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How to Parent In A Pandemic: A Conversation With Pamela Cantor, M.D.


Wasn’t raising a child tough enough already? Now, in the coronavirus age – with schools closed and children learning at home – we suddenly have added an additional challenging role to the mix: teacher. It’s a responsibility that comes with no how-to manual, and certainly no 1-800-number to call for help.

So what should caregivers know about how to do it? How do they teach when they’re also a parent – balance between too much help and too little? And are there practical tips – lessons from science – that parents and caregivers can use to make the experience work for all parties involved?

Well, Pamela Cantor, M.D. has some. She is Founder and Senior Science Advisor of Turnaround for Children. And as you’ll hear during this episode of Turnaround’s podcast, The 180, by focusing on what she calls The Three Rs: Relationships, Routines and Resilience – science can show parents ways not only to help their children learn, but also how we all can come through this period stronger and better connected.



Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: I’m Chris Riback. This is The 180, our podcast that explores how to transform 21st Century education – how to turn it around – using 21st Century science.

Wasn’t parenting tough enough already? Now, in the coronavirus age – with schools closed and children learning at home – we’ve suddenly have added an additional challenging role to the mix: Teacher. It’s a responsibility that comes with no how-to manual, and certainly no 1-800-number to call for help.

So what should parents know about how to do it? How do they teach when they’re also a parent – balance between too much help and too little? And are there practical tips – lessons from science – that parents can use to make the experience work for all parties involved?

Well, Dr. Pamela Cantor has some. Pam is Founder and Senior Science Advisor of Turnaround for Children. And as you’ll hear, by focusing on what she calls the three R’s – relationships, routines, and resilience – science can show parents ways not only to help their children learn, but also how we all can come through this period stronger and better connected.

Chris Riback: Pam, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: Thank you Chris.

Chris Riback: If you could help parents suddenly get their Master’s in education, what would the key takeaways be that they should know?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: It might surprise you, but everything that I would say to a parent is what I would say to a teacher and that is that the primary task right now is really wrapped up in how we are going to manage the stress that this experience of the COVID crisis is causing. There really is nothing more powerful than a deeply felt attuned human relationship in driving stress down and driving all kinds of other skills and capabilities up.

So, what I will be saying to teachers, what I will be saying to leaders who are reopening schools is that they have to prioritize creating conditions where relationships are deep and strongly felt and the environment is safe with all kinds of opportunities for belonging. I think we have to do that even with our physical distancing and we’re going to have to do it in spades when we come back to school.

Chris Riback: Needless to say, these are stressful times and in any given household, you might have parents working or not working, limited computer access and space to work. Children may be feeling anxious about the virus and miss their teachers and friends and a social life. We all kind of remember what a social life used to be. Is stress always a bad thing for children, for their development and learning?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: Stress is not always a bad thing. In fact, mild and moderate levels of stress actually help us prepare for a recital or a test.

When we experience stress, a hormone called cortisol streams through our bodies and our brains. It produces that familiar fight, flight, freeze, feeling that we all get where our heart is thumping and the hair stands up on the back of our neck. That kind of stressful feeling is actually normal. But when we have high levels of stress, and that stress is not buffered by a trusted adult, cortisol can actually have effects on the parts of the brain that are involved in focus, attention and emotion.

Chris Riback: And so some cortisol OK, maybe even potentially positive. Too much cortisol for too long, not so good.

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: What’s interesting about our stress response system is that it is really a balance between two hormonal systems. One is the system that is involved with cortisol release, but the other is a really important hormone called oxytocin, and this is the hormone that controls feelings of love, trust, and safety.

Oxytocin can actually protect us from the harmful effects of cortisol. It can help children manage stress. And it can actually help children become resilient to future stress. Relationships that are strong and positive actually trigger the release of oxytocin, and this is what enables children when they have the presence of a trusted adult to actually manage stress, and even build the muscle of resilience.

Chris Riback: So let’s talk about building that muscle, and let’s talk about what’s going on in many households. How can learning occur during these conditions?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: I’ve been thinking about that a lot, Chris, and there are three things that I think are actually possible to do today, if we put our focus on the importance of relationships, the importance of routines and order and the importance of building resilience.

Those are the three things that I think are most important to do today. And they can be done at home. And when kids go back to school and we’re talking about preparing for reentry to school, I’ll be talking about the same things, relationships, routines, and resilience. So let’s take the first one. Relationships.

Chris Riback: Give me some examples. What are some of the experiences that parents and children can do at home that are wonderful experiences that can help really develop those relationships?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: Well, a lot of life in the home is lived around the kitchen and whether it is learning how to cook or being able to generate a treasured new family recipe, there are all kinds of projects that can happen around creating meals. Meals can also happen in different rooms where kids create an environment to make a meal a very, very special experience.

