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Aurora Institute

Q&A on Mental Health and the Future of Learning with Brooke Stafford-Brizard and Pamela Cantor, M.D.

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Brooke Stafford-Brizard, Pamela Cantor

Issues: Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Rethink Instruction, Learn Lessons from the Field


The following is the final excerpt and transcript of the Aurora Institute 2019 Symposium opening keynote address, delivered by Chan Zuckerberg Director of Whole Child Development Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard. In this segment, Dr. Stafford-Brizard has a Q&A session with Pamela Cantor, M.D., who presented the closing keynote of the previous year’s symposium. This wide-ranging discussion focuses on what developmental science teaches us about the connections between relationships and learning, the primacy of context in determining a student’s engagement with learning, and how a focus on mental health and academic rigor go hand-in-hand. The conversation follows Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, in which Dr. Stafford-Brizard builds the case for whole-child personalization in schools with an emphasis on  redefining student success to incorporate mental health.

Dr. Cantor: Well, you know, there are some really extraordinary ideas that you presented and a couple that I want you to expand upon. And the first is this idea that you have presented mental health and wellness as something far broader than many of us actually witness in schools. I mean, mental health is:  there’s a social worker, guidance counselor, and a child receiving a service who may or may not want that service. Your frame is broad, and it sounds as if you’re saying everybody has a role to play.

Dr. Stafford-Brizard: I don’t want to underestimate the importance of clinical partners and some of those targeted services, particularly with students who are experiencing a tremendous amount of trauma. We know that those are absolutely important, tier three—I would call them tier four, tier five— services that our kids need, and we need to find solutions for those within schools and beyond. But if we define mental health through that asset-based lens, and if it’s really grounded in helping students to understand who they are, how to process their emotions, how to connect with others, how to connect with their purpose, then that should permeate their 24-hour cycle. It shouldn’t sit in the silo of a service that might happen periodically. That’s what we know from developmental science, that learning and development require that level of consistency and reinforcement that all of our adults can provide for students. We’re too stuck in the existing paradigm of a school in those six-to-eight hours that our students are in schools, when our students live in this 24-hour cycle. Part of the paradigm shift and part of that future of learning is really understanding how we can have insight into that 24-hour cycle and support students across them, across those hours.

Dr. Cantor: It seems to me even as a practical matter that a school like Codman, or like Van Ness, where the whole environment is calming, that you may have fewer students that actually declare the need for an individual service or will have multiple people that they can go to.

Dr. Stafford-Brizard: Absolutely. There’s research that we both anchor on in adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that looks at the impact that abuse, neglect, and instability has on students’ ability to engage in learning. But while we know that students who have four more of those experiences of adversity are 32 times more likely to present with learning or behavior problems, it’s present with; they don’t have them.

Dr. Cantor: Right.

Dr. Stafford-Brizard: And so the more we understand that the context around our students is what’s impacting them and their ability to engage in a learning environment, the more we can reach more students.

Dr. Cantor: One of the other things that I was really excited to see you talk about [was], you know, when Susan was speaking, she used the word “complex,” that this is complex work. But one of the things I saw you advocating for was this idea of moving away from this idea of a silver bullet and moving toward integration of practices, that it is possible to focus on relationships and skill-building and content at the same time. So there’s a kind of advocating for new design that I heard in what you’re talking about.

Dr. Stafford-Brizard: I can’t drive home enough what we understand of the connection between emotions, social belonging, and our cognitive processes. Those processes, like attention, memory, and motivation, in the learning experience, those are precious and limited. So, leveraging things like emotions and social connection, that can accelerate that process. We’re designed for it to accelerate the process, but it can also act as a significant barrier. So I would actually advocate that we have no choice but to think about the integration of these things because they are not teased apart in the human child.

Dr. Cantor: I’m a little bit of a ringer because I know you so well, but if you were thinking of order of operations, there is something that comes through in your talk that is right at the top, and everything sort of flows from that. That’s attachment. It’s relationship. Say another few words about that. Why relationships? Why attachment?

Dr. Stafford-Brizard: Learning as a social process. It is not something that we do in isolation, and because, like I said, our evolutionary success was grounded in our social structure as humans, we’ve been designed to learn and develop through this structure. And so, you hear criticism, like loving kids to death or coddling them. There’s nothing coddling about the nature of Valor. You can still hold kids accountable. You can hold adults accountable. There is a rigor to the relationships, but we know from developmental science that that is the absolute foundation. It’s how our brains develop as we grow in that social connection, and it’s how we learn.

