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Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

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A NOW READ THIS  PBS NewsHour  and  New York Times Book Review  selection 

An essential handbook of successful strategies to help kids overcome issues, learn, and thrive—including in today’s chaotic learning environments for kids

In  How Children Succeed , Paul Tough introduced us to research showing that personal qualities like perseverance, self-control, and conscientiousness play a critical role in children’s success.
      Now, in  Helping Children Succeed , Tough takes on a new set of pressing What does growing up with economic and other stress do to children’s mental and physical development? How does adversity at home affect their success in the classroom, from preschool to high school? And what practical steps can the adults who are responsible for them take to improve their chances for a positive future?
      Tough once again encourages us to think in a new way about the challenges of childhood. Mining the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, he provides us with insights and strategies for a new approach to childhood adversity, one designed to help many more children succeed.

144 pages, Hardcover

First published May 24, 2016

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About the author

Paul Tough

13 books401 followers
Paul Tough is the author, most recently, of The Inequality Machine. His three previous books include How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which was translated into 27 languages and spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback best-seller lists. Paul is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine; his writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and GQ, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. He is a speaker on topics including education, parenting, equity, and student success. He has worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s Magazine and as a reporter and producer for This American Life. He was the founding editor of Open Letters, an online magazine. He lives with his wife and two sons in Austin, Texas, and Montauk, New York. For more information, please visit his web site or follow him on Twitter.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 210 reviews
Profile Image for Katie Loftin.
60 reviews1 follower
March 31, 2017
If you're looking for classroom strategies to help you teach non-cognitive skills and character strengths, you've unfortunately come to the wrong place. Despite the title that clearly suggests otherwise, Tough writes in his conclusion, "We don't need to know exactly what to do in order to know that we need to do something." I, for one, disagree with this claim and would appreciate more concrete ideas to implement in my classroom, especially from a book with a subtitle involving the words "what works."

Let me save you an hour or two of your time. Build a positive classroom environment and strong relationships with your students. Strive for providing students with competence, autonomy, and relatedness. You can give autonomy by maximizing a sense of choice and volitional engagement and minimizing students' feelings of coercion and control. Students feel competent when teachers give them tasks that they can succeed at but aren't too easy. And they feel relatedness when they think their teachers like, value, and respect them.
Profile Image for Zach.
1,421 reviews19 followers
September 5, 2016
I want every person who thinks poor kids can get a better education to read this book. I

want every administrator who thinks suspending kids is the best way to punish them to read this book.

I want every school board member who thinks hiring teachers should be about what extracurricular roles they might fill to read this book.

I want every person who believes his or her tax dollars are being wasted on early-intervention programs to read this book.

I want every teacher who thinks the classroom is about maintaining discipline via arbitrary and harmful "policies" to read this book.

I can keep going.

The reason it's only four stars is it relies too much on "studies." As a 13-year veteran who teaches at an excellent but relatively diverse suburban high school, I've learned to put no truck in any "study" that wasn't done with my students in my building.

That said, lots of important stuff here.
Profile Image for Emily.
933 reviews104 followers
July 27, 2017
"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." (13)


"When we hear the word environment, we often think first of a child's physical environment. And adverse physical surroundings do play a role in children's development, especially when they are literally toxic, as when children are exposed to lead in their drinking water or carbon monoxide in the are they breathe. But one of the most important findings of this new cohort of researchers is that for most children, the environmental factors that matter most have less to do with the buildings they live in than with the relationships they experience - they way the adults in their lives interact with them, especially in times of stress.

