How Mental Health, Trauma and Stress Shape Educational Outcomes


How Mental Health, Trauma and Stress Shape Educational Outcomes

By Emily Tate Sullivan and Sydney Johnson     Oct 2, 2018

How Mental Health, Trauma and Stress Shape Educational Outcomes
Pamela Cantor, founder of Turnaround for Children, discusses how trauma contributes to the student achievement gap.

Pamela Cantor knows first-hand how a child’s environment and early experiences can affect their educational outcomes.

She knows this not only because she is a child psychiatrist who has studied how the human brain responds to trauma, but also because she herself was sexually abused as a child. For many years after that experience, she said, she carried “deep shame.”

Cantor, who delivered one of the opening keynotes on Tuesday at the EdSurge Fusion conference in Burlingame, Calif., described how her own childhood trauma led her to medical school. There, she learned “not just the stuff about how our lungs and hearts work, but how we love, how we attach, how we nurture and, most of all, how we heal,” she told an audience of about 500 education leaders and entrepreneurs.

Now the senior science advisor at Turnaround for Children, an organization she founded in 2002 to connect scientific research with childhood development and learning, Cantor emphasized that context is critical to understanding student achievement. A child’s community, family, teachers and health are all part of their identity, she said, and any adverse experiences—from physical, emotional or sexual abuse to early exposure to death, violence or divorce—can shape that.

Cantor was compelled to leave her practice and found Turnaround because she was witnessing what she called “one of the most under-appreciated and under-recognized” sources of the achievement gap: neglect for educating the whole child.

“If we narrowly target academics, and we don’t pay attention to how children become learners in the first place—the barriers to that, the accelerants to do that—children won’t be able to do what we are asking them to do,” she said. “And the kids that we worry about when we up the academic pressure are kids who are going to fall farther and farther behind.”

In essence, Cantor captured the idea behind this year’s Fusion conference—that in order to improve education for students in a meaningful way, educators must take into account every aspect of their lives, including what goes on beyond the walls of the classroom.

“Stress is not an on or off switch,” Cantor said. “Stress happens at varying intensities for children, and they experience it in different ways.” For students, stress may manifest in different ways but is sometimes evident through a lack of focus, concentration or interest in school.

Later in the afternoon, a panel of four students took the stage to share thoughts on how educators can help pupils through stress and mental health challenges.

Student panel at EdSurge Fusion
Students speak during a panel at EdSurge Fusion. (Source: Kris Hattori / EdSurge)

“Teachers should try to understand students when they realize grades are going down because they have issues happening at home or at school,” Karen Saucedo, a student at Oxford Day Academy, shared. “Mental health is important for your education because it affects your learning.”

Drake Goodman, a junior at Tamalpais Union School District, echoed Saucedo’s call: “Create an open environment in your classroom. When students are stressed, they can’t learn. They need that outlet to talk about what’s bothering them.”

At Chelsea Pascua’s high school, students have stepped up by forming a peer counseling club, she said. Her classmates at the New Tech High School in Napa, Calif., are trained in counseling techniques to offer resources to students who may be intimidated by the idea of coming to adults for support. “Our goal is to not give them a solution, but to listen,” Pascua explained.

With so much technology, in class and at home, the students said there is an increased urgency for schools and teachers to acknowledge stress and mental health for students—and also get creative with their instruction, with or without tech tools.

“I think there is a point where tech is excessive,” Goodman said. He shared an example of one of his favorite learning moments, where a teacher blindfolded a student and asked another student to walk them around the classroom without bumping into anything. It turned out to be a lesson in essay-writing: keep things simple, don’t lead the reader down any tangents and stick to the point.

“If it were just a PowerPoint,” he said, “I don’t know if [the lesson] would have stuck with me the same.”

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up