Dr. Cantor: So you have many, many people here who are in different parts of their path, as you said, and the work is complex. But what would be the starter dough? If people in this audience want to walk out and use what you’re talking about right away, what are the one or two things you would tell them as where to start?

Dr. Stafford-Brizard: I love the image of the starter dough. I wish I could bake bread because I would nail the metaphor, but I can’t so…

Dr. Cantor: I’ve been working on that.

Dr. Stafford-Brizard: Adults. Start with your adults. When you see the research that shows how adults are feeling in our classrooms and in our schools, and if we start by addressing their emotional needs, then a few things will happen. One, you take care of a whole adult; they will take care of a whole child. That will permeate, and it will flow. But the more adults can understand the impact of a focus on their social and emotional well-being, then the more buy-in and understanding they’ll have for prioritizing that and reinforcing it in a school.

Dr. Cantor:  I have another question for you. It’s a question I get, which is, if you put relationships right at the forefront, and we have practitioners who are by and large still in fairly traditional environments, there is this idea of how do I know my kids as individuals? How do I see them? How do I recognize them? I know that you’re working a lot with practitioners to crack the back of that. What are some of the things that you’re hearing that really enable that kind of personalization to happen?

Dr. Stafford-Brizard: I think when school and district leadership carve that intentional space. Educators know how to connect with their students. Teachers know how to connect, but if that intentional space isn’t created in a schedule… I was very struck by Susan’s comment that scheduling is not one of those last things to actually shift. And that’s what we hear from teachers, that when they leverage a program like Summit and there’s finally that intentional space to provide mentoring to students and focus on relationships and guidance one-to-one, they knew it mattered. But they also know that without that intentional space to do it, it won’t happen because you have all these other competing priorities in the space. And so, I really push it to the district and the school leaders to think about creating that space for their teachers.

Dr. Cantor:  So bringing up Summit for another moment, because it is a technology-based platform, but one that incorporates environment and relationship, what is the role that could serve the purpose you’re talking about here that relates to technology? How should it be used?

Dr. Stafford-Brizard: I think technology is a tool that can help us better understand how to effectively and efficiently engage in these face-to-face moments in this space. That’s one way, that the more we can use a tool like that to better understand students’ background, their experience, where they’re progressing, where they’re struggling, and where students can use that to self-reflect and understand their own path—again—that is content to drive rigorous, meaningful conversations. You have something to start with. Technology is also proving to be a really powerful potential tool in the space of mental health for adolescence. We’re learning from different partners in the field that oftentimes for adolescence, that space of anonymity to reach out and kind of cut out the middleman of another adult is really important. And so something like the Crisis Text Line, which was established in 2013 as a platform for students to use texting to reach out for help and supports. Since 2013, they’ve engaged in over 100 million messages. And so that is proven to be a significant tool for adolescents to reach out and get certain supports.

Dr. Cantor:  Well, one of the things that impresses me so much of what you’ve done here is creating critical connections between things that often are experienced by practitioners as false choices.  So if I focus on wellness and mental health and the social and emotional dimensions of life, I’m soft on academics and rigor. And what I particularly loved about what you did is you didn’t let that happen. You really enabled us to see that these are things that have to be woven together, and if we haven’t done it yet, then that’s what we have to do.

Dr. Stafford-Brizard: I appreciate that. We are firmly committed and focused on continuing to support academic development as a core component of our schools in addition to these other areas of whole-child development that are critical and drive that academic development. And that space of rigor—everyone in this room understands how to design with rigor. We just tend to do it in the academic space. And so if we can bring that into the space of supporting social, emotional, mental well-being of our students, and thinking about the integration, I think incredible things can happen for our kids.

Dr. Cantor:  I know everybody here is very charged up by what you’ve said and very, very inspired by it. Thank you so much. I know what it took to put these ideas together. Thank you, Brooke.


Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard is Director of Whole Child Development at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Pamela Cantor, M.D., is Founder and Senior Science Advisor of Turnaround for Children. See more highlights from the entire conference on this page.