The 3R’s—Relationships, Routines, Resilience: A Conversation with Pamela Cantor, M.D.


Hear from Pamela Cantor, M.D., Founder and Senior Science Advisor for Turnaround for Children, as she discusses the critical resources and tools needed to aid students’ social and emotional well-being during the ongoing COVID pandemic.

Q: The lessons from the science of learning and development are inherently hopeful. What are the strengths that young people and their communities are bringing to this crisis?

Each child has tremendous strength and potential. We are all born with approximately 20,000 genes in our genome. But, over the course of our lifetimes, only 10% of those genes get the chance to be expressed. The genes that get expressed are situationally determined, affected by the relationships, experiences and environments in our lives. Our job as adults is to design the contexts – both inside and outside of school – that reveal each child’s genetic potential, especially during this crisis.

Even at a young age, children demonstrate amazing creativity, compassion, humor, intelligence, resourcefulness, and problem-solving skills. Children historically have managed to survive and thrive in the face of war, famine, natural disasters, and now, the COVID pandemic. We see children every day in this country, growing up in the most difficult circumstances, looking after older relatives and younger siblings, translating for their parents, getting themselves to school and part-time jobs, and often without a healthy meal or an extra dollar in their pockets. These children, and many of their families, often demonstrate incredible resilience in the face of huge systemic, social and financial obstacles. That is true of this pandemic as well, although underlying disparities in access to good healthcare, nutrition and job protections have made low-income communities of color particularly vulnerable to infection and to the ravages of COVID-19 disease.

These individual and community strengths are not always, unfortunately, well appreciated in our education system nor well translated into resilience to academic challenges, such as tackling a complex word problem or analytical essay. That’s because when children grow up with a lot of adversity and stress, this can impede the development of the essential skills and mindsets common among all successful learners, such as self-regulation and executive function skills.

However, this is not the end of the story. The brain is malleable into early adulthood and its tissue is the most susceptible to change of any tissue in the human body. This means we have opportunities throughout a child’s life, to design the contexts to reveal what a child is capable of and desires to contribute to the world. We just have to make doing this a priority in our education system and in every setting where children are growing up.

Q: What’s one piece of concrete advice drawing from the science of learning and development that you would elevate for every educator or other adult supporting young people?

The human relationship is the most powerful buffer we have against the effects of stress and we all need it; ‘we’ are inclusive, referring to adults and kids. The neurobiological story is simple: the brain is malleable. A brain under stress is shut down, it can’t focus and concentrate, has little working memory, and is easily triggered by emotions. For example, the way our brains are wired entails our emotions to drive our cognitive and learning skills. Thus, it is our emotions that engage us or shut us down. So today, in the time of COVID-19, we have NO choice. The path to a calm classroom is a calm brain, the path to learning is a calm brain, and the path to both depends on prioritizing activities that build strong relationships, establish routines, and build resilience.

At Turnaround for Children, we call these the 3R’s—Relationships, Routines, Resilience—the 3 non-negotiables for healthy development, learning and managing stress.

Priority #1 Build and Maintain Strong Relationships

Relationships are the “active ingredient” in the learning environment because they are the way trust is built. The trust/love hormone oxytocin is released, and the limbic system is then activated. In fact, trust is the antidote to stress and relationships are the medium through which we experience trust.

Activities that are oxytocin boosters including things like:

  • Advisories with teachers so students stay connected to their teachers

  • Having regular family meals that you cook together, let kids lead on the menu or even the cooking

  • incorporating cooking projects, games of all kinds, family meetings to answer questions, mentoring between older and younger siblings during lessons and homework, and face time or zoom calls to relatives, friends and neighbors who may be alone

  • Exercising together at least 30 min a day, running, walking, dancing, all rhythmic activities calm the brain

  • Helping others in need—promotes the release of neurochemicals that boost the immune system

  • Expressing gratitude, another immune system booster

Priority #2 Build Strong Routines

The brain is a prediction machine that loves order. The brain is calm when things are orderly, and it knows what is coming next. It also gets anxious when things are not predictable. Again, for home or school:

  • Build a daily schedule with your kids that includes regular time for lessons, reading, movement, journaling, healthy meals and snacks and time for just bonding and hanging out together

  • Use a visible routines planner/poster, celebrate successes post them

  • Set achievable goals for learning and wellness, post them

  • Plan things to look forward to, post them on your wall

Priority #3 Build Resilience

Building resilience is likely the most important task we have, for ourselves and our kids. You might think that resilience is something you have or you don’t, like eye color. But, resilience can be built just like a muscle.

The key to building toward resilience is recognizing first that we all have strengths from our life experiences to build upon. Therefore, the key to doing that is building our regulation skills, physical, emotional, behavioral, cognitive through co-regulating activities.

  • Make sure whether you are a parent or a teacher that you have good credible resources for understanding stress and promoting activities to reduce stress and build regulation skills together

  • Choose healthy lifestyle habits, including food, drink, and sleep all of these boost your immune system

  • Limit exposure to media

  • Teach and practice some form of meditation, mindfulness or meditative movement for the adults and the kid –dancing or walking to a repetitive beat counts as meditation

Historically, there has been a false choice in education between the things we need to do on the social and emotional front or the things we need to do for physical and emotional wellness and the pursuit of academic excellence.

Today, the integration of these domains of development are a non-negotiable given the level of stress for adults as well as students. Health and wellness, mental health, our social emotional and cognitive skill development and the development of academic competencies; this is one developmental story and it applies to all of us.

Q: What is the education issue that is around the corner that you hope people start addressing now? How would knowledge from science help us advance equity as we take it on?

The most important issue is not around the corner, but right in front of us. The COVID pandemic has laid bare the advantages some children have, and the gross inequities of other children. Take broadband: 9 million children don’t have access to high speed broadband or internet or connected devices to access remote learning. Until we bridge that chasm, the door to an education is literally shut for these children and that is unacceptable.

For now, in addition to prioritizing the 3 R’s – relationships, routines and resilience, I would urge in terms of reopening, schools first need to focus on learning where each child is physically, emotionally, cognitively, and academically.

I would want to learn how they have weathered this storm at home and what stressors or trauma might they have experienced. What help, if any, are they getting to process and cope with their feelings about this scary and sad time? How are the relationships that are most important for them? What have they learned at home that they might not have been able to learn at school? What progress have they made as readers or budding scientists or musicians or chefs? Where do they need the most support academically? What are the best tools to meet them where they are and help them grow? Taking this broad-based temperature of each whole child is the foundation for helping them become ready and engaged learners.

Schools should not, in my opinion, rush into assessing learning loss as much as figure out what each individual child needs to learn and thrive, wherever their developmental and academic starting line. If educators start to look at their role as designing their classrooms to individualize and differentiate learning to help each child grow rather than focusing mostly on whether a child is meeting some averaged idea of a grade level math or reading. Then, this will surely disrupt education as we know it, and for the better in my view.

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