How Children Succeed

I just finished a wonderful book How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, a journalist and former editor of the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Tough addresses the controversial question of why there is an achievement gap between underprivileged students – and those who aren’t. 

The quick answer is that most educators believe that academic success relates to cognitive skills – the kind of “intelligence” that can be measured on IQ tests. However more and more, there is an understanding that non-cognitive skills (curiosity, socialization, character, self control, self confidence and “grit”) are better predictors of academic achievement.  The success of a student has less to do with “smarts” than with more ordinary personality traits such as the ability to stay focused and to control impulses. 

Non-cognitive skills  – such as persistence and curiosity – can actually predict future success.  College graduates who participated in New York’s KIPP (“Knowledge is Power Program”) were not so much the academic stars but the ones who plugged away at problems and resolved to improve themselves.  Grit. 

Are we surprised that children who grow up in abusive or dysfunctional environments statistically have more trouble concentrating, sitting still or rebounding from disappointments?  There is neurological/medical reason for this.  The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex which regulates thoughts and behavior.  When this region is damaged, a condition that often occurs in children living in the pressures of poverty, it is tougher to suppress unproductive instincts.  Studies show that early nurturing from parents combats the biochemical effects of stress.  The prefrontal cortex then becomes more responsive to intervention and the learning of essential non-cognitive skills.

While throwing money at the problem is always viewed as a solution, psychological intervention may be a better remedy.  KIPP is now experimenting with “character” report cards – designed to show students that such traits can improve with time.  For any educator, this 197 page book is a must read.   

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