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Sunday, November 01, 2015

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

I'm finally going to discuss How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough.  This one was mentioned in Failing Our Brightest Kids which I reviewed a while back; then my friend Teresa mentioned she was reading it.  

From the book description:  "Drawing on groundbreaking research in neuroscience, economics, and psychology, Tough shows that the qualities that matter most have less to do with IQ and more to do with character: skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism."

We have relied extensively on standardized testing to determine which children have the best chance at academic success.  All of the testing from elementary school through high school and scores on the ACT or SAT exams are hugely important in the evaluation of kids.  But we all know individuals who have not performed particularly well, and in some cases performed abysmally, on standardized tests and yet have been quite successful in college and in life.

Most people have a common sense realization that hard work pays off and that certain character traits are more important than IQ when it comes to achievement.  The question is how are character traits  like grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism instilled?  What can schools and teachers do to reinforce them?

Tough's research focuses on children who are disadvantaged by poverty, violence, and/or abuse.  Why and how do some of these kids overcome these circumstances?  The most important element (again, common sense) is that the kids who succeed have at least one person truly invested in their care.  Despite poverty and violence, if a child has one person who values and nurtures him, the chance of  success in school and in life increases exponentially.  

Tough interviews students and educators and provides some interesting glimpses at some ways of intervening by innovative educators, methods that have helped trump the inauspicious beginnings many of our children experience.  Those children who have been nurtured have more self-control and can better utilize other positive traits.  

What I took away from this on the simplest level is that, especially among the disadvantaged children of this country, the emphasis put on cognitive development before they attend school is less important than learning self-control and persistence and developing an optimistic approach to circumstances.  

In other words--yes, children from disadvantaged backgrounds may have smaller vocabularies and fewer learning opportunities at home, but what enables them to increase vocabulary, learn to read, learn to problem-solve, and ultimately improve their overall skills is largely dependent on developing self-control, being willing to work hard, and believing that they can succeed.  And for that, they need at least one person who values them.  Nurture allows Nature?

This is really not much of a book review, more of a disentangling of my thoughts about it.  I think the following is a good summary of why you might want to read it.

When asked how writing the book influenced his behavior as a parent, Tough replied:

"In the end, though, this research had a surprising effect: it made me more relaxed as a parent. When Ellington was born, I was very much caught up in the idea of childhood as a race--the faster a child develops skills, the better he does on tests, the better he’ll do in life. Having done this reporting, I’m less concerned about my son’s reading and counting ability. Don’t get me wrong, I still want him to know that stuff. But I think he’ll get there in time. What I’m more concerned about is his character--or whatever the right synonym is for character when you’re talking about a three-year-old. I want him to be able to get over disappointments, to calm himself down, to keep working at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating, to be good at sharing, to feel loved and confident and full of a sense of belonging. Most important, I want him to be able to deal with failure." (the highlighting is mine)

Digression:  another one of those synchronicitous events occurred after reading the book, when I found a couple of related articles.  

The first one is about researchers studying kindergarten kids and giving them a Social Competency Test.  One important factor mentioned was self-control; the study was over a period of nineteen years.

The second one, and more visually dramatic than words, compares the brain scans of children.  The brain of a three-year-old child who has been neglected and/or abused is so shrunken, so visibly different from the brain of a three-year-old who received love and care.

 This really isn't anything new, when we remember what happened to children in orphanages during WWII and again later, with dramatic accounts of Romanian children in institutions.  Somehow, though seeing these images has an even more chilling effect.


  1. This sounds like an interesting book, Jenclair. I never tested well on standardized tests, although I can't say I outright failed them either. Regardless, I tend not to put much stock in them. I think what Tough found makes sense--about success being dependent on persistence, self-control, working hard and believing in oneself. Those qualities certainly helped me throughout my life. I want that for my daughter too. She does not fall into a disadvantaged category, but I hope she is learning those things. Sometimes I wonder. Haha She is only 4 though.

    I especially like the highlighted area you shared. The other day when I told her I lost the Halloween decorating contest at work, she asked me if I felt sad about it. I told her I did, but that I was also happy the team that won. They did a good job too. She then told me it was like when she and I play Go Fish and she loses. She is sad, but happy for me. I love it when I can see that transfer of learning from one situation to another.

    1. Although Tough does concentrate on how and why some kids succeed despite poverty, he also mentions that children of the wealthy are often neglected or shunted off to care takers.

      Love that Mouse is learning that "not winning" is not the same as losing, and that feeling sad about some things is both temporary and a matter of perspective!

