Turnaround for Children founder, Dr. Pam Cantor, shares how school closures and trauma impact student learning.
Dr. Pam Cantor is an expert on how trauma affects learning in children. A child psychiatrist, she co-authored a study on the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on children in New York City schools. Cantor says that the stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the closing of schools has a double-whammy effect on children’s ability to learn. The stress of the pandemic causes the fight-or-flight reaction, which is usually buffered by human relationships, such as those in school communities – friends, classmates and teachers. With those school relationships gone or curtailed, new ones need to be created to help children cope. Without them, learning can be difficult because traumatic events release the hormone cortisol, which triggers the fight-or-flight reaction and shuts down the learning centers of the brain. With children in no condition to learn, schools and their distance learning programs need to focus on relationship-building. Educators, Cantor says, shouldn’t be worried that learning is taking place. Instead, they need to double-down on students’ emotional needs and worry about the academics later. “So today what I'd like to see teachers doing is saying to kids, ‘Do not worry. … You are going to catch up and we will help you catch up. But here are some things we need to be doing now because our main job is to cope with this very, very difficult and stressful time.’” The technology students are using in distance learning can be a positive, Cantor says, if it is used to foster student agency and not as an instrument of passive learning. Cantor also says that the stress of COVID-19 will be harder on those students who are facing stresses already, whether that’s an existing family condition or the effects of the pandemic on parents’ jobs. Cantor also touches on how she would like to see schools change when they reopen.