Paul Tough’s 2012 book How Children Succeed helped popularize the notion that non-cognitive skills like resilience, perseverance, and conscientiousness could be as important to student success as performance on math and reading exams. Tough viewed character strengths as a tool that low-income and minority children can use to overcome enormous adversity.
His sequel, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, expands on these ideas by asking: “Now that we know this, what do we do?” The book’s central tenet is that educators must compensate for the shortcomings in a student’s home environment in order to foster his character strengths. Tough argues that character can’t be taught in the same way as math: “There’s no evidence that any particular curriculum or textbook or app can effectively teach kids grit or self-control.” Rather, such qualities are presented as psychological attributes that are products of a child’s home, daycare, and school.
Tough draws on new research from the fields of neuroscience, education, early childhood development, and psychology to highlight the effects of “toxic stress” caused by unstable home and family settings. These problems manifest in school through cycles of anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behavior.
The book’s strength is its effective and succinct depiction of what successful environmental changes should look like. In his chapters on the home, Tough highlights simple day-to-day interventions (such as positive parent-child interactions and home visiting programs) that can leave a lasting, positive impact on children. Additionally, some models (such as the Chicago School Readiness Project) have been successful in raising preschoolers’ achievement in English and math by building positive student-teacher relationships.
It’s this interaction between the “relationship” and “pedagogical” spheres that is needed in the K–12 environment, says Tough. The best teachers tap into a student’s intrinsic motivators, such as positive relationships, autonomy, and sense of belonging; but they also exploit extrinsic motivators like grades and future college success. The evidence (like the Expeditionary Learning Education Network’s focus on project-based and cooperative learning) indicates that there are plenty of academic benefits to be derived from encouraging students to develop strong bonds with teachers and peers.
Tough seeks to empower schools and teachers to make the kind of “disruptive innovations”—bottom-up reforms—that my colleague Mike Petrilli has recently championed. Using a rich variation in case studies, he shows that there are many ways of shaping a child’s environment at the classroom level.
Tough warns against efforts to scale successful models prematurely (or link them to school accountability frameworks too hastily) while the research base is still fresh. Nevertheless, this book serves well as a pocket-sized toolkit that teachers can begin using immediately to affect positive change in their students’ lives. It’s easy to imagine a dog-eared copy sitting on a teacher’s desk.
SOURCE: Paul Tough, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 2016).