Hans Hermann: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers and communities.
Robyn Harper: This week on Critical Window, we’re learning more about trauma, the impact it can have on the mental health and learning of students and what educators can do to create an environment that effectively supports students affected by trauma.
Hans Hermann: Our guest today is Michael Lamb. Mike is the Executive Director of the Washington, DC office of Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization that translates scientific research into tools, practices and systems for educators to help all students thrive, particularly children who have been impacted by adversity. Mike leads network and school partnerships as well as development and stakeholder engagement. Before Turnaround, Mike worked at the US Department of Education during the Obama administration, and prior to that, spent time teaching seventh and eighth grade students in Chicago. Mike is also currently involved in several groups and task force focused on mental health and trauma-informed schools here in DC. Welcome to the show, Mike.
Michael Lamb: Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here.
Hans Hermann: And we’re really glad to have you with us today.
Robyn Harper: Absolutely.
Hans Hermann: So we’re gonna just jump right into it. At Turnaround for Children, which for those listening, Turnaround is shorthand for that, how do you define trauma and what are examples of traumatic experiences that students may have?
Michael Lamb: Yeah, it’s a great question to start off with. We ground ourselves in the research that has been done for decades on adverse childhood experiences in particular. So 20 years ago or so, there was a major study done to try and identify what is the primary impact of the adverse experiences that children go through. And Kaiser led the study, and what they found was it had nothing to do with the child themselves, their personality, how they were born or anything like that. It was primarily to do with the experiences that they had as children, and that meant emotional abuse, emotional neglect, sexual abuse, living with a drug-addicted family member, losing a parent to divorce or death. It was those kinds of experiences that children went through that ended up becoming traumatic if they were unbuffered, if they did not have a relationship with a trusted adult that helped them buffer those experiences. And the impact of those experience is tremendous.
So if you’ve had just four of the ten experiences that they identified in that original study, you’re 32 times more likely to have learning and behavior problems in school. That’s not 32 percent; that’s 32 times more likely. But it also affects health as well, so you’re 10 to 12 times greater risk for attempted suicide or intravenous drug use, and many of the leading causes of death are correlated with four or more ACEs. And fully 20 years can be taken off your life if you’ve had six or more of those ten ACEs. So this has really profound impacts on the lives of students if these experiences are unbuffered and if they do not feel like those experiences can be supported and mitigated through.
Hans Hermann: If that doesn’t lay out for people how important of a subject this is, I don’t know what else could. It really shows the importance of addressing and being knowledgeable about trauma and traumatic experiences. So the history of Turnaround is rooted in the tragic and traumatic events of 9/11 and really helping students in New York City cope with the aftermath of what took place. Could you just tell us a little bit more about the beginning of Turnaround?
Michael Lamb: Absolutely. So Dr. Pam Cantor is our founder, and she was a child psychiatrist focusing on the impact of trauma for the children that she worked with. And what she would always say is that she could never change the experiences that children were going through. She couldn’t stop the divorce that was happening in their lives, she couldn’t stop the abuse that they had gone through. What she could help them with was how to move forward, how to develop skills and mindsets and approaches that would help them actually be able to go through those experiences and become resilient on the other side.
So right after 9/11, the City of New York was becoming concerned about the impact of trauma in their schools, and they convened a task force to try and figure out what will be the impact here. And the task force believed that the biggest impact would be right around Ground Zero. This was where the towers fell down tragically, this was where a lot of people saw those events, and so they thought that that was gonna be the place where trauma was living the most. But because they did the study for the entirety of New York City, what they ended up finding was that the biggest impact of trauma, the biggest impact of trauma, the biggest lasting impact of trauma was in the areas of deepest poverty throughout New York City. Because for the children in those neighborhoods, this was not a one-off experience where the traumatic event happened and then it was over. For them, it was every day, and that was something that the school system hadn’t really been thinking about. It wasn’t something that principals and teachers and social workers were constantly planning around, and it was an eye-opening experience for Pam. And so she decided to found Turnaround for Children to try and do something about that.
