Why Relationships of Trust Between Adults and Students are Critical for Learning

On The Summit Sparks Podcast: Dr. Pamela Cantor

Pamela Cantor, Founder Turnaround for ChildrenThis month on the Summit Sparks podcast we are highlighting Habits of Success, one of Summit Learning’s four student outcomes. This week we talk to Dr. Pamela Cantor about the importance of establishing relationships of trust between students and adults.

Dr. Cantor is President and CEO of Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization that connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze healthy student development and academic achievement. Dr. Cantor practiced child psychiatry for nearly two decades, specializing in trauma.

She founded Turnaround after co-authoring a study on the impact of the 9/11 attacks on schoolchildren. Previously, she co-organized the National Summit for Children Exposed to Violence and co-directed the Eastern European Child Abuse and Child Mental Health Project. Dr. Cantor is a Visiting Scholar in Education at Harvard University, an Ashoka Fellow, and was awarded the 2014 Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Impact.

The transcript below is a condensed version of Dr. Pamela Cantor’s full interview. Find this and all episodes at

Can you talk about the relationship between trust and healthy brain development in children and adolescents?

The ways in which relationships are fundamental to development are actually mediated on a biological and hormonal level, through a hormone called oxytocin, that when children have the experience of relational trust with an adult, that hormone is released and it is one of the ways in which you begin to get integration of very critical structures that are very relevant to learning.

The particular structure that we’re all concerned with is the development of the limbic system and the cross wiring between the critical structures in the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. Strong affective bonds between adults and kids that are based in trust actually fuel the development of those structures in a positive way.

What is the best approach to building these relationships in a systematic fashion when so much of teachers’ time is dedicated to teaching the curriculum?

I think that it starts with a challenge to the statement that you just made, and what I mean by that is that children’s accessibility to new knowledge and to knowledge acquisition has everything to do with the social context of their lives. So, when you think about cognitive development and acquisition of knowledge, you have to think about which is the cart and which is the horse. Social and emotional factors are the igniters and the fuel for cognitive development.

What is the best way to set up that type of environment for middle and high school students, an environment that allows them room to fail and to develop those higher order skills like perseverance and self-directedness?

I know that [Summit] prioritizes setting up important mentoring relationships with kids as a fundamental aspect of what you do. So, children setting their own goals for their own learning, and doing that within a relationship with somebody that they form an increasingly strong bond to, is one important feature…

The second is around children designing their own projects, and folding academic learning into children working on projects that are meaningful to them. The value of projects is that no one has given you the recipe in advance. You have to figure it out, and you have to come to look at the adults around you as potential resources to build that project. That’s more like life. Life is the ability to recognize, who are the people that can be resources? What are the questions I, as an agent of my own learning, need to frame? And then how do I get that from the environment that I’m in?

It would seem that adults would need to not only act as exemplars for those skills and mindsets, but be trained in knowing how to best show those skills in a learning environment. So, it seems like professional development is a really important aspect.

I would very much agree with it. My knowledge, which is not complete, is that teacher development today, meaning pre-service teacher development, barely touches on the science of learning and development, so you can’t assume that when teachers end up in the classroom that they have a background in how children develop as learners… the thing that we hope happens in the big vision that we have, is that teachers are prepared with an understanding of the development of the brain and the development of learners as they come into their practice.


Building Blocks for Learning Framework
Dr. K Brooke Stafford-Brizard’s and Turnaround for Children’s the Building Blocks for Learning Framework


Talk about the differences between skills, behaviors, and mindsets that are measurable versus those that are not, and why this matters when creating a framework for application.

I think the first thing to understand is that most skills are complex, and most of them and their development are derived from prerequisite skills. And they are also affected by concurrent other factors, like the experience of adversity, which will interfere with the development of foundational skills. So, I think understanding skill development as a pyramid is a really important structure, and understanding that those skills can be intentionally built…

In terms of measurement, here is the problem that we have right now. The state of measurement that is most in practice is psychometric measurement, meaning you measure a thing in a child at a moment in time. And that’s if you’re measuring individual children. Very often our measurements are averaged at the classroom level, so how is the classroom doing on self-regulation or executive function…

So, do you really want to know a child’s executive function skill, or are you really interested in how executive function is part of a pathway to build the more complex higher order skills that you would see on the top of the [Building Blocks for Learning framework]? I would argue we’re interested in both, but our state of measurement right now is point in time and one skill. It’s not development and change over time, towards the creation of a complex skill. So, what you see in building blocks is a very fertile big ground for future research that needs to be done, but it’s definitely not being done in daily practice

Can you talk about some of the research that points to the importance of integrating these mindsets and skills into a whole school, versus trying to just teach them at an individual or classroom level, and why that matters?

What causes children to feel physically and emotionally safe? For most children, it is that they have trustful relationships with the adults and peers in their environment. So, now you’ve got physical and emotional safety in the environment, you’ve got trustful relationships with adults, and then you’ve got skill development. What this is speaking to is the importance of integrating many aspects of the environment of classrooms and schools…

How does this need to be reflected across the whole school? Well, if a child is in a classroom with a teacher who’s been quite good at creating that kind of classroom environment, but they’re actually afraid to walk down the hall to go to the bathroom or afraid in the lunchroom, then you don’t have an environment that is reinforcing a sense of safety everywhere, and it makes it that much harder for the type of teacher that wants to build that relationship with the child when that child knows that if he leaves this classroom, he will not have that same sense of safety.

So, at Turnaround we see that you can’t compartmentalize these things, that children need to have that overall sense of safety in the environment and they need to have strong relationships with adults and peers to set the stage for the kind of learning that we want them to do.

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About the author

Lauren Faggella
A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community's stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, Lauren was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island. She earned her MEd from the University of Rhode Island and BA in English from Elon University.