"The first and most essential environment where children develop their emotional and psychological and cognitive capacities is the home - and, more specifically, the family. Beginning in infancy, children rely on responses from their parents to make sense of the world. Researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University have labeled these 'serve and return' interactions. Infants make a sound or look at an object - that's the serve - and parents return the serve by sharing the child's attention and responding to his babbles and cries with gestures, facial expressions, and speech: 'Yes, that's your doggy!' 'Do you see the fan?' 'Oh dear, are you sad?' These rudimentary interactions between parents and babies, which can often feel to parents nonsensical and repetitive, are for the infants full of valuable information about what the world is going to be like. More than any other experiences infants have, they trigger the development and strengthening of neural connections in the brain between the regions that control emotion, cognition, language, and memory." (17)


"A second crucial role parents play early on is as external regulators of their children's stress, in both good ways and bad. Research has shown that when parents behave harshly or unpredictably - especially at moments when their children are upset - the children are less likely over time to develop the ability to manage strong emotions and more likely to respond ineffectively to stressful situations. By contrast, parents who are able to help their children handle stressful moments and calm themselves down after a tantrum or a scare often have a profoundly positive effect on the children's long-term ability to manage stress. Infancy and early childhood are naturally full of crying jags and meltdowns, and each one is, for the child, a learning opportunity (even if that's hard to believe, in the moment, for the child's parents). When a child's caregivers respond to her jangled emotions in a sensitive and measured way, she is more likely to learn that she herself has the capacity to manage and cope with her feelings, even intense and unpleasant ones. That understanding, which is not primarily an intellectual understanding but instead is etched deep into the child's psyche, will prove immensely valuable when the next stressful situation comes along - or even in the face of a crisis years in the future." (18)


"Moments of failure, Farrington believed, are the time when students are most susceptible to messages, both positive and negative, about their potential. If they hear the message that a failure is a final verdict on their ability, they may well give up and pull back from school. But if instead they get the message that a failure is a temporary stumble, or even a valuable opportunity to learn and improve, then that setback is more likely to propel them to invest more of themselves in their education. Farrington believed that these narratives about failure were especially resonant among students from low-income families, who were more likely to be anxious or insecure about the possibility of failing in an academic context." (75)


"The experience of persisting through an intellectual challenge and succeeding despite the struggle is a profound one for schoolchildren - as profound, it seems, as serve-and-return is for the infant brain. It produces feelings of both competence and autonomy - two of Deci and Ryan's three big intrinsic motivations. And yet most of our schools, especially schools educating poor kids, operate in ways that steer children away from those experiences.

"In 2007, Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia published in the results of a large-scale survey of American public schools that he and a team of researchers had undertaken, observing regular instruction over the course of an entire school day in 737 typical fifth-grade classrooms across the United States, as well as hundreds of additional first- and third-grade classrooms. Pianta's researchers found that in almost every school they observed, the instruction students received was repetitive and undemanding, limited mostly to the endless practice of basic skills. cooperative learning and small-group instruction - the central pedagogical strategies of groups like Turnaround and schools like Polaris and WHEELS - were rare, taking up less than 5 percent of classroom time, and so were opportunities for students to practice or develop analytic skills like critical thinking, deep reading, or complex problem-solving. Instead, students spent most of their time hearing lectures on basic skills from teachers or practicing those basic skills on worksheets. The average fifth-grade student received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem-solving or reasoning, Pianta and his coauthors reported; in first and third grades, the ratio was ten to one.

"And while the Science authors found instruction to be basic and repetitive even in American schools with a mostly middle-class or upper-middle-class student population, they found that the situation was considerably worse in schools that enrolled a lot of low-income children. Students in schools populated mostly by middle-class-and-above children were about equally likely to find themselves in a classroom with engaged and interesting instruction (47 percent of students) as in one with basic, repetitive instruction (53 percent of students). But students in schools serving mostly low-income children were almost all (91 percent) in classrooms marked by basic, uninteresting teaching.

"It's important to note that this approach to education, so widespread in the United States, is not inevitable. In other countries, classroom teaching can look quite different. In the 1990s, a researcher named James Stigler coordinated a vast international project that involved videotaping the classrooms of hundreds of randomly selected eighth-grade math teachers in the United States, Germany, and Japan. Stigler, who summarized his research in a 1999 book that he coauthored with James Hiebert titled The Teaching Gap, found that math classes in Japan almost always followed a very different script from math classes in the United States.

