How Children Succeed

I will recommend 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. 

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 – have been found to 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 viewed by some as a solution, psychological intervention is probably be a better remedy.  KIPP provides “character” report cards – designed to show students that such traits can improve with time.  The motto?  “Work hard.  Be Nice.”  See 

For anyone with interest in education, this 197 page book is a must read.   

One thought on “How Children Succeed

  1. Skip

    Scott, I agree entirely. From school to school somewhere between 30-50% of entering Kindergarteners are assessed as “Not Ready” to do the work of a Kindergartener.

    From my volunteer work in early childhood education I have concluded – for now – that our focus needs to be on the parents of preschoolers and parents-to-be. The things that need to be done to help children be ready are easy, simple and mostly free, e.g. holding them, reading to and with them, encouraging them to try things and explore. Being ready to learn has as much to do with how parents, family and caregivers interact with a child as it does the quality of their preschool education or the number of books in the household.

    Robert Sapolsky, in his book, Behave, has a lot of great, research-based information about how our brains have evolved, how our brains develop as we grow and, by example, how we can help our children and grandchildren develop their skills. It’s a hard book to read unless you are familiar with neurobiology but fascinating none the less and well worth the effort.

    While our focus should always be on results for the kids, the focus has to be on the parents. As our brains develop, there are windows of opportunity when the brain is ready to learn to develop new foundational skills. Those windows of opportunity open…and then they close. There’s a reason I suck at learning new languages. That window closed for me a long time ago. Yet our friend Bob, can pick up a conversational level of a new language in 2-3 weeks. There is a normal bell-shaped curve distribution of when a specific window closes for an individual. The result is that nationally 85% of the kids who are assessed as Not Ready in Kindergarten will never test proficient on standardized reading tests. For most kids, Kindergarten is too late to intervene. If you really want to make a difference, you have to start essentially at birth. Which is why the parents are pivotal.

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