Book review: Helping Children Succeed

Empty. While reading Helping Children Succeed, the new book by Paul Tough, I went through the ink of a brand new highlighter. Need I say more? In this follow-up to his best-selling, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul answers the “tough” questions he encountered while promoting his prior work. This piece continues to note statistics and research such as this note,

“In 2013, the United States reached an educational milestone. For the first time, a majority of the country’s public school students — 51 percent of them, to be precise — fell below the federal government’s threshold for being “low income,” meaning they were eligible for a free or subsidized school lunch.”

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He follows with a serious charge. “The challenge of teaching low-income children can no longer be considered a side issue in American education. Helping poor kids succeed is now, by definition, the central mission of American public schools and, by extension, a central responsibility of the American public.”

On the heels of this quote, throughout the book, Tough points to the challenges facing our nation. “If we want to improve a child’s grit or resilience or self-control, it turns out that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first, it seems, is his environment. Rather than consider noncognitive capacities as skills to be taught, I came to conclude, it’s more accurate and useful to look at them as products of a child’s environment.” As Tough is known to do (and does so quite effectively), he intertwines research with story; and in the case of Helping Children Succeed, he cites effective intervention strategies working in real communities.
The opening chapters emphasize the importance of child development from birth to three years of age. “There is overwhelming evidence that early childhood — the years before a child’s sixth birthday, and especially before her third — is a remarkable time of both opportunity and potential peril in a child’s development. Tough describes how most of the achievement gap between well-off and poor children opens up before age five; for most children, the gap then stays pretty steady from kindergarten through the end of high school; and he talks of effective strategies and/or programs such as Educare, All Our Kin, teachers in the Chicago School Readiness Project CSRP, etc. working to reverse this trend.

After tackling early childhood, the chapters shift to school-aged children noting the shift that takes place noting, “For most children the first day of kindergarten marks an important shift in the environment that influences and shapes their growth. From that day forward, most children spend more of their waking hours in the care of their teachers than in the care of their parents.” He talks of how “children who have been growing up in adverse environments filled with stress now have a new arena in which those stresses can manifest themselves and multiply” and of how “neurocognitive dysfunctions can quickly become academic dysfunctions.”

buildingblocksFor his book, Tough often recalls the work of Deci and Ryan, who identified “three key human needs — our need for competence, our need for autonomy, and our need for relatedness, meaning personal connection.” Many of the pages connect these three key human needs to a host of programs helping children such BAM (Becoming a Man), Turnaround for Children, and the work being done by CORE (California Office to Reform Education).

Other sections are devoted to breaking down traditional educational views towards behaviorism and its ineffectiveness with hard to reach students. “Many schools and school systems look at students who are struggling and think: How do we discipline them? They don’t see a child who hasn’t yet developed a healthy set of self-regulation mechanisms; what they see is simply a kid with behavioral problems.” Tough rebuffs this type of thinking stating, “one of the chief insights that the neurobiological research provides is that the behavior of young people, especially young people who have experienced significant adversity, is often under the sway of emotional and psychological and hormonal forces within them that are far from rational.” He continues to describe the behaviorist approach to education and it use of positive reinforcement for a certain behaviors, which educators hope to get more of it; and for negative behavior, negative reinforcement is given hoping it translates to less incidents. Tough cites, “researchers are increasingly coming to understand that there are limits to the effectiveness of rewards and punishments in education, and that for young people whose neurological and psychological development has been shaped by intense stress, straightforward reward systems are often especially ineffective;” and he shares findings of “no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation,” or “any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior.” He cites a study that teacher incentives may actually decrease student achievement. Following by emphasizing the role of relationships, Tough tells tales of connectedness and relatedness so vital to working with hard to reach students citing “four key beliefs that contribute most significantly to students’ tendency to persevere in the classroom including the feelings, 1) I belong in this academic community; 2) My ability and competence grow with my effort; 3) I can succeed at this; and 4) This work has value for me.”

Throughout his book, Tough’s passion shines through; and his desire to make a difference is not only evident in the text, but in his extraordinary website of resources he’s put together chocked full of charts, graphs, videos, etc. If working with students of poverty, this book is a must read.


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