the start of the pandemic, I was urging parents and educators to focus on, and we actually gave it the name, the three Rs and you've already mentioned some of them, but one of them is routines. It's when bad things happen, there's a tendency to get into an atmosphere of crisis that can feel chaotic to kids and that kind of disorder is disorienting to kids. So holding on to routines, whether those routines are sleep routines, meal routines is a really crucially important thing. Relationships, You know that I put that first and foremost, because that's your oxytocin booster and where relationships happen, you have the antidote in trust to stress, and that helps us build resilience.
So all of these things, when we were kind of locked up at home, the three Rs were a way to think about organizing one's household. And then when we transitioned back to school and I was talking with teachers, same thing. We need to control what we can control. So I think that what is so important, and you referred to it earlier about stress, is that it isn't only the kids who have been experiencing stress. What about us?
Helen Westmoreland:Yeah, the adult, right? . Ok. What should we do? What should we do?
Pamela Cantor: We were under enormous stress too. So it's like they say on airplanes, always tell you to put the oxygen mask on you first, so I have this dear friend and colleague, Sheila Walker, who is a wellness expert and she wrote a bunch of articles for us and I really want the audience to take a look at Turnaround’s 180 blog. It's called back to basics, and Sheila reminds us that the routine of sleep, of exercise, of nutritious food, really, really, really important. But then meditation, lots of talk about meditation, but do you realize, does the audience realize that meditation cleans out the biologic products of stress from the brain.
That's why it is so good, and according to trauma expert Bruce Perry, repetitive movements, any repetitive movements like breathing, walking, they are also meditations. And for a surefire boost of Oxytocin, taking a walk with a friend and being around people who make you feel good, these things have biologic correlations in the brain, so important they can produce something, and there's a book about this called the, Upward Spiral. Activities that we can do that trigger our hormones, oxytocin, and others, and neurotransmitters that are like a natural anti-depressant, anti-anxiety drug.
Helen Westmoreland: That's amazing. I feel like those are some good concrete, strategies that we can use, yes, as adults and also as children. I wanna build on that Dr. Cantor and talk a little bit about, given all of your extensive experience with Turnaround for Children and working in schools, many of our listeners are advocates, not just for their own child, but for all children. What are some of the look fors, to know that a school is doing a good job supporting kids in this healthy development and building these whole child attributes.
What are some look fors and what are some things that parents can do to partner with their child's school, to support their development?
Pamela Cantor: I am so glad that you asked that question. I want every parent who is listening to this podcast to walk into their child's school and ask the teacher or principal, is this a whole child school? Mm. Now they may look at you and they say, what do you mean by a whole child school? Mm-hmm. Then I'd want you to say, I wanna know that my child in this school is safe, loved, known, and learning.
Helen Westmoreland: Ooh that’s good. Safe, loved, known. And learning.
Pamela Cantor: Okay, And those are, those are the markers, the look fors, as to whether something is a whole child school.
I've written books on this subject. I did a playbook on this subject in collaboration with Linda Darling Hammond. There are lots of things that are meant by whole child, but the four things they need to be able to do for kids are those four.
So then, every parent is a partner to a school because every parent is seeing something going on with their kids that might not show up in a classroom. Like, parents might see the earliest signs of stress in a child, like they're not sleeping the way they used to sleep, not eating, intensely moody and I put intense there, because kids are moody on a good day. But I meant moody, that feels changed like something's going on.
Yeah. Or they're having trouble focusing and they say, I can't finish this assignment, Mom. So then a conversation with a teacher might sound something like this. I noticed lately that my daughter is having more difficulty than usual focusing on her homework or that she's getting angry easily or acting out, are you seeing any of these things in class?
Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's important.
Pamela Cantor: It's important because there's information If, if the teacher says, No, we're not seeing this at school, well then that may raise questions like, what are some of the triggers at home? But if it is happening at school, you can ask, are there things going on at school that might be triggering these things? Mm-hmm. So if your child is already seeing a mental health professional or a counselor, then you can encourage communication between that professional and school, because these folks often operate in silos, and it's so important for you as a parent and your child to get consistent recommendations.
