Developing the Learner: A Conversation with Brigid Ahern
Hear Brigid Ahern, President and CEO of Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit that translates the science of learning and development into tools, practices and systems for educators to help all students thrive, as she breaks down the importance of fostering supportive environments and developmental relationships for children to flourish.
Q: The lessons from the science of learning and development are inherently hopeful. What are the strengths that young people and their communities are bringing to this crisis?
This crisis has revealed to us that young people, families and communities are the experts in themselves and in their environment. Children have extraordinary potential. As adults, we have an extraordinary power to bring that out by designing contexts where this potential can flourish. The purpose of school should be about developing the learner. If we listen and learn from parents and children about what they need, and we use findings from science of learning and development as a guide, we can create environments in which all students can thrive.
Q: What's one piece of concrete advice drawing from the science of learning and development that you would elevate for every educator or other adult supporting young people?
Relationships are the active ingredient in all learning. It’s not just being nice to a kid; it’s about believing in their humanity and potential, seeing their strengths and vulnerabilities without judgment, and developing relationships grounded in trust and reciprocity, and intentionality. It’s not all about the content. It’s about the relationships, experiences, and environment.
Adults – parents, educators, coaches, mentors, and more – can, and must, surround children with positive developmental relationships that help buffer stress, enable children to see what they are capable of, and support children to feel comfortable taking risks. So my piece of advice would be – prioritize developmental relationships. Build school structures – whether remote, hybrid, or in-person that foster strong relationships. Build in time at home and with family and friends for these relationships. Train educators in the importance of positive developmental relationships. Relationships can and should be the place where students grow their skills and mindsets for learning and develop their identities as learners. They must come first, and they have extraordinary potential to create change in our education systems and in the lives of our students.
Q: What is the education issue that is around the corner that you hope people start addressing now? How would knowledge from the science help us advance equity as we take it on?
We must transform our education system to one that values the knowledge and assets of students, parents, and communities; that uses the science of learning and development to build the conditions in which all children can thrive; and that intentionally promotes and prioritizes authentic equity. That means valuing Black lives, dismantling White supremacy and White supremacy culture within schools and systems, and humanizing students. Students cannot be seen as vessels for content acquisition. They are whole people who exist within culture and context and who deserve to learn and develop in environments that see, embrace, and build on their unique assets through an integration of positive developmental relationships, skill and mindset development, rigorous academic instruction, conditions of safety and belonging, and integrated support systems. This can happen in and out of schools, but requires us to rethink the purpose of education, commit to anti-racism and the dismantling of White supremacy, and align funding, school and system design, measurement, and more to a new purpose of education – developing the learner in every child.