"In Japan, teachers would introduce a new mathematical method -let's say, adding fractions with different denominators, like 3/5 + 1/2 - by presenting the students with a problem they'd never seen before and instructing them to figure it out on their own. Students would stare at the problem for a while, scratch their heads, sometimes wince in pain, and then come up with an answer that was usually wrong.

"Next would come a series of discussions, in small groups and in the class as a whole, in which students compared and contrasted their solutions, arguing and lobbying for different approaches. The teacher would guide the discussion in a way that led, eventually, to a new element of math understanding (in this case, the principle of finding the lowest common denominator). Often the correct solution would be proposed not by the teacher but by one of the students. The whole process was sometimes bewildering and occasionally frustrating for students, but that was kind of the point. By the end of class, confusion and frustration gave way to the satisfaction of a new depth of comprehension, not delivered in whole cloth by an omniscient adult, but constructed from the group up, in part through a dialogue among the students.

"In American classrooms, by contrast, Stigler found that a unit on adding fractions with unlike denominators would usually begin with the teacher writing on an overhead projector a reliable formula to solve the problem, which students would be expected to copy down, memorize, and use for each subsequent problem. The teacher would then complete, on the overhead projector, a couple of sample problems while the students watcher, listened, and copied the problems down in their workbooks. The teacher would then give the students series of exercises to complete on their own that looked very similar to the sample problems the teacher had just demonstrated. Students would absorb these new procedures, Stiger and Hiebert wrote in The Teaching Gap, by 'practicing them many times, with later exercises being slightly more difficult than earlier ones.' The guiding principle for American teachers seemed to be that 'practice should be relatively error-free, with high levels of success at each point. Confusion and frustration, in this tradition American view, should be minimized.'

"Stigler's researchers logged hundreds of hours of videotape, which allowed them to assign some hard numbers to these cultural tendencies. In Japan, 41 percent of students' time in math class was still spent on basic practice - churning through one problem after another - but 44 percent was devoted to more creative stuff: inventing new procedures or adapting familiar procedures to unfamiliar material. In the American classrooms, by contrast, 96 percent of students' time was spent on repetitive practice, and less than 1 percent was spent puzzling through new approaches.

"This dominant American instructional strategy may save students from those uncomfortable feelings of confusion and struggle that Japanese students must endure - but it also denies them the character-building opportunities..." (100-103)


"Now that we know this, what do we do?

"Let me propose three answers."

"First, we need to change our policies. Consistently creating what Pamela Cantor has called 'fortified environments' for poor children will mean fundamentally rethinking and remaking many of our entrenched institutions and practice: how we provide aid to low-income parents; how we create, fund, and manage systems of early-childhood care and education; how we train our teachers; how we discipline our students and assess their learning; and how we run our schools. These are essentially questions of public policy, and if real solutions are going to be found to the problems of disadvantaged children, these questions will need to be addressed, in a creative and committed way, by public officials at all levels - by school superintendents, school-board members, mayors, governors, and cabinet secretaries - as well as by individual citizens, community groups, and philanthropists across the country...

"Second, we need to change our practices. The project of creating better environments for children growing up in adversity is, at bottom, the work on individuals. Which means that the teachers, mentors, social workers, coaches, and parents who spend their days working with low-income children don't need to wait for large-scale policy changes to be enacted in order to take actions today and tomorrow and the next day that will help those children succeed...the trajectory that children's lives follow can sometimes be redirected by things that might at first seem, to the adults in their lives, to be small and insignificant. The tone of a parent's voice. The words a teacher writes on a Post-it note. The way a math class is organized. The extra time that a mentor or a coach takes to listen to a child facing a challenge. Those personal actions can create powerful changes, and those individual changes can resonate on a national scale.