So I think the only other thing that I would urge is that even if you've had a good conversation with a teacher, check back give it a week or two, but check back with that teacher and say, Are things getting better? Here's what I'm seeing at home. What are you seeing?
Helen Westmoreland: That's awesome advice.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yeah, that's really great. Dr. Cantor, I was gonna say what you just said was really important. We just had a parent teacher conference with my son's teacher and we were just sharing kind of a little bit about our routine or some things that we were doing, and it really resonated with the teacher cuz she's like, Oh, that's really good, because those are some things that I'm seeing in the classroom. And there were just little things about how he's learning, how he's responding to new concepts and techniques and what we're doing at home. And then she shared what she's doing in the classroom, so we can be on the same page. And I think the checking back in, it's a reminder to me to go back to the teacher probably next weekend to say like, “Hey, how's he doing in those areas?” So thank you for that. How should families decide what level of detail is appropriate to share with their children about some really scary, real world issues?
Pamela Cantor: Kids always, always need to know that above all, you are the person who will tell them the truth. The internet, social media, their peers, not so reliable. You are the person they can trust to hear what's really going on. But that means there does need to be enough detail and you have to calibrate the detail to the age and maturity of your child. The most important thing though, is that very often parents decide not to initiate a conversation about something like a school shooting, because obviously it's going to be upsetting, so they opt not to bring it up, but it's much better to bring it up, than make assumptions about what your child has or hasn't heard, what they do and don't know about. For example, you might try language like this, a very sad thing happened today, and I think you might be hearing about it, but I really wanted you to hear about it from me first. Then maybe you ask, Have you heard about this? But after that question, pause, don't keep talking. Just wait a second and give them a chance to tell you what they've heard or what is most on their mind.
Once they start to talk, everything you say should be guided by the questions they ask, and you're even gonna get hints about the level of detail that they want. But the most important thing is you wanna know what they're most worried about, and you wanna be guided by that. If it's applicable, you could even personalize this a bit. So, if they tell you something and you've actually gone through a similar thing, you could say, you know, I remember a time when I, and then you tell a story. If it's true, don't make up a story. But if it's true, and they will know that it's authentic, that you went through something similar and the feelings that you can remember, and then what it took you to recover from it.
All children need to know that these events, whether they are shootings, wars, racial traumas, they need to know that these things happen. They are unusual. They are not normal, they are terrible.
Kisha DeSandies Lester Right, right.
Pamela Cantor: And here are the big things to remember. Start the conversation, be more of a listener than a talker, be patient, don't probe if children are quiet at first, don't tell them what to feel, stay connected to them. Be real, but be reassuring. Maintain routines. Limit media. We saw this over and over again in 9/11, and then be observant for changes in your kids so that you can know when that stress is beginning to too high a toll.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yeah, that's really, really great. This has just been such an enlightening conversation and helpful. I think parents really need this kind of guidance in how to navigate all of the things that are going on in the world today. And it's, information overload for us, like we talked about before. but, we have to make sure that we protect our children. Right?
Pamela Cantor: We absolutely do.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: So this is great. Yes. So, out of everything that we discussed today, is there one thing that families should walk away doing or knowing from today's episode?
Pamela Cantor: So here's what I'd say, relationships that are filled with trust and safety have the power to relieve stress, promote resilience, build confidence and belief, the kind of belief that can make a child know that they're gonna be okay and even believe something about themselves that they couldn't believe without you in their life.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: Oh, that's awesome. Also wanted to know, what your social media handles are and where listeners can go to learn more about you and your work
Pamela Cantor: The Twitter handle is @ DrPamelaCantor, D R Pamela Cantor.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: To our audience listening, thank you so much for joining us. For more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com, thank you for tuning in and join us next time.