‘Helping Children Succeed’: Author Paul Tough Takes A Second Look At Success
When author Paul Tough released How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character in 2012, it spent more than a year on The New York Times bestseller lists and was translated into 27 languages. In the book, Tough combined research from several disciplines to look at how attitude and the learning environment can be good predictors of academic success for children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Now he’s back with a new book that builds on his previous work. Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why explains how parents, teachers and administrators can create environments to foster qualities that lead to success. Tough stopped by the [email protected] Show on Sirius XM channel 111 to answer questions about the new release and discuss why his work is so topical.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: Tell us about the reaction to How Children Succeed and how it spurred the second book.
Paul Tough: After How Children Succeed came out, I was speaking to different groups of parents and teachers and professionals. It was mostly when I was talking to teachers who were working directly with low-income kids that I would get this question: The stories in the book are interesting. The ideas make sense. But now that we know this, what do we actually do? I realized that I didn’t quite have an answer for that in my book, and a lot of the researchers I’d written about didn’t quite have an answer for that, either. So, that was this new project that I took on to revisit some of the research and find more and put it together into a book that is more of a handbook. It’s more of a guidebook for people who are dealing directly with kids to try to give them ideas about what we can do on a daily basis to help children succeed.
[email protected]: Then what’s the answer to that question that all these teachers were posing to you?
Tough: One of the things that I wrote about in How Children Succeed was this set of skills sometimes called non-cognitive skills, sometimes called character strengths, things like grit and curiosity, conscientiousness, perseverance, self-control. I remain convinced that these are important capacities for kids to have. I think that the problem with the way that I was writing about it, and the way other people have interpreted this research, is that we’re thinking about them as the kind of skills that you can teach in school the way you teach math or reading or geography or anything else.
“Character strengths, things like grit and curiosity, conscientiousness, perseverance, self-control … are important capacities for kids to have.”
I think the right way to think about them, and what the research suggests, is that they are more the product of a child’s environment. The environment that we create both in the home and in the classroom makes kids able to persevere, to exercise self-control, to behave in all of the ways that are going to maximize their future opportunities. But I think until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of attention put on what those environments are and what adults can do to create them.
[email protected]: You focus on situations where kids may be in a low-income home, where they don’t have the resources of some of the other kids out there.
Tough: Yes. I think we now understand more than we used to, especially from research being done in neuroscience, what it is about growing up in a high-poverty community, in a low-income home, in a family that has a lot of pressure and stress. What does it do biologically to a child’s developing brain and body that sometimes makes it difficult for them to succeed in school without getting additional types of support and help? Part of the book is about that science and trying to explore what a teacher, parent or any kind of professional should know about that science in order to change the way they teach or change the kind of environments they try to create.
[email protected]: The kids are a major component to this. But just as important are the parents and what they are doing at home to set that pattern, and also the teachers involved in this process.
Tough: One of the big things I’m trying to do with this book is shift the responsibility for getting these skills away from the children and toward the adults, which is not to let the kids off the hook. They’ve got to work hard in order to develop these capacities. But I think there’s something about the non-cognitive skill research that inclines us to say, “OK, kids need grit, so they just have to figure out how to get grit, and it’s not our responsibility.” This book is trying to push us much more toward thinking what we as adults can do to help that.
[email protected]: The majority of parents think about that on a daily basis. The problem is actually implementing this. A lot of parents are so busy with their lives that, unfortunately, at times the kids are not always the first thought.
Tough: It’s true. With parenting, we’re always looking for the quick and easy answer. A lot of this research suggests that what kids, especially in early childhood, need most is a lot of what psychologists are calling “serve and return” interactions — those back-and-forth, face-to-face exchanges between babies and parents, that to parents can seem kind of pointless and not particularly productive. But to the babies, these are incredible learning moments where they are gathering all kinds of information about what the world is going to be like, what their relationship with their parents is, who they are in the world, in entirely pre-verbal ways. Neuroscientists are now understanding that those moments are so important in laying the groundwork for the development of skills that matter so much in school and beyond.
“The environment that we create both in the home and in the classroom makes kids able to persevere, to exercise self-control, to behave in all of the ways that are going to maximize their future opportunities.”
[email protected]: If the home life doesn’t provide all of the qualities that kids need, can the schools fill in some of those spots?
Tough: Absolutely. One of the things that I’m trying to do in this book is keep these two ideas in mind at the same time. It’s the best time for us to intervene in the lives of kids, especially those growing up in adversity. But if we don’t get the right kind of support in those early years, it’s definitely not too late.
There are all kinds of things that teachers and other professionals, other institutions can do later on in childhood to help. I think it comes back to that question of environments. There’s a lot of research around motivation in psychology that talks about how the kind of messages that kids up through high school are getting from their environment. Messages about belonging, about possibility, about skill, that shape their motivation and have a huge effect on