"Finally, we need to change our way of thinking. When you spend time reading through the kind of intervention studies that I've written about here, it's easy to get caught up in the specifics of the date: sample sizes, standard deviations, regression analyses. And that data certainly matters. But i also find it useful, every once in a while, to think about the individual people who conducted these studies: the doctors or psychologists or social workers who went in to an orphanage in Russia or an impoverished neighborhood in Jamaica or a high school in Chicago or a living room in Queens and said, in essence, I want to help. I think we can do better.

"As much as we draw on the data that those researchers have produced, I think we can also draw on their example. The premise underlying their work is that if there are children suffering in your community - or your nation - there is something you can do to help We all still have a lot to learn about how best to deliver that help, which means that we need to continue and indeed expand upon the work those researchers are doing. But at the same time, we don't need to know exactly what to do in order to know that we need to do something." (112-114)
Profile Image for Hayley Stenger.
290 reviews82 followers
October 4, 2020
Although I do agree with much of the book, I feel it is an introductory and surface level book on early childhood education and beyond. I have read many of these ideas before and in a more in-depth way and there isn't a lot of new. I would recommend it to parents and teachers as a way to introduce teaching children.
Profile Image for Eric Durso.
320 reviews13 followers
June 13, 2017
He understands the educational system is broken, and offers some tips to begin to fix it. I find it interesting that his suggestions, based on numerous studies and surveys, are quite similar to what healthy churches have been doing for centuries. The focus on character rather than information transfer, the need for high expectations and encouragement, and the emphasis on personal relationships and mentoring are integral for raising up the next generation. As a pastor, this seems obvious. In the current educational climate, they're profound.
109 reviews2 followers
December 19, 2017
This is a book mostly written for educators. As a former educator I perhaps got more out of it than someone who has never taught in a classroom, but nevertheless it wasn't quite was I was looking for. I was looking for a parenting book, and this is not that. It had some interesting points, though. From my perspective, it could be summarized as follows: To help children succeed, love them and care for them in a safe setting.
15 reviews
August 8, 2016
Very little new material

This is like an addendum to How Children Succeed versus a new book. Feels like a cash grab. Not actionable pointers for how to help instill positive characteristics into your kids, which I felt was misleading given the title and description of the book.
Profile Image for Lisajean.
222 reviews40 followers
November 14, 2018
This is a well-researched and compelling book about the important issue of improving education for low-income students, but it does not present teachers with enough concrete steps that they can take to actually help children succeed.
October 22, 2018
A compelling read for those wanting to find out what would work for children that are raised under difficult circumstances.
Profile Image for Chad Broughton.
Author 2 books11 followers
October 29, 2018
A thrifty and cogent review of the latest social science on how to apply the lessons from Tough's previous book, How Children Succeed, which is much more substantial, and probably a better place to start for new readers. This is a quick read, and superficial, though its format is almost like a handbook for parents and teachers. The main focus is not on teaching skills like grit and self-control, but on creating environments that are conducive to learning these character skills, with a special emphasis on the importance of healthy and productive relationships. I appreciated this little book as a review that weaves together a vast range of recent research on trauma, grit, deep learning, etc. and innovative and successful programs. The reader gets the tight review and can move more deeply into any of these areas if they like. One limitation is that liberal reformers (I count myself in that camp) tend to focus on what can change with policy or social intervention, and tend to leave out the stuff that's harder to change. This book is guilty of that, pushing aside difficult questions about hard-wired personality traits, serious mental illness, addiction and substance abuse problems for a more hopeful vision of how things might change fir kids. There is a focus on poverty and adversity in the beginning and at the end, but the substantive middle of the book is mostly an uplifting tale of successful programs and ideas that sometimes feels more aspirational than grounded in the hard realities of extreme poverty in the US.
Profile Image for Aron Wagner.
242 reviews1 follower
January 13, 2017
At the end of this book, I put it down feeling a sense of empowerment. As a teacher, I have the ability to create a classroom environment of belonging and intellectual challenge. Moreover, as a member of my district's School Improvement committee, I am optimistic that we can shift policy and thinking, turning our ship to create positive outcomes for ALL our students. Lastly, as a citizen, I want push for change on the national level, re-prioritizing how we help the parents of young children and making sure our public educational institutions are strong enough to resist the efforts to fragment communities into haves and have-nots. This book was very readable, straightforward, and invigorating.
Profile Image for Katie.
34 reviews3 followers
June 9, 2016
I thoroughly appreciate the dedication Tough brings to figuring out how best to serve the most struggling students. He adds to the conversation and tirelessly advocates for them, but I sometimes question his conclusions and need to see more of the research rather than repeatedly hearing the phrase "the research shows." It's a short, thought-provoking book that follows the stronger "How Children Succeed." As an aside, I love the pace at which he narrated the audio book, with appropriate pauses to allow for digestion.
Profile Image for Sandeep Gautam.
Author 1 book24 followers
June 9, 2016
An excellent book for all parents, teachers, educators and policy makers ...freely available here: http://www.paultough.com/helping/web/ ...the online version has many embedded resources like videos etc and makes for a unique reading experience.

