In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough introduced us to research showing that personal qualities like perseverance, self-control, and conscientiousness play a critical role in children's success. Now, in Helping Children Succeed, Tough takes on a new set of pressing questions: What does growing up in poverty do to children's mental and physical development? How does adversity at home affect their success in the classroom, from preschool to high school? And what practical steps can the adults who are responsible for them - from parents and teachers to policy makers and philanthropists - take to improve their chances for a positive future? Tough once again encourages us to think in a brand new way about the challenges of childhood. Rather than trying to "teach" skills like grit and self-control, he argues, we should focus instead on creating the kinds of environments, both at home and at school, in which those qualities are most likely to flourish. Mining the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, Tough provides us with insights and strategies for a new approach to childhood adversity - one designed to help many more children succeed.
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Helping Children Succeed is not really a book; it should have been published as an educational journal paper. The text of this book can be easily read in less than two hours. The basic premise is that US public school systems fail to recognize and understand the importance of non-cognitive skills necessary on which to build cognitive learning. The need is especially important to those who have been under stress at home. Defining terms used in the book:
Non-cognitive shills include such factors such as ability to control ones disruptive behavior (self control), ability to delay gratification, grit, perseverance, and internal motivation.
Cognitive skills are simply those necessary to master the traditional subjects taught in school.
Stress as used in this book can be generalized to those factors in the home environment that are often associated with the poor. Examples in the book are violence, parents/others fighting verbally or physically, and general lack of stimulation of the children's verbal and visual learning.
This book (actually it's a paper or a report rather than a true book) is intended to identify and address non-cognitive skills of mostly the students born into poor families. The basic premise is that the lack of adequate non-cognitive shills results in not only poor learning of cognitive skills but also to disruptive disciplinary issues which are especially bad in today's public education environment where zero tolerance for certain behaviors is the norm.
This book lays out the problem it seeks to eliminate or improve very well. But it starts poorly by noting that free school lunches are now provided to 51% of US public school students which is an increase from 1/3 of such students in 1989 But then it claims that this indicates that the number of students coming from homes in poverty has increased to 51%. In making the claim the author fails to point out that the free lunch program applied to students in poverty in 1989 and today it applies not only to students from poor families to all students in communities where the general poverty rate is high. The actual issue the author is addressing is important enough at 33%; factually exaggerating the rate is unnecessary.
The title, Helping Children Succeed, seems to me to imply the author proposes a workable solution. Here the book fails completely. What he does is go through a long list of proposed solutions commenting on the relative effectiveness of each. Some have been ineffective, some have been effective, partially or completely, in a limited number of instances. To quickly summarize, the most effective solutions have dealt with the home environment by teaching the mother positive ways to interact with her infants and small children with emphasis being more interaction is better and positive interaction is critically important. The book appropriately suggests that zero tolerance policies be eliminated. It also notes that preK-3 teachers need to have the ability to focus on positive interaction rather than discipline. Finally, teachers of early grades need learn to teach in a way that interests children and excites their imaginations (do not make the subject a dry memory exercise).
My own time volunteering in schools dealing with grades K-2 suggests there is a special issue the author does not touch upon directly at all: most of the girls even from poor homes generally have more of the non-cognitive skills, especially self control, than their brothers. Or at least their lack of self control leads to less disruptive behavior that is chastised rather than punished. The vast majority of actual punishments are for the disruptive behavior of boys. Girls are more often mildly chastised to talking to each other during class. Based on my observation in K-2 normal behavior by boys is increasingly becoming less tolerated. It is certainly not true of all teachers, but it is true too often. I have personally observed a boy being transferred from a class where the teacher considered him to be her most disruptive student to a classroom where his next teacher considered him a star pupil who never disrupted the class. His behavior was not very different at all, but his second teacher was able to channel his behavior to get very positive results.
- Wayne "I love espionage, legal, and detective thrillers but listen to most genres. Very frequent reviews. No plot spoilers! Please excuse my typos!"
The environment matters
My paying job is to manage data for an after school program that works in low income areas and targets low performing students at low performing school. I am always interested in the latest theories and practices that seem to be successful. But I have been working at this job for nearly 15 years. And my wife has been a teacher for even longer. I have seen trends come and go. Solutions are never fast or simple because the problems have been long in coming and are infinitely complex.
Paul Tough is a journalist, a writer for the New York Times and a contributor to This American Life. This is his second book on this theme (the first was How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character). This is a very short book, 145 pages, less than 4 hours of audio. And in that short number of pages there are still 23 chapters. Tough opens by charting out why children from difficult backgrounds have difficulty in school and life. Adversity, stress, trauma, neglect, low attachment and other adversities all impact development. Some of these can literally change DNA, but all impact development of young children, which has a very long term impact on future development.
Helping Children Succeed is more than diagnosing the problem, Tough also attempts to chart out some of the failed solutions and some of the potential viable solutions. There is no pretense that solving problems of education is easy. But because of differences of demographics, population trends and birth rates, the majority of children in schools are now poor, minority or from other difficult to educate subgroups.
Where I think Tough is right is that character issues, internal motivation and 'grit' is more important in the long term than base intelligence. The question is how to develop the internal, and often precognitive, skills that allow kids to do the hard work that is necessary to overcome their educational difficulties.
Tough is not particularly easy on the education system. The culture of control and zero tolerance of students, especially of minority students does not help students develop internal motivation. Traditional behaviorist motivations (rewards for good behavior) often undercut internal motivation. Assessment, which Tough agrees is important, is difficult. So we often measure what is easy to count, not what is important.
There are a variety of examples, but one study that Tough cites took a very large dataset of students and teachers. Traditionally teachers are rewarded for improving test scores. Those teachers are fairly easy to identify. But one study was able to track students that seemed to have changes in motivation and then correlated them to teachers. Teachers that were able to help students learn internal motivation were almost never the same teachers that showed significant improvements in test scores. But students that had teachers that helped them improve in their motivation improved over the long term, not just in that one class.
The larger message of the book is that we can help student succeed. But what is most effective isn't the particular method of teaching grit to the one student. But creating institutions and systems where success is more likely to occur. Early intervention (and he details a number of early intervention programs that do not help), school environments (especially relationships with teachers and other students) and pedagogical systems that are focused deep learning, student focused problems solving and challenge seem to be effective. But changing systems and institutions is long term and difficult compared to rolling out another short term program.
This was a broadly helpful book. It has real research and science behind it. Because I am fairly widely read in the area, there was not a lot that was completely new. But as a short introductory primer, this is a very good place to start a discussion. I can see this being a great book for small group discussions among educators or parent groups. In many ways though, this is also a discouraging book because the problems of scale, time and culture are all working against long term change.