I’ve heard about people creating tents in their houses and creating meals inside tents, so there’s a tremendous amount of creativity that can be applied to meal time and that can involve everybody.

The other thing that I’ve been hearing about, believe it or not, are cleaning projects, home improvement projects, painting a room, a particularly fun color. These kinds of things are things that give an opportunity for kids to exercise their creativity and their agency and at the same time do things that are tremendously helpful to the family as a whole.

Chris Riback: And just to be clear, when you’re making the food, cooking the meal in the tent in the house, no campfires though, right Pam?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: I think we have to leave out the campfires… but we can keep spirit of campfire.

Chris Riback: Fine. Well keep the spirit but lose the actual campfire.

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: Another really important thing is exercise. Everybody talks about how important it is to exercise, but I think maybe it isn’t fully understood that any rhythmic activity, singing, dancing, or exercise calms the brain. So those activities are things that parents and kids can do together. And we can create time for that in the day.

Chris Riback: That’s very helpful on relationships. What about routines?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: So when I talk about routines, I’m talking about something that’s really a property of the brain, and that is: It loves order. It loves to be able to predict what’s going to happen next. So if we create a plan for the day, if we make posters that enable us to have a bit of a schedule, if we chart successes and things that we’ve accomplished, all of those things take a very unpredictable time in our lives and make it more predictable and that makes the brain happy and calm.

Chris Riback: That has to be essential at a time like this when, as you just note, all of our routines have been blown up.

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: Exactly. And one of the things that I’ve been hearing about are kids really stepping up and taking a leadership role in figuring out what kind of day they’re going to build. Not just having the parents do that, but having the kids do that as well. Because we have to have in any day things that give us hope and things that convince us that we can actually find fun and even a silver lining.

If you think about parents going off to work, kids going off to school, big chunks of the day are spent away from one another. And I think that there are these incredible opportunities now to deeply know one another, to have each other’s back and to take care of each other. We can use meal times to talk about the issues that are going on for kids to be able to ask questions, for parents to come to those times with answers that they’ve prepared in advance.

And don’t be surprised if you’re a parent hearing the same question over and over again, because the kinds of worries that kids have, they have every day with things that they’re hearing about every day. But then when we speak about the kinds of routines that we can have at home, we can create a daily plan for the day that includes sure schoolwork, but also time for fun, games, puzzles, things that parents and kids can do together. We can even make lessons fun because when kids are doing their lessons at home, maybe an older sibling joins or parents engage in the lessons with their kids.

Chris Riback: What about the people who say that it’s good for kids to understand that sometimes you don’t have control that, that things happen and we can’t always know what’s going to happen next. And this is a good learning opportunity on that front. Is there truth to that?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: I think there are reasons to believe that the experience of COVID is going to be a set of life lessons for all of us. But I wouldn’t want to think that the way for children to learn the value of order and predictability and constancy in their environment is by turning their life upside down. What I’d rather say is that the way we’re all going to face this very, very scary time is to do everything we can to create safety and security for each other.

And in doing that, we and our children will build muscles that tell us that we can cope, that we can surmount this, and every now and again find something special and of value in it. I’m not saying this because I want to underestimate how disruptive this is for kids and how challenging it is for adults.

But I do think that in the stories of anyone who has ever surmounted a really challenging period, they haven’t done it alone. They’ve done it with people who had their back and who believed that it was possible to surmount the crisis. That’s what I hope happens for kids and their families and their teachers today.

Chris Riback: What about the third R? Resilience. How should we think about that?

Resilience is an amazing quality in humans. You know every time we hear about somebody who has faced incredible adversity and gone on to do incredible things, we’re always struck by this. How did they do that? And sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that some people just have that quality, like as if we were talking about the color of their eyes. That it’s a trait. But resilience isn’t a trait. Resilience is a muscle and it’s a muscle that can be built and one of the particular ways that resilience does get built is when we have to face things.

So the value of a challenge is that it gives us an opportunity to build that muscle, but nobody builds resilience by themselves. They build resilience with and through the connection to others. That’s how they find their strength and that’s how they find their ability to surmount a crisis.

There are some particular things though that all of us can do to help support the building of resilience. One of them is to build certain foundational skills. There actually are foundational skills that lead to resilience and one of them is regulation – regulation of thought, regulation of behavior, regulation of emotion, but the way we learn how to regulate these qualities is through co-regulation. It’s with another person, a person who’s modeling, a person who’s helping us deal with the feelings that we have. So the way it’s said in the scientific literature is that all regulation is co-regulation. That’s how we learn it. And regulation is the fundamental building block for resilience.

