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In our article, What Learning and Developmental Science Says about Optimal Learning Environments, we use developmental and learning science to explain how the environments, relationships, and experiences that children are exposed to drive their development. When these contexts are negative— that is, characterized by stress, adversity, and trauma—they disrupt development, especially relational trust and the foundational skills and mind-sets for learning.

However, the brain is malleable, and learning and developmental science shows us how to design positive contexts that buffer stress and optimize whole-child development and productive learning. These positive contexts are characterized by (1) environments filled with safety and belonging, (2) positive developmental relationships, (3) integrated supports, (4) rich instructional experiences, and (5) intentional development of skills, mind-sets, and habits that all successful learners have. This is what all learners need to thrive and learn, especially in the context of adversity and especially today.

This science is critical for understanding and addressing the trauma, pain, fear, and hardship that many students—especially black students—are facing as a result of racial violence, including the killing of George Floyd and other black people across the country; systemic oppression and marginalization; societal unrest; and the physical, social, and economic effects of COVID-19 on young people and their families. For students to engage in learning—whether remote or in-person—schools must first and foremost restore trust and build physical, emotional, and identity safety. To do this, educators must prioritize building close relationships with students, identify and meet varied student needs, and intentionally build the skills and mind-sets for learning, all while providing rigorous academic instruction and many opportunities for learning. When practices are integrated and relationships are at the center of learning, it is possible to simultaneously buffer stress and unlock academic growth.

Positive developmental contexts are always necessary for learning, development, and equity, but they are especially critical now, with all students experiencing disruption and black students facing continued racial violence, which threatens their physical and emotional safety. If educational leaders focus exclusively or primarily on content acquisition rather than an integrated approach to learning and development, they will not enable students to surmount this crisis. They will instead be exacerbating existing inequities and preventing students from reaching their potential.

There has never been a better moment to apply the principles of whole-child design to our learning settings. To accomplish this, educators should prioritize three integrated, and high-leverage strategies, which Turnaround for Children refers to as the new 3 Rs:

  1. relationships, which buffer stress and build trust to unlock learning and development;
  2. routines, which create the culture to calm anxious brains and promote executive functions and other critical skills for learning; and
  3. resilience, which can be strengthened by building on students’ existing assets to surmount and eventually thrive through this crisis and by building students’ self-regulation skills through coregulating activities with adults and peers in multiple domains (e.g., physical, behavioral, social with peers and adults).

Focusing on the 3 Rs will not only prevent students’ setbacks; it will help them build powerful skills for learning and for life.

State boards can turn this extremely challenging moment into an opportunity to broaden their focus beyond traditional notions of learning loss and academic catchup and instead ensure that their state’s response plan embraces an integrated approach to learning and development using whole-child design principles. Environments that equitably promote whole-child learning and development will nurture students’ strengths, talents, and skills;  help them surmount today’s challenges; and prepare them for successful futures. Today is a wake-up call on behalf of our humanity to use all that we know to create environments in which all of our young people can grow, learn, and thrive.

Dr. Pamela Cantor, MD, is founder and senior science advisor of Turnaround for Children. She practiced child and adolescent psychiatry for nearly two decades, specializing in trauma. She is a founding leader of the Science of Learning and Development Alliance, a collaborative effort focused on elevating science, advancing equity, and transforming education. Nora Gomperts is chief of staff / vice president of strategy and operations at Turnaround for Children.

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