Pamela Cantor, M.D.
Founder and Senior Science Advisor
Pamela Cantor, M.D. practiced child psychiatry for nearly two decades, specializing in trauma. She founded Turnaround for Children after co-authoring a study on the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City schoolchildren. In schools with high concentrations of children living in poverty she saw students deeply affected by the circumstances in their lives, teachers struggling to meet the intense needs of their students and principals unable to build an environment that is physically and emotionally safe and supportive. She recognized that the scientific research on stress and the developing brain that she had learned in medical school should be translated into practices to help children and schools challenged by the effects of unrelenting adversity. Dr. Cantor started Turnaround to help schools understand the impact of adversity on learning and to put children on a healthier developmental trajectory, so they can live the lives they choose. Today, Turnaround translates scientific research about how children develop and learn into tools and services for educators to help all students thrive — impacting more than 70,000 students during this school year.
After leading Turnaround for sixteen years as President and CEO, in 2018, Dr. Cantor transitioned to a new role as Founder and Senior Science Advisor. She now focuses on the scientific underpinnings of Turnaround’s work, on targeted applied science initiatives and on thought leadership opportunities. She is a leader of the Science of Learning and Development Initiative, a collaborative effort focused on elevating and translating a diverse but increasingly convergent body of scientific literature to support the transformation of the systems that educate children from birth to adulthood.
In 2016, Turnaround published “Building Blocks for Learning,” a framework for comprehensive student development. The paper explores the roots of higher-order skills and mindsets, such as agency, perseverance and academic tenacity that all children need to flourish and suggests a path to acquire them.
In 2017, Dr. Cantor co-authored “Building the Bridge Between Science and Practice: Essential Characteristics of a Translational Framework” in the journal Mind, Brain and Education. And in 2018, Applied Developmental Science simultaneously published two papers co-authored by Dr. Cantor, “Malleability, Plasticity, and Individuality: How Children Learn and Develop in Context” and “Drivers of Human Development: How Relationships and Context Shape Learning and Development.” Together, the papers synthesize research from multiple disciplines on what is understood and what can be done to help all children develop in healthy ways, no matter the adversity they might experience as they grow up.
Dr. Cantor has been invited to share her insights at events including the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s By All Means Convening, ASU + GSV Summit, National Summit on Education Reform, Aspen Ideas Festival, NewSchools Summit, SXSWedu, and EdSurge Fusion. Her work has been highlighted in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post and on NOVA and National Public Radio.
Dr. Cantor received an M.D. from Cornell University Medical College and a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a Visiting Scholar in Education at Harvard University and was a member of the Council of Distinguished Scientists for the National Commission on Social, Emotional & Academic Development. An Ashoka Fellow, Dr. Cantor was awarded the 2014 Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Impact.
What books have influenced you most?
The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas, The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D. and Maia Szalavitz and The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. All of these books exist in two dimensions: they look at life through a microscopic lens, at what makes us human, but also provide a vision for how understanding life in this very microscopic way is a window into all of life.
What motivates you?
Unfairness to children. Since as far back as I can remember, the idea that all children could not count on fairness in the people that cared for them, could not count on belief in their ability to become their greatest selves, caused an ache that was physical. I couldn’t stand it and had to do something about it.