Now, there are some other things that can help in the building of resilience too. One of them is reflective practice like meditation or journaling. Another has lot to do with limiting exposure to media so that you are not continuously making yourself frightened and taking care of yourself, paying attention to physical wellness and emotional wellness. The things that we were talking about having to do with exercise and other rhythmic activities. All of these things support building that muscle of resilience.

Chris Riback: Pam, when you talk about relationships and the importance of establishing them, particularly in these times, when you talk about routines and the importance of building those routines, when existing routine has been taken away and the opportunity to build resilience, are those parallel tracks? Are those three areas that run independently, or are they connected within the brain and with kids?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: What sits underneath the Three Rs – relationships, routines, and resilience – is an understanding about the nature of the human brain. The brain is actually a dynamic living structure made up of tissue that is the most susceptible to change from experience of any tissue in the human body. And they’re really just three things that you have to know about brain development: the astounding malleability of the brain, experience dependent growth, and the role of context. The fact that context, the environments, experiences, and relationships of our lives actually drive the development of the brain.

So what does all of this have to do with the Three Rs? Well, the fuel for brain development comes from relationships. The brain is an electrical structure. The thing that makes neurons move and the brain become wired is the effect of relationships on the brain. Think of the routines as helping to support the wiring, think of resilience as an end goal, a complex and tremendously important skill.

Chris Riback: Pam, along with this crisis creating opportunity, this crisis of course is also creating a great deal of despair and loss and personal loss and human loss. How do you counsel, how do you guide children and families through that at this time?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: One of the things that concerns me the most about this period is just how many kids and families are going to know someone who has been lost to COVID, or who actually experiences the loss of somebody in their family because of COVID. And these are things that are tremendously difficult experiences and they take a long, long time for people to recover from.

One of the most important things is to communicate about them. So, if families are beginning to hear about losses in relatives or losses in their communities, they can’t avoid the subject. When they sit down and talk to children, they really have to talk to them about the sadness, about the idea that sadness, as horrible as it is, does get better over time. That it’s important to think about the person, and to remember the person, because there’s a real tendency to avoid these kinds of subjects, and to think that you’re protecting children from something by not talking about these things when all you’re really doing is leaving them alone with their feelings.

So whenever there is an experience of loss, whether it’s outside the family or inside the family, proactively creating opportunities to talk about loss, to talk about the fact that we all grieve and we all feel pain, but we do recover and it just takes time. And if the person is somebody from inside the family, we have to let memories happen. We have to remember them together.

We have to remember the positive things. We have to laugh together and we have to cry together. That’s what grief is. But it does get better with time.

Chris Riback: Pam, can I ask you about learning and learning in the household and the times that we are in? No one knows when this crisis will be over and when kids will be able to return to school and their parents to jobs if they still have jobs. How can learning occur under these conditions?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: Learning can occur in so many different kinds of settings. If you think of our lives and think of where we have learned the biggest lessons of our life, only some of them have actually happened in school and many of us might say that most of them have happened outside of school. One of the things that concerns me right now is this idea of being behind. If your child had to be hospitalized for an illness and let’s say they had to be hospitalized for six months and they were out of school. What would you be telling them?

Would you be wanting them to work on their multiplication tables in the hospital so that they didn’t fall behind? Or would you be telling them that you have confidence that they’re going to be able to catch up on schoolwork, but that the most important thing they need to do right now is to focus on getting well?

The analogy that I’m drawing here is that the way to think about learning in the context of COVID is to actually think about being creative about what is most important to do, to face the situation that we’re in, not to act as if it isn’t happening and to apply the same kinds of requirements to kids and to teachers as if this extraordinary event weren’t happening. That strikes me as really unfair to the adults and really unfair to the kids.

 What’s really going to happen here is that schools are going to have to adapt to the fact that learning hasn’t happened in the same way. That’s really what’s going to happen. And if it’s happening to all of us, then we aren’t going to apply some standards to some kids and not to others because everybody is going to be affected by this.

Chris Riback: Pam, what would you say to kids who are going through this?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: Chris, one of the things that I would most want a student to feel today is that this is an extraordinary time in their lives. That it is a time for them to pull out their resources and creativity and strength that are likely going to be with them for the rest of their lives. I want to give you an example. My husband and I both experienced traumatic events right at the time we were supposed to go to college. All of our plans got disrupted. His as well as mine.

And when I think back to that experience and think about what it meant and what it shaped in my life, the fact that I didn’t go to college when I thought I would – when I compare that to what the experience did in terms of strengthening me, enabling me to have the privilege of growing up, in certain ways, a little earlier, these experiences are things that shouldn’t be wasted. They are extraordinary opportunities for strength, for virtue, and for generosity. Those are qualities that not only build resilience, they are muscles we’ll have for the rest of our lives.