  2. Great post, Jenclair! I certainly agree with what the author mentioned in his book. EQ is also important as much as of IQ; in fact just the other day I was telling my eldest the importance of EQ and how it'd effect people the way she talk and do. Having a high IQ is great, but it'll get you nowhere if your EQ isn't there, that's what I'd told her.

    That said, this sounds like both an interesting and a good read.

    1. :) I thought about Goleman's book right away, too. Especially, about the ability to postpone gratification-- which takes self-control-- and the ability to empathize.

      The book was interesting. One of the things that most impressed me was how important chess was in one school Tough spent a lot of time in. The ability to strategize and think ahead is so important in the game...and in life.

  3. Wow, what a heartbreaking graphic! I wish all children could experience the stability and safety of a warm, loving home environment. It makes such a difference.

    This book sounds fascinating. I'll have to see if my library has it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. It is heartbreaking, isn't it? And the cycle of neglect perpetuates itself because these children often grow up to be parents who don't know how to nurture because they never experienced it. While we are aware of the tragic effects of neglect, seeing those brains side-by-side brings it home in a new way.

  4. Sounds like a good and important book. Don;t you want to send a copy to every member of Congress to get them to stop the insanity of all this stupid testing they are forcing on schools?

    1. Tough and many of the educators that he interviewed concentrate on completely different aspects of learning and education than do those who actually make the decisions. While I know that the intentions of those in charge are good, that they want to improve the system, I think there theories and their methods are wrong.

      Still, when the first few years of a child's life are so important, there are so many obstacles to overcome.

  5. Those brain scans are disturbing. It makes sense, however, especially when you consider how children who were severely neglected early in life often struggle with reactive attachment disorder and how horrifically difficult that can be.

    When discussing problems with the current educational system, you're definitely preaching to the choir here. :-)

    Great post!

  6. Glad to hear someone talking about this book because I bought it on Daily Deal several months ago and haven't touched it yet. As a mother to a four year old who is prepping for Kindergarten next year, it sounds like I should move it up the queue. It has been amazing to me to see the MOTHERS of Elle's peers discuss literacy and learning with their four year olds. The frustration over their children not being able to read yet or know their alphabet. I'm all "we'll read to her every night and when she learns she learns but I'm going to let her be FOUR for right now."

    BUT...I am interested in hearing what Tough has to say about self-control because this is definitely something that we are working on with both girls (Evie as she's going through the terrible twos and will eventually go through the "even worse threes").

    1. I think you will like the book, and it should reassure you that what you are doing is more important and will have more lasting effects than trying for a "Baby Einstein" kid will do. It focuses on the disadvantaged, but as Tough mentions in his comments about what he learned from his research, those children who can handle failure, who learn self-control and perseverance, and who feel confident that they are loved will always have a better chance at a successful life.

  7. Oh how true! I used to work in elementary schools in Sp. Ed, homeschooled my 2 younger kids off and on (I have a child living with Aspergers and the other has learning disabilities), and have grandkids with some educational problems in elementary now... so I have my own opinion about the public school system in the U.S. and it isn't a good one.

    They have a commercial here in CA,
    that basically states that a child's brain is developed 80% in the first 5 years, and that just talking, singing, reading books, letting them experience new settings, is so very important for their development. The opposite holds for neglected babies.

    Remember the old adage: street smarts, not book smarts? It can hold true that people with high IQs may not function well in the school or job market for whatever reasons, and those who have to struggle to keep up can eventually become what our society considers a good citizen.

    I went back to college a few years ago (before my disabilities forced me out and I'm on SS so I can't work---so I haven't bothered with online courses) and I was a Sociology major. Even as jaded as I am, I was surprised by the condition of some public schools out there. There was a documentary we watched in class on one county in Ohio-- one was state of the art in its labs, gyms, football field, etc. because of the wealthy district it was in. The other was in a poor district and the kids had to school in buildings that should've been condemned-- mold, leaking roofs, peeling paint, some classes had to go outside and cross a courtyard to get to a working bathroom, even in winter, not enough classroom supplies, outdated textbooks... you get the idea... my blood was boiling. This is allowed in this day and age? It might be a few years old, but not that long ago, and I'm sure it still is like this in certain pockets of the country to this day. How could these kids possibly have the correct setting to learn? Some of them have empty bellies, their single parent worked, and they came home to an empty house with no homework supervision...

    Sorry I have rambled on. You touched a sensitive nerve with me with this book and this topic. Thanks, Jen!!

    1. The book was genuinely interesting! Much of it reiterates the common sense attitudes that have always been successful, but that have been (in large degree) discarded by the system. The success of some schools disadvantaged districts often relies on a combination of old school traditions and innovative approaches. High stakes testing, as it has come to be used, is less successful than those who saw it as an answer hoped. Time to re-evaluate.