With all of the talk of education reform and what’s needed to revitalize public schools, it’s refreshing to read Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. In this slim volume, Tough pulls together decades of social science research on the impacts of poverty and trauma on kids’ brains and behavior, and makes a cogent, convincing argument for why this research should lie at the center of any discussions about reform.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 119 pages

Researchers have found that the chronic stress of living in chaotic, impoverished environments affects brain centers involved in executive functioning, which controls things like attention, working memory, planning, reasoning, and inhibition. Children who grow up in stressful environments tend to have more emotional and behavioral problems, making the transition to school problematic. Yet, as Tough points out, more than 50 percent of school-aged kids are now coming from low-income families, without the optimal cognitive or emotional development to succeed as students.

Disadvantaged kids with neuro-cognitive problems should not be blamed for having trouble learning to read and write early on, he writes. It’s understandable that, as academic material gets more difficult, they will likely fall behind further, emotionally and relationally. When these kids hit adolescence, though, they often are labeled as unmotivated or as having attitude problems, which just alienates them even more.

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Though the picture looks dire, character strengths like perseverance, conscientiousness, self-control, and optimism can help kids succeed in spite of hardship, according to Tough. They are not easily taught, though, at least not directly. Instead, contextual influences in the environment are what nurture them.

“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,” writes Tough. “What we need to change first, it seems, is his environment.”

The role of parents

What does Tough mean by environment? The adults in a child’s life, starting at the very beginning with parents.

Research has shown that all young children need certain types of supports from parents to develop in positive directions—starting with consistent, safe, and loving attention. When children come from homes where there is abuse, domestic violence, an incarcerated parent, or a parent with drug or mental health problems, they don’t get that kind of attention and suffer the consequences: higher risks of later-life depression, adolescent pregnancy, alcoholism, drug use, and poor academic performance.

Parents can also shape their children’s life trajectory by how they role-model emotional resilience. If stressed-out parents react to children’s emotions by yelling at or hitting them, or ignoring or neglecting them, they create an unsafe environment that ratchets up the children’s stress and distrust of others. Negative parenting can affect a child’s ability to regulate emotion, which creates problems in interpersonal interactions as well as learning.

“By contrast, parents who are able to help their children handle stressful moments and calm themselves down after a tantrum or scare often have a profoundly positive effect on the children’s long-term ability to manage stress,” writes Tough.

Rather than focusing on heartwarming stories, Tough chooses to spend time detailing the types of interventions that show promise. Programs like FIND, which trains parent coaches to work with low-income, stressed parents, focus less on pointing out what parents do wrong and more on what parents do right, in order to nudge parents toward behaviors that help their kids.

The role of schools

Paul Tough

Tough also describes successful programs aimed at preschool-aged kids—like Educare, All Our Kin, and CSRP, all of which focus on improving the learning environment for young kids (rather than direct skills training). In a randomized trial of CSRP, children who spent a pre-K year in CSRP had better cognitive skills and better self-regulation—the ability to sit still, follow directions, and pay attention—than kids who hadn’t gone through CSRP. The improvements were all credited to the stable, nurturing, predictable learning environment, where good behavior was recognized more than bad behavior punished.

“Changing the environment in the classroom made it easier for [the kids] to learn,” writes Tough.

For older kids, Tough eschews our current tactic of offering students extrinsic rewards, and instead encourages teachers to nurture intrinsic motivation, fueled by the basic human need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness (or connection). Tough suggests teachers assign tasks that are challenging, but not too challenging; minimize coercion and control; and show warmth and respect for students, so they feel part of the learning community.

“These motivational dynamics can play an even greater role in the school experience of low-income students, especially those whose development has been affected by early exposure to toxic stress,” he writes. Punitive policies targeting behavioral problems have been shown to backfire, he adds, putting kids even further behind their peers.

In other words, motivation to learn has little to do with grit and more to do with the learning environment. Tough recounts an experiment by David Yeager and colleagues in which teachers provided feedback to students on their essays and then added a Post-it that said either the comments were given as feedback or the comments reflected the teacher’s high expectations for the student. This relatively small difference had a profound effect, particularly on black students: 72 percent revised their paper if they were told the teacher had high expectations, while only 17 percent revised it otherwise.

“At the very moment when a student might be gearing up to react to the teacher’s comments as a threat, a sign of the teacher’s personal disapproval or bias, the Post-it gave the student an alternative frame through which to view those comments—not as an attack, in other words, but as a vote of confidence,” writes Tough.

It’s also important that teachers provide challenge to students, says Tough. He highlights some of the innovative programs that are working on creating a positive learning environment, both relationally and academically. EL Education is a research-based program that helps schools work with emotionally or behaviorally challenged students in therapeutic ways, then provides curriculum allowing students more autonomy and challenge. Independent evaluators have found that schools embracing EL Education programs significantly advance students’ reading and math abilities in comparison to other schools.

But of course these are only isolated programs, albeit ones that are growing in influence. Though science may inform positive reforms, the reforms may be difficult to scale up, even if they are effective. Education experts have a long history of imposing well-meaning but ineffective policy changes on schools, and the authority to reform schools often lies within each state or even within individual school districts. .

But Tough is hopeful. If we can change our policies and our practices in the classroom, and work with researchers devoted to finding ways to help our children, we can “make a tremendous difference, not only in the lives of individual children and their families, but in our communities and our nation as a whole.”

His book may just help get us there.

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