Hans Hermann: Yeah, and I think that that segues well into our next question and other questions we’ll have throughout this conversation that that point that they really discovered that all these experiences that students were having around the city and living in certain conditions were having just as much, if not more, effect on their learning. So in addition to events as we were talking about with widespread impact like 9/11, students, as you were saying, may experience trauma in their communities, schools or even their homes. So how then has the mission and work of Turnaround evolved once this came more to light to support all students who have experienced trauma?
Michael Lamb: Well, I think when we first started, Pam was most connected with the work around student – supporting students through mental health services and interventions. And so early on, we were primarily concerned with connecting students with that mental health therapeutic intervention. And over time, Pam and our organization learned that if you had great therapeutic and clinical services for students and they went back to a classroom where the teacher was really frustrated, didn’t feel like they had the tools to manage the classroom, was exacerbating and sometimes re-triggering and re-traumatizing students who were in their classroom, then you needed to do something to help teachers actually develop their toolkit. And so we developed teacher training and resources to support teachers in creating a classroom community that was calm, safe and predictable.
Over time, through that work, we learned that you needed to actually have a whole school that did that well. That if a classroom felt like a safe, predictable place but then the hallways were very chaotic, that the cafeteria or the playground became a place where students were re-triggered and their amygdalas became locked in fight, flight or freeze, and the hippocampus, which is in charge of learning and memory, wasn’t available, and the prefrontal cortex couldn’t self-regulate, then the rest of the day would be really difficult for learning to take root. And so we developed our leadership capacity building, and that really framed the work that we’re doing now.
Our mission right now is to translate the brain science that undergirds all of this work into tools, practices, systems that school leaders can use in particular. And so our partnerships in DC and New York and around the country are really focused on arming school leaders with the tools, systems and practices that they can then own and build the capacity of their school staff to really manage all these issues well. And so that is how we’ve evolved over time. We’re increasingly working at the district systems level as well, so this year we’re doing a training series with all the instructional superintendents in DCPS just on brain science. So they get to be learners even though they manage 100 schools. They’re getting to learn this brain science and think about the leverage points and the tools at their level that could help create the conditions for school leaders to actually do this work well.
Hans Hermann: That’s fantastic that you’re doing those trainings, and as we’ve talked about before, you know, at All4Ed, that’s something that obviously aligning the science of how people learn and brain research and how we’re actually teaching and learning in classrooms is so important, and so it’s wonderful to hear you’re all doing such great work there.
Robyn Harper: Absolutely. And on that note, while I’m sure our listeners are a bit more familiar with the emotional impacts that trauma can have, you mentioned in previous answers already that connection to learning. Could you elaborate a bit more on how trauma can affect students’ mental health and consequently their ability to learn in the classroom?
Michael Lamb: Absolutely. So I mentioned that data point earlier. For students that had been through at least four adverse childhood experiences, they were 32 times more likely to have learning and behavior issues in school. And that’s a data point that has real, hard science underneath it. And what that looks like is for students who have experienced lots of adversity, they often can become locked in fight, flight or freeze because of the biological mechanism of stress called cortisol. And so cortisol can flood the brain and the body in moments of stress. We’ve all experienced it. It could be a moment where you feel like you’re lost your child at the grocery store and that split second your heart starts beating fast, your palms get sweaty, hair stands up on the back of your neck, it’s a moment for you, you know. We’ve all had those kinds of moments.
But for children that have been through multiple experience of adversity and trauma, that isn’t just one moment. That is how they’re going about their whole day. For them, their brain doesn’t need to differentiate between what is a real threat and a not-so-real threat anymore. The threat feels so constant that they’re always gonna be hypervigilant, and that’s the way that they’re going around the day. And so for them, their amygdala is in charge, and that’s the smoke signal to the brain that remembers all of our traumatic experiences, and it says basically I’m in charge. So the other parts of the brain that are in charge of learning and memory, like the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of attention, self-regulation, executive function, those kinds of things, are actually inhibited when the amygdala takes over. Because we don’t wanna be able to figure out whether a threat is a real threat or not, we wanna be able to react in moments where we’re feeling under duress. So it’s a wonderful human healthy response that we have. And it’s wonderful if you’re in the forest and you see a bear and you need to act. It’s terrible in a classroom or a hallway. And so it can get in the way because of your reactivity, but that hippocampus, which is in charge of learning and memory, if it’s inhibited, you could have a wonderful lesson plan as a teacher, you could have really great, engaging content, but if that child is feeling stress and if the amygdala is in charge, then that long-term memory won’t actually take root, so that’s the science behind all of this work that leads to some of those challenges.
