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Paul Tough examines how children do (and don't) succeed

Paul Tough's
Paul Tough's "How Children Succeed."
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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It's day two of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, and 350,000 students remain locked out of their classrooms. Today, Chicago teachers and the city government continue to battle over pay, length of work days and the effects of teacher evaluations.

But as the war over teacher compensation wages on, are schools properly educating children?

That's what author Paul Tough tries to analyze in his new book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character." As of now, success is illustrated through test scores throughout an individual's education career: from pre-school to the SATs to the Bar Exam.

But Tough argues that the qualities that matter most have more to do with character, like perseverance, curiosity, and self-control.

Interview Highlights:

On the focus of his book:
"It goes a step back from the 10,000 hours [referenced in Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers"] to say, 'Ok, well, which kids are going to be the ones that can devote 10,000 hours to something and what is it that they can do or we can do to for them to help them become that sort of determined person?' So it's looking not at how you use your character traits to get to success, but how you build those character traits to begin with in the first place."

On which character traits are the most important to foster:
"Different educators define them in different ways, but some of the ones that they seem to be collecting around are: grit, perseverance, self-control, optimism and persistence. Persistence is the one I think transcends all of them. I think that's one problem that lots of kids have and one thing our education system doesn't prepare them for is how to deal with failure, how to deal with setbacks. Kids are under a lot of pressure, they have a lot of responsibilities, they have a lot of homework, but the path through the system actually doesn't have a lot of challenge in it. The rules and the process is actually pretty straightforward, and so I think that kids get out of that system, even graduating from great universities, and they don't have the character to persist despite failures, despite obstacles, and so when they do run into problems the way all of us do in adulthood, they're really stuck."

On how poor children are disadvantaged when it comes to these skills:
"The way I think of it is what we have in this country is an adversity gap, and it's a problem for kids on both ends of the income spectrum. The problem for kids at the bottom end of the income spectrum, and I spent a lot of time on this book reporting in serious low-income communities around a lot of poverty, they don't' have any absence of challenged, but in fact we don't give them the kind of support they need to make it through those failures, so often they're just beaten down by those challenges, whereas at the other end there's not enough adversity for the other kids, I think those kids are often over protected."

On the biological implications of growing up in poverty:
"For a long time we have known that kids who grow up in poverty don't do as well, by all sorts of measures, as kids from the middle class or affluent kids, but in the past we haven't known why. The science that I write about in this book and that I find the most compelling is about the neurological impact and the physical impact in other ways of growing up in a chaotic environment and what stress does to the developing brain, especially where this particular set of skills called executive functions develop. 'Executive functions' is the neuroscience term that has a lot of overlap with what we talk about when we talk about character."

On how stress can affect a developing brain:
"The scary part of this research is about the really devastating affect that growing up in stressful and chaotic environments can have. The good news is that parents and other caregivers can have a huge positive affect on how kids do in those environments, and one of the ways we know about this is from this rat study that some scientists at McGill in Montreal did. They found that there were certain mother rats that did this one particular activity called licking and grooming with their baby rats when they were stressed out. When the scientists took those baby rats and looked at them in adulthood, the ones that had been licked and groomed as kids did better in all sorts of ways, they were healthier, they lived longer, and in fact you could even see physically differences in their brains. I think here are some parallels to human caregiving that there are ways that parents can be very attuned and attentive to their kids, especially in the first year of life, that can have a huge impact going forward.

On whether kids are able to gain these skills after childhood:
"It is fixable, that's definitely one of the best times to intervene, but in this book I spent more time then I expected to looking at adolescent interventions, and I think that that's the place that this science is moving. That once kids become adolescents, they can think about their own brains in a way that they can't when they're younger, they can think about themselves, they can reflect on themselves, do what psychologists call meta-cognition. There are lots of these metacognitive techniques that kids can use to really transform themselves in adolescence, so I spent a lot of time looking at different interventions where kids are able to do that."

How Children Succeed By Paul Tough


Paul Tough, author of "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character." Tough will speak with KPCC's Patt Morrison at the ALOUD program at the Central Library on September 18th.