NCFY Reads: Paul Tough's "How Children Succeed"

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Cover page of book, How Children Succeed

"How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character"

by Paul Tough

Journalist and father Paul Tough explores various studies and school settings to figure out what children need to succeed and how adults can help them.

Why do some children do well and others not? Many adults believe young people will succeed in life if they learn all that they can from school books, test well and get good grades. In “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” Paul Tough challenges that assumption, arguing that other factors, like young people’s ability to regulate their emotions and behavior, their curiosity and their perseverance play a role in how successful they become.

Though much of Tough’s book focuses on school-based programs, his investigation of the importance of personal characteristics and resilience will resonate with anyone working to prepare youth for adulthood. And from the science of stress to successful school structures, there is much to support Tough’s claims.

He starts his investigation by looking at the causes of failure. Mining findings from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, known as ACES, Tough explains the impact negative experiences in childhood and adolescence, such as physical abuse and neglect, can have on educational and health outcomes in adulthood. The study is based on the questionnaires of more than 17,000 adults enrolled in the Kaiser HMO  in the 1990s. Those adults received a score based on their answers and the higher the ACE score the lower the chances the person had enough resilience and support from adults to handle difficult situations. And without those positive factors, children are more likely to misbehave in the classroom and to have impaired social skills and an inability to concentrate. To get these young people back on track, Tough argues, we need to nurture their social and emotional skills.

Tough finds the ingredients for success at academic programs that aim to build the ability to think, learn and excel. He highlights two such programs, Tools of the Mind and the KIPP Academies model. With long-term success in mind, Tools of the Mind teaches Pre-K and kindergarten students to stay focused, manage their feelings and control their impulses, among other things.

“The founders of Tools of the Mind believe that these skills, which they group together under the rubric of self regulation, will do more to lead to positive outcomes for their students, in first grade and beyond, than the traditional menu of pre-academic skills,” Tough writes.

Similarly, the curriculum at KIPP Academies mixes academics with lessons in character and resilience for middle and high school students. These are skills founder David Levin found helped his students succeed in college. Students are even evaluated on character development.

Through it all, Tough weaves in stories from people who personify the statistics and processes, like 16-year-old Thomas “Mush” Gaston, who was involved in a Chicago gang, was disruptive in high school and had a long history of exposure to violence. Or Elizabeth Spiegel’s work teaching chess to sixth graders in Brooklyn.

While Tough doesn’t offer many concrete action steps, “How Children Succeed” presents a compelling way to think about, and approach, success.

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