But the science tells a really optimistic story because one of the core principles of the science of learning and development is that the brain is malleable, and this means that the brain can always grow, can always develop, can always have new neural pathways created. And so the brain science tells us that really positive, optimistic story that really is grounded in resilience.
Robyn Harper: That’s great. And it’s really interesting to hear you say that because here at All4Ed, we focus primarily on supporting adolescent learning and development because we recognize that, on one hand, adolescence is a very stressful time and it impacts the ability of middle and high school students to learn. At the same time, adolescence presents this great period of opportunity in terms of that malleability that you just spoke of. So for our own purposes, what unique or specific considerations should educators make when thinking about trauma and its impact on mental health and learning for adolescents?
Michael Lamb: That’s a great question. You know, a lot of focus has been on the importance of the early learning years, zero to three, zero to five. This is my mother’s work for her whole career, so I am a big fan of that. But I think the other part that people often miss is the importance of those adolescent years, which is another hugely impactful time on brain development. And so there’s enormous amount of change that can happen during those adolescent years, and I think too often the narrative can be that, oh, if a student is in high school, it’s already too late to intervene, already too late to support that child, and that’s not at all what the brain science tells us. The reality is that the brain continues to develop not just through five years old, not just through adolescence, but actually through your late-20s. And so that development actually is in terms of physical size, but also in terms of all of the new neural pathways that happen when brains develop, and so it’s a hugely important moment for children.
And our building block framework spells out a lot of the foundational skills and mindsets that children need, and a few of the ones that are particularly helpful for adolescents is that sense of relevance and that sense of belonging, that they need to feel like what I’m working on really means something to me, that I’m starting to be aware of the long-term life I wanna live, and I’m starting to see issues of fairness, issues of justice, issues of equity, and I’m starting to question this world that I kind of always accepted. And so it’s enormous opportunity to be able to shape the developing brain of adolescence, and too often it’s kind of seen as the end stage of education when the brain science tells us that it is an enormous moment for malleability and for that continuum, which is another principle of the science of learning and development for the continuum of learning to really happen.
Robyn Harper: Right, and it’s important to recognize that students are entering into the classroom not just facing experiences that could affect them, whether traumatically or adversely in the classroom like, you know, interactions with peers or interactions with certain educators or adults in the school building, but they’re bringing in experiences that they’ve had outside of the school and educators and leaders have to be prepared to support them through those experiences that they might not even be familiar with. How do we support educators in navigating that kinda tricky spot for supporting students who’ve experienced trauma or have been exposed to trauma in their homes, in their communities or, you know, via the media once they get into the classroom?
Michael Lamb: Yeah, that’s a wonderful question, and that’s often front of mind for all of the educators that we’re working with because they’re becoming more and more aware of the challenges and traumatic experiences that children face outside of school. And so a few of the things that are core to talk about with this question are, number one, that the brain is malleable, meaning the experiences that they have in school can continue to shape the brain even when there’s experiences that are really challenging for students that happen outside the school. So that’s the first important point to remember.
The second thing is that the question that educators often ask is what’s wrong with this child when they’re acting out, when they’re having behavior challenges, when they’re clearly struggling. They often say what’s wrong with this child. And we think that the question should be what happened to this child. And increasingly, what assets does that child have that can actually promote their healing and their resilience? And so those are the types of classroom relationships and communities that need to be built once you begin with the premise of the impact of trauma, adversity and stress on children. And so we lean into all that science and we train educators on all of that so that they can really understand what might be going on in the lives of children.
And so relational trust is one of our most important strategies that we talk about because the research says that trust is actually the antidote to stress. What that means is that if you’re a child and you have lots of experiences with adults that are not necessarily positive or adults aren’t necessarily following through, they aren’t being a buffer for you, but you have that one teacher that can have that great relationship with you, and then maybe you have that thought that not all adults are trustworthy but this one is. And then what if you have another teacher that next year that has a wonderful, trusting, connected relationship with you, and another and another and another, and soon, as a child, you’re able to see the telltale signs of an adult that’s trustworthy and one that’s not. And that’s the type of learning and that’s the type of belief that we think children should be walking around with.
