It is a daunting challenge. Across the country, states, districts and schools are carrying out systemic strategies to revamp curricula and strengthen the capacity of teachers to implement Common Core State Standards.

It is a daunting challenge. Across the country, states, districts and schools are carrying out systemic strategies to revamp curricula and strengthen the capacity of teachers to implement Common Core State Standards. Educators must bring students from all backgrounds and differing levels of knowledge and skills to higher standards of learning. Students have to engage deeply with more demanding content and persist in doing so. At a fundamental level, many children must for the first time develop academically-oriented identities. Climbing this mountain successfully will be possible only when educators recognize that students acquire knowledge and skills best when their developmental needs are understood and addressed by the teachers and other adults they interact with every day at school.

Today, one in four children in the United States is growing up in poverty. Many of these children are exposed to violence, chronic insecurity, loss, hardship and disruption. They don’t shed these experiences at the schoolhouse door.

Here is another, perhaps more vivid picture of that challenge. Today, one in four children in the United States is growing up in poverty. Many of these children are exposed to violence, chronic insecurity, loss, hardship and disruption. They don’t shed these experiences at the schoolhouse door. They show up in the classroom in the form of traumatic stress, which has unique and often profound effects on the developing brain. Such stress causes children to be tuned out, preoccupied, impulsive, unable to concentrate, distrustful and nervous. It interferes with their ability to focus, to interact with others, to tackle rigorous academic material and progress in school successfully.

Now imagine a classroom filled with children who experience this kind of stress, or an entire school. The profound impact of the trauma that stems from poverty has huge implications for the way children learn and behave the design of classrooms, the preparation of teachers and what is measured as part of school improvement.

Predictable Pattern of Risk

For children growing up with the stress of poverty, the cognitive, social and emotional barriers to learning are enormous, but they also are predictable and recurring. They form a pattern of unreadiness for students, teachers and schools that is precisely what makes it possible to design an intervention to address them. To reach the new standards, much less the full potential of each student, schools can no longer ignore these barriers and challenges to teaching and learning. If anything, our school partners tell us, standards have brought them into even greater focus.

Schools must face obstacles to learning squarely, focusing not only on innovative curricular and human capital reforms, but also on strategies and supports that mitigate the risk and stress associated with poverty. They must employ powerful practices that foster the development of motivation and persistence, productive engagement with learning, and resilience. Schools and classrooms that do this offer a fortified environment for teaching and learning that fosters healthy growth and performance in all children.

The Science of Stress and Learning

To design a fortified environment, educators should become familiar with research depicting the effects of stress and trauma on student development. Even though many children are resilient in the face of extremely difficult circumstances, many others develop toxic stress responses that derail their ability to learn.

A growing body of scientific literature demonstrates that adverse childhood experiences, such as chronic insecurity, exposure to violence or the sudden loss of a loved one, can affect the physiological development of critical brain structures. Stress activates the release of specific hormones, particularly cortisol, triggering a “fight or flight” response to perceived threats. Temporary increases in stress hormones are protective, even helpful, but frequent and prolonged stress from abuse, neglect or other significant hardships can produce a toxic response that impacts the areas of the brain that house executive functioning, impulse control, attention, working memory and ultimately the learning process itself. Children under this kind of stress are far more prone to behavioral issues and poor academic performance. This often produces a cycle of disappointment and failure in which children lose faith in their potential as students and the value of education itself.

The good news, also supported by research and practice, is that children’s brain functions are malleable. When they are in safe, nurturing environments where stress is buffered, the learning capacities of the brain become accessible for growth. In other words, when a teacher, for instance, fosters a sense of protection, coping and belief, this enables a child to return to a state of calm, take risks on behalf of learning and develop a strong academic identity.

How to Build Fortified Learning Environments

The following is a brief overview of what schools can do to build fortified learning environments where all students can learn.

Student Support:  Develop a High Quality Student Support System

  • A school-based social worker prepared to establish inter-disciplinary teams, assess students, resolve crises and connect with families
  • Individualized services targeted to students with the most intense behavioral and emotional needs
  • Promotion of school-wide social and emotional learning competencies
  • Structures for collaboration with juvenile justice, child protective services and other social services

Teacher Practice: Train Teachers to Build Highly Effective Classrooms

  • Establish fair and consistent rules, procedures and routines throughout school
  • Employ constructive techniques to defuse disruption and lower stress
  • Build teacher practice that promotes motivation, interaction and engagement of students at widely varying levels of academic achievement, focusing on continuous improvement
  • Use student-centered techniques that promote cooperation, communication, student agency and goal-orientation

Leadership and Management:  Establish the Organizational Efficacy Necessary to Execute Personalized Learning Environments

  • Create a multi-disciplinary school leadership team to develop and execute a school improvement plan
  • Establish a positive discipline code and practices reinforced consistently and fairly
  • Monitor progress and review leading indicators, outcome data, measures of learning conditions and measures assessing quality of implementation
Measures for School Improvement:  Stages of Progress

The goal for struggling schools is to build systematically and efficiently towards an environment that is positive culturally and effective instructionally. This sort of transformation takes time and happens in stages. Schools must monitor and manage progress with a framework of metrics that captures the scope of academic and non-academic challenges and the multiyear timeframe needed to drive effective improvement.

Specifically, school improvement efforts should be guided by a framework that measures the following critical stages of progress:

  • Delivery and Implementation — Quality delivery of intervention initiatives, such as access to and utilization of student supports; the training and usage of new teacher practices; and the establishment of a school leadership team and improvement plan guided by formative benchmarks.
  • Leading Indicators of Early Traction — Gains in school culture and classroom effectiveness essential to support a fortified environment for teaching and learning: capture key measures of culture including behavioral incidents, suspensions and chronic absenteeism; of classroom efficacy and of whole school improvement.
  • Summative Outcomes — Gains in student academic achievement and student development of key “learner attributes,” such as motivation, self-regulation, persistence and resilience: the importance of non-cognitive attributes is acknowledged by many but measured by few, despite the existence of student surveys designed to capture them and mounting evidence of their essential place in student academic growth.

Overall, this framework paints a realistic and holistic picture of school improvement and student growth over time. It acknowledges that many students face challenges beyond academics and builds towards achievement through the foundation of a significantly improved learning environment. This formative framework should be the lens through which education stakeholders view the path to school improvement and college and career readiness.


This is a student-development centered perspective on school improvement.  It is grounded in emerging threads of knowledge and practices drawn from neuroscience, child development and the practices of schools that have beaten the odds. As districts, schools and teachers seek to improve their ability to help all students become ready for college and career, they must build fortified environments for teaching and learning that are deliberately holistic and intentionally designed to mitigate risks, and promote cognitive, social and emotional growth. Moreover, they must collect and track data that includes formative measurements of growth in these dimensions at the student, school and classroom levels. Such environments are not only beneficial to students, they are a necessary prerequisite to effective teaching, successful learning and student growth overall.

Dr. Pamela Cantor is the Founder, President and CEO of Turnaround for Children, Inc., a non-profit organization that partners with low-performing public schools to address the obstacles to teaching and learning that stem from poverty. A child psychiatrist for 18 years, Dr. Cantor’s approach to tackling the challenges to students, teachers and schools in high-poverty communities grew out of decades of work with children exposed to trauma. As one of the leaders of the Partnership for the Recovery of New York City Schools, Dr. Cantor assessed the impact of the 9/11 attacks on school children in the city. Dr. Cantor received an M.D. from Cornell University Medical College and B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College.