The only gripe is that Paul Tough, equates grit/ resilience with non-cognitive skills and makes a case that they cannot be taught in the traditional sense of the word; however many other character strengths like gratitude , forgiveness, kindness can be inculcated by giving daily homework assignments etc.
Profile Image for Jenn Lopez.
461 reviews14 followers
June 9, 2016
Some interesting studies and programs available to low income families. This book is already everything teachers, administrators, social workers, etc. know about the educational struggles of low income kids. We see it everyday. Get this book into the hands of legislators, law makers, philanthropists, people who have the money and power to change things permanently. We educators can only do so much and we exhaust our emotional and financial stores each new school year.
Profile Image for Summer.
45 reviews
December 12, 2017
I really enjoyed the insights and strategies shared in this book, until I got to the last few pages. Then Tough took a strong stance against public education and our system citing some radical policy changes. I may be overly sensitive in light of yesterday's confirmation of Betsy DeVos, but it felt like education reformer speech and I just can't right now. I would have given it a higher rating if I wouldn't have read the last three pages.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
541 reviews2 followers
June 9, 2016
As with his previous book, there is nothing specific or tangible for the classroom teacher. This book simply reiterates his previous book.
Profile Image for Joan Hollins.
25 reviews1 follower
June 18, 2016
Not as solution oriented as I had hoped. Anyone working in at-risk schools already knows all that he has written about.
Profile Image for sleeps9hours.
362 reviews2 followers
February 14, 2017
Not really worth a book. Originally planned as a free online report, maybe should’ve stayed that way, but of course a book is good for business.

p. 22 Among children who had 4 or more ACEs, 51% had learning or behavioral problems. A separate study found that school-age children with 2 or more ACEs were eight times more likely than children with none to demonstrate behavioral problems and more than twice as likely to repeat a grade in school. According to this study, slightly more than half of all children have never experienced an adverse event, but the other half, the ones with at least one ACE, account for 85% of the behavioral problems that educators see in school.

p. 35 U Minnesota study of 137 families with a documented history of child maltreatment. Parents who had abused or neglected children in the past and now had a new baby to care for. Control group standard community services, treatment group a year of therapeutic counseling focused on the relationship between parents and children. At the end of the year, only 2% of the children in the control group were securely attached, while 61% of tx group were.

p. 75 Moments of failure are the time when students are most susceptible to messages, both positive and negative, about their potential. If they hear the message that failure is a final verdict on their ability, they may well give up and pull back from school. But if instead they get the message that a failure is a temporary stumble, or even a valuable opportunity to learn and improve, then that setback is more likely to propel them to invest more of themselves in their education.

p. 77 academic perseverance: the tendency to maintain productive academic behaviors over time. They continue to work hard in a class even after failing a few tests; when they are stumped or confused by complex material, they look for new ways to master it rather than simply giving up. Students’ tendency to persevere at academic tasks was highly responsive to changes in school and classroom contexts.