Hans Hermann: That’s fascinating ’cause we also – we had another podcast before this where we talked about the relationship, the importance of the relationship between teachers and students and the positive impacts. We had – our guest was Dr. Kathryn Wentzel from University of Maryland, so what you’re speaking of was very much in line with what she talked about as well.
Robyn Harper: Absolutely. So what types of trauma are historically underserved students more likely to experience and why is that?
Michael Lamb: Yeah, so I think many of the incidents of trauma that I mentioned earlier are really impactful and profound. Sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, having a drug-addicted family member, all of those are those ACEs that we talked about. And the question that I think we think about is so what do we do about those instances of trauma in schools. And while there might be schools that have lots of students that have those traumatic experiences, unfortunately schools are doing not enough to actually mitigate and buffer those experiences that children go through. And we are concerned that not enough schools are actually making their classrooms calm, safe, predictable places where relationships are deep and connections are there.
And so one of the strategies that we focus most on is called a 2 by 10. It’s a very simple strategy that any teacher could use. Essentially you spend two minutes of uninterrupted time just listening to a child for ten straight days to build that attachment, to build that connection. That can be a foundational building block for children in general. It’s also a foundational building block for learning, and so that is a core attachment that can really help students who are experiencing a lot of that trauma. And unfortunately, many schools that need that most do that less.
Hans Hermann: So – and I also wanna point out there was a quote earlier. You said – I think it was instead of thinking about what’s wrong with the child versus what happened to them, and I really – I wanted to call that out ’cause I thought that was a great way to be thinking about trauma. It’s not like there’s something wrong with them. It’s what happened and then what can we do to support them.
Turnaround recently released a new framework for comprehensive student development called “The Building Blocks for Learning.” If you haven’t read the report, you should go and check it out on their site. It’s excellent. Tell us more about the process that you undertook, or Turnaround undertook to develop this framework and what are the key messages that emerged as you were developing this framework and it was completed?
Michael Lamb: Yeah, so there were a couple things that we thought about when we were developing it. Number one, we wanted to merge all of the research of the science of adversity, the science of learning, the science of student performance all together so that this was an integrated approach to what that science told us. So that was the first part.
The other part is that there had to be evidence that these were malleable skills and mindsets. So you’ll notice on that framework that grit isn’t one of the building blocks, for example. There’s not a ton of evidence that grit can be malleable. A lotta people think of it as a personality trait, whereas resilience, there’s evidence that that can actually be developed within somebody. So that was another principle that we were looking at when we went out there.
The other one was that it had to be connected to academic development and that there was evidence that these things could be developed in an academic setting because that’s what school is. And so those were the principles that we thought about when we developed the building blocks framework. And for us, there’s a developmental continuum there that starts off with many of the foundational skills and mindsets such as attachment, stress management, self-regulation going up to sense of relevance, mindset, belonging, those types of things, all the way up to curiosity, tenacity, civic identity, self-direction being the top ones.
And so for us, oftentimes schools are really, really good at thinking about that ideal goal. They talk about the need for curiosity and self-direction and resilience and tenacity, and they think those are things that we really want somebody to leave with. But what they don’t think about is we may actually be on the hook for developing the earlier building blocks that not all students walk in the door with. So we may actually need to develop a sense of attachment. We may actually need to develop a sense of belonging, a sense of relevance, stress management skills, self-regulation skills so that students can actually ultimately show the version of themselves that has those higher level skills and mindsets. And that’s a new thought for many educators to think about, but if you are coming in the door knowing what the science tells us about the need to develop those skills and mindsets and we’re aware of the adversity and the skill development that may not be there for all students, it’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-do.
Hans Hermann: Where does trauma fit into the framework? How can the framework be used to support students who have experienced trauma?
Michael Lamb: Well, adversity, stress and trauma is a barrier to developing those skills and mindsets. So it is kind of an undergirding truth that you have to reconcile when you’re thinking about all of those skills and building blocks. And for a child that’s experienced adversity and trauma, stress management, for example, might be even more important for them because they’re living with lots of stress. And so as an educator, that might be something that you have to think much more about for children that have been through trauma and adversity than for children who haven’t had a number of ACEs, for example.