Chris Riback: Pam, I hear what you’ve said about what the schools are going to have to do, and I hear what you are saying really to the children and to the kids. Talk for a moment to the parents. When a parent is put in the role or takes on the role of helping teach their child, should the parent think of her or himself as a parent or a teacher? Because I assume they’re different things.

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: I guess what I would hope parents are thinking right now at home might be more like a coach. What I mean when I use the word coach is a person who sees what a child is capable of and believes in the strength, the skill, the capacities that that child has and sometimes even sees them before the child sees them.

So, you could call that good parenting, you could call it coaching. But what you’re really doing is using your belief in a young person and letting them borrow that courage from you, that belief from you to step up and do things that they might have thought that they weren’t actually able to do. What I’m saying is that I don’t think the job of a parent necessarily is only to protect. And today more than ever, I think we need each other.

So, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see young people figuring out how to do their learning day, figuring out how to create a routine for the day, figuring out how to take some of the pressure off a parent. And then the reverse of that, that a parent figures out, maybe not perfectly, how to help a child work through a math problem or an English lesson and maybe they laugh at the fact that the parent isn’t perfect at it and they figure out how to solve it together. But the kinds of feelings that those kinds of experiences are going to engender for families are just more important than, do I think as a parent that I’m a good teacher? Hopefully I’m good enough.

But the more important thing is that my child knows that I’m in it with them and that I have confidence that we’re going to be able to figure this out together.

Chris Riback: That strikes me as such an important concept for any parent, particularly in a situation like this where everything is disrupted, it has to be our first and natural inclination to protect, to make that component of parenting become prominent. But that phrase that you used to help children, enable children, give them the opportunity to “borrow that courage” from you could be just as important if not more important than the protection element.

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: That is what I’m talking about. And I think it’s a really important thing for kids to see their parents in their humanness. Sometimes kids really do think that we have the answers, and that we don’t make mistakes, and somehow or other we were always good at whatever we were good at. And how great would it be for kids to be able to see a parent doing something that they’re just not familiar with like being a teacher and that the child says to them, “No, no mom, you’ve got to do it this way. My teacher did it this way,” and they figured that out and then they solve it together.

Chris Riback: Why is seeing the humanity of a parent – why is enabling, empowering the child almost to help bring the parent along – why is that so important?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: The reason it’s so important is because children discover their belief in themselves by being leaders of something, by being able to show their skills. When we protect kids and when we are demonstrating all of the things we know to kids, one of the byproducts of that can be that children just don’t feel that they’re ever going to be as capable as you or as strong as you or as knowledgeable as you. And to be in a situation where up is down and down is up and that maybe our kids will have the answers and maybe our kids will create humor and fun in the day.

There are so many triumphs in that for growth and belief in oneself and identity development. All of these things come from being able to see yourself as an agent, as an active member of a family that can actually solve things that are important.

Chris Riback: Pam, the idea that you just gave that we can’t act and we can’t go forward as if school is happening. I’m hearing you say, there are all sorts of learning that can occur – incredibly important learning, powerful learning that can occur.

But it’s going to occur differently and it’s going to occur with our emphasizing the things that ought to be emphasized within these times and within the circumstances that we have. Not trying to act as if some other set of circumstances is going on, adjust to the times and incredible powerful learning can still occur. Am I hearing you correctly?

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: That’s exactly what I’m saying. We can’t apply the same standards as if school has been happening all of this time. So what I would like to see teachers do is to drive the stress down, express confidence that in different ways we’re going to catch up that what’s happening on the learning front is happening to everybody. But we can’t minimize the fact that vulnerable children and children with fewer resources are going to be experiencing this in a much tougher way.

So, I think there is going to have to be tremendous attention to the supports for vulnerable children so that they have a fair shot at catching up and ultimately, they will. But we have to pay attention to those supports.

One of the things I hope for out of this crisis is that the kinds of changes that many of us have known needed to happen in 21st century education right now those things are non-negotiables. Because we need learning environments that not only address the issues of stress, we need learning environments that develop the skills of capable self-directed learners and that develop academic competencies.

Those are environments designed for whole child development but today we can start to do many of those things in our own homes.

Chris Riback: It really sounds like for parents, for children, for educators, there’s no reason to waste the opportunity that comes with this crisis.

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: There is no reason to waste the opportunity. And there is a tremendous importance to seeing the opportunity. Because the components of whole child development involve relationships. They involve a sense of belonging, they involve supports, skill building and instructional experiences. If you think about those five things, they can all happen at home and they have to happen when kids return to school, hopefully in a school and classroom that is designed for the development of the whole child.

Chris Riback: Pam, thank you. Thank you for helping think through this time for parents, for educators and for children.

Pamela Cantor, M.D.: Thank you Chris. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.