p. 78 The key factor behind academic perseverance was students’ academic mindset—the attitudes and self-perceptions that each child and adolescent possessed. Camille Farrington of the Consortium on Chicago School Research (Ph.D. urban education) distilled the voluminous research on student mindset into four key beliefs that contribute most significantly to students’ tendency to persevere in the classroom:
1. I belong in this academic community
2. My ability and competence grow with my effort
3. I can succeed at this
4. This work has value for me

Deci & Ryan’s three intrinsic motivations: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

p. 98 You can’t teach character by just telling kids to be more confident or self-assured or have more intellectual courage. The way kids learn that is by continually being compelled and supported to take risks—by sharing their work with their parents, by sharing their work with groups, by speaking out in class, by presenting their work.

In order for a student to truly feel motivated by and about school, he also has to perceive that he is doing important work—work that is challenging, rigorous, and deep. Meeting and overcoming meaningful academic challenges is critical to developing the other positive academic mindsets like I can succeed at this and My ability and competence grow with my effort. This is, in fact, what Farrington found most effectively produces positive mindsets in kids, especially disadvantaged kids: the experience of encountering a problem you don’t know how to solve, struggling with it (often with the help of a team of peers, support from a teacher, or both) and then finally figuring it out.

p. 100 Schools need more cooperative learning and small-group instruction; and opportunities to practice or develop analytic skills like critical thinking, deep reading, and complex problem solving. Like math instruction in Japan, in which a new concept is presented but not taught (like 3/5 + ½) and students have to figure it out on their own, have a series of discussions, in small groups and in the class as a whole, arguing and lobbying for different approaches, while the teacher guides the discussion toward the correct solution (often proposed by one of the students). The whole process was sometimes bewildering and occasionally frustrating for students, but that was kind of the point. By the end of class, confusion and frustration gave way to the satisfaction of a new depth of comprehension, not delivered in whole cloth by an omniscient adult, but constructed from the ground up, in part through a dialogue among students.

p. 105 Job market wants: the ability to work in teams, to present ideas as a group, to write effectively, to think deeply and analytically about problems, to take information and techniques learned in one context and adapt them to a new and unfamiliar problem or situation.

Deeper learning proponents promote inquiry-based instruction, which means that in the classroom, teachers tend to engage students in discussions rather than just lecturing to them; project-based learning, in which students spend much of their time working, often in groups, on elaborate projects that might take weeks or months to complete; and performance-based assessments, in which students are judged not primarily by their scores on end-of-semester exams, but by the portfolios, presentations, artwork, and written work they produce throughout the year. At many schools run on deeper-learning principles, there is an ethos that celebrates peer critique, revision, and tinkering; student work often goes through many drafts over the course of the school year, based on feedback from teachers and classmates. One of the fundamental beliefs of deeper-learning advocates is that these practices—revising work over and over, with frequent critiques; persisting at long-term projects; dealing with the frustrations of hands-on experimentation—develop not just students’ content knowledge and intellectual ability, but their noncognitive capacities as well.
Profile Image for Kate.
622 reviews9 followers
January 24, 2023
This is a brief and thought-provoking review of research and specific programs that support the “non cognitive skills” and mindsets that promote better life and academic outcomes for children growing up in poverty or otherwise adverse environments discussed in greater detail in Tough’s earlier book.

