Fixing Urban Schools Without Fixing Poverty Is Possible

Are urban schools paying too little attention to stress and its classroom effects?


This week, I’m sharing a variety of responses to the question, “What insight or idea has thrilled or excited you?” This installment comes courtesy of Dr. Pamela Cantor, who runs a non-profit that teaches schools how to address poverty-related stress.


She wrote:


In 2000, I walked into an elementary school in Washington Heights. The school was in chaos: children running in the halls, teachers yelling, no learning in the classrooms. It was a place that didn’t feel physically or emotionally safe.


As a child psychiatrist, I had worked one-on-one with children growing up in poverty. They had all experienced loss, violence, neglect, or other adversity. And no matter what traumatic events they had experienced, the results were similar: they showed up distrustful, easily triggered and distractible. I couldn’t make the adversity they faced go away. But I could and did change how they surmounted that adversity.


What I saw in Washington Heights students were the same manifestations of trauma I had seen in my patients. I saw how adversity gets under the skin, into the brains and bodies of children through the mechanisms of stress. And I saw that when lots of kids experience high levels of stress together, it produces a very specific collection of challenges to a school, to a classroom, and to the students themselves.


On that day, I wondered, did our public education system, which is trying to educate large numbers of children growing up under the stress of poverty, recognized that schools must be designed to address the challenges that stem from how stress impacts children’s developing brains? The argument that says we can’t fix education until we fix poverty is a false one. We can’t fix poverty or the other adverse events of children’s lives, but we can “fix” the impact of stress on the developing brain. In fact, we have to. We can and must teach schools and teachers how to do this now.


Email conor@theatlantic.com to share an idea or insight that has thrilled or excited you.