The Science of Adversity

Dr. Pamela Cantor explains the science of adversity and how we can use this information to design better learning environments.

The Science

There is a connection between adversity, stress and academic performance. Children often endure stress from adverse experiences, such as exposure to violence, loss of a loved one, racial discrimination and homelessness. Unfortunately, most schools aren’t designed or equipped to address the impact of stress on learning.

Adversity doesn’t just happen to children, it happens inside them.
Stress gets inside their brains and bodies with risks to health and learning. The good news is the brain is malleable. We can use science to address what stress does to children and to schools.

The Science of Brain Development

Not all stress is bad − in fact, stress is a necessary and important factor in human development. But chronically high levels of stress, without buffering, derail healthy brain development and impact how children perform in school.

The Antidote to Stress is Trust
Science offers reasons for optimism for schools struggling to educate children facing adversity. Genes are chemical followers − DNA changes in response to the environments and relationships children experience.

Trust is fuel for healthy brain development. When children experience a consistent and supportive connection with a trusted adult, it can alter their brain chemistry. Positive relationships can reduce cortisol, a “stress hormone,” and increase oxytocin, a “love hormone.” But trust doesn’t just happen, it has to be intentionally built. For some children, school may be the only place where they receive this kind of support. When children are in a safe, calm, supportive environment, they can learn the skills and mindsets that are requisite for success in school and in life. By understanding and addressing the impact of adversity on learning, we can put all children on a path toward healthy development and academic achievement.

Full Article:

The Science of Adversity

 BY Dr. Pamela Cantor

Cantor, Pamela. “The Science.” Turnaround for Children, 3 May 2018,

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Rachel Wixey & Associates


I think that when we think about the education system, we often overlook the challenges of life outside of the classroom, which can effect the brain and the way kids retain information. Of course, we can not fix every issue for every child, but when we bring those things into account, we can help create a learning environment that will help ease those outside stressors.