Robyn Harper: So we talked a little bit about what teachers and educators can do in their classroom. I’m curious about what school leaders, district leaders such as superintendents and principals, what are some examples of that they can do at a more systems level to support their districts and schools in supporting students who’ve been exposed to or have experienced trauma?
Michael Lamb: Absolutely. One of the things that DC Public Schools has done, for example, is to say out loud that we believe in the integration of social, emotional and academic development. They have a Deputy Chancellor for SEAD. They also have said out loud that social and emotional development is on par with academic development. They’ve created measures to be able to do that and they’ve invested heavily in the training and development of school leaders and district leaders in understanding what that means for them. And so that’s a starting point. That’s a place that you need to begin. I think too often in the education reform movement, district leaders, school leaders thought of their mission as just academic skill development, rigor, high expectations academically.
And the brain science tells us that all of these things are integrated, that the same brain that’s wrestling with what four times six is is the same brain that’s thinking about what happened last night, is the same brain that’s thinking about whether I trust the teacher that’s in front of me so that I can take risks in challenging problems to be able to potentially fail. So a lotta people talk about having a growth mindset and high expectations, but if you don’t have a classroom community that supports children when they take that risk, that risk might not feel like a thing that they wanna do. So there’s all sorts of things that district leaders, school leaders and educators can do, and a part of our training series is arming school leaders with the systems, practices and strategies that they can use to create that calm, predictable, safe environment for students but also for adults. We often don’t remember that adults have been through adverse experiences themselves. Sometimes they haven’t wrestled with that, and so that is a huge thing that a lot of our principals are working on now is how do we support the adults that are experiencing these incidents as well.
Hans Hermann: So we only have one more question and then we’re gonna wrap up. I do wanna ask before we get there, where can people find resources, maybe on your side or somewhere else, if you wanna really quickly just say where they should go, teachers or school leaders.
Michael Lamb: Yes, absolutely. So our web site is TurnaroundUSA.org, and we have all sorts of science on there, and that’s where I would love for folks to start. We have our building blocks framework, we have the science of learning and development, which is a huge combination of research that we put together, that Pam really led, our founder really led a number of organizations to do, and so that’s a great place to start. We have a lot of stories and anecdotes and strategies from the schools that we work with, and so I think that’s a great resource for people to start with.
Hans Hermann: Thank you. So the last question here, based on your experience, Turnaround’s research, you worked at the US Department of Education, we talked about in your intro, what do you think are some next steps for large-scale policies or practices that we can begin at a state or federal level to support students who’ve experienced trauma and to support their mental health.
Michael Lamb: Yeah, so I think ESSA began the process of calling out school culture, non-cognitive skills as being important, so that opened up the conversation. But we have so much more room to grow, and that’s around the research and implementing practices that are grounded in that research, but that’s also in our mindset and how we think about all this work. There was an amazing study that was done a few years ago in a major urban district that started with their early warning indicators, and they identified high-risk students and low-risk students. And what they found was high-risk students that had strong social and emotional skills scored the same academically on math and reading tests as low-risk students. And that meant that if you had the social and emotional skills necessary or learning to take place, then you would be able to score the same.
And so a lotta people think of high-risk as being the experiences that children have gone through, but studies like that and the research that we talk about says that the riskiest thing might be a school that isn’t building those social and emotional skills along with academics. And so I think it’s about the mindset that we all take on as education reformers, and I’m really heartened by the growing focus on social and emotional skill development integrating with academics and the impact of trauma, adversity and stress. We’re hearing that more and more and we’re hearing people thirsty for it, but we’re also seeing them merge this with a broader understanding of how learning and development happens.
Hans Hermann: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Robyn Harper: Yes, thank you.
Hans Hermann: Our guest is Michael Lamb, Executive Director of the Washington, DC, office for Turnaround for Children, where he leads network and school partnerships as well as the development and stakeholder engagement efforts. It was great having you here on Critical Window. Thank you again for chatting with us today.
Michael Lamb: Thank you so much for having me.
Robyn Harper: Thank you for listening to Critical Window. The Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharon Charnov, Hans Hermann and Robyn Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning, visit all4ed.org/sal.