I appreciated the way counter examples and arguments and implementation pitfalls were addressed.
Profile Image for Madi Hamilton.
149 reviews
June 30, 2018
I read this for my sociology class at BYU so I wasn’t able to take as much time on it as I would’ve liked, but I loved it. Although Paul Tough is very knowledgeable on the different factors that contribute to non-success among children, he explains his assertions so simply and clearly and made it very easy to read. Definitely many things I hadn’t thought of when it comes to child poverty.
Profile Image for Annette.
686 reviews7 followers
December 2, 2018
Wonderful study that helped me get my mind ready for teaching again. For as much as the world has changed, teaching students from underprivileged backgrounds has not changed in thirty years since I began my teaching career in a Title One School.
I wish more administrators, school board members and school district personnel along with city leaders would read Tough's books. We can only begin to solve the issue of poverty on education with relationship building, simple methods and more creative problem solving, not pushing more tests on kids.
Profile Image for Nikki.
390 reviews2 followers
September 10, 2019
audiobook - 4.5 stars - I really enjoyed this short complication of research & overall found it very relevant to the work I do with kids. not all of it was brand new info, but excellent examples were given & the ideas were well developed. I will definitely be taking some of this info & utilizing it in my practice.
Profile Image for Laura.
270 reviews3 followers
March 22, 2023
Mmm so many points raised that I wish were talked about more in education, definitely going back and revisiting a lot of these ideas
Profile Image for Whitney.
678 reviews19 followers
December 28, 2019
This is an important read for any educator, particularly the last half. It was also an important read for me as a parent.

The overall idea I took from it is that the environment kids are in has a huge impact on their learning. The teaching of grit and mindset is connected to that, but those things are not easy to gather data on, so it is not something at the forefront of our classrooms, but it should be.

I also loved that everything I've been learning about student engagement aligns to the research in this book.
Profile Image for Staci Woodburn-Henry.
346 reviews16 followers
June 7, 2022
Highly recommend. Not just for educators, policymakers, parents or any particular group. We should all be invested in how children succeed. It was insightful and gave clear takeaways. It ended on a hopeful note if indeed we choose to take action.
Profile Image for Skylar L. Primm.
438 reviews8 followers
July 12, 2016
In this slim book, Paul Tough does an excellent job of summarizing research and anecdotes regarding best practices toward improving the prospects of children in poverty. Starting in the home and early childhood, Tough eventually moves into the classroom, which is my area of interest. Tough argues the point that in America, the arbitrary divisions of childhood have a detrimental impact on our ability to effectively support the whole child. The point is well made, but as a teacher my interest is just naturally drawn to the classroom interventions. (That said, there are certainly parallels—which Tough notes—between the interventions that work well at home and at school.)

After completing his last book, Tough began to think that Non-Cognitive Skills (aka Grit, 21st Century Skills, etc.) are fundamentally different from academic skills like addition and subtraction or verb conjugation. You can’t teach a child resilience by lecturing to them about resilience (or even by supporting their work on a project on resilience). Rather, children need to learn it by trying something difficult, failing, not being belittled or punished for failing, and trying again (and again, and again). In short, students need classrooms that are “calm and consistent” so they can feel safe to focus on the work of learning. (For me, interpersonal mindfulness is how I try to provide the most calm and consistent classroom possible.)

Overall, Tough writes that children need to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom to be motivated to do their best. (Hello, Mr. Pink!) There are relational and pedagogical aspects to fostering a classroom environment that meets these needs, and children with overactive fight-or-flight responses especially benefit from these environments. (However, all students will benefit from these classroom environments.)

Tough hit up some of my favorite thinkers—e.g., Carol Dweck, Ron Berger, Angela Duckworth, and the aforementioned Daniel H. Pink—along the way. No one he talks to claims to hold all the answers, but taken together a compelling argument exists for changing our “policies,” “practices,” and “way of thinking” around education.

Interestingly, the entire book is available online in a variety of formats, including one with supplementary videos, etc. I enjoyed reading it in dead tree form, but I hope that the wide accessibility of this work leads it into the hands of parents, educators, and policymakers across the country to that this movement toward calm and consistent classrooms may continue to build.
126 reviews4 followers
November 23, 2017
I picked up this books as a parent but quickly realized that this book is beneficial for educators. Anyone who has young children or works with them should read it.
Profile Image for Katherine.
756 reviews31 followers
September 4, 2020
This is not a parenting book, but it was helpful to read as a practical-minded person for what recent research on plausible interventions to help children growing up in poverty or otherwise disadvantaged homes. I'm probably biased in favor of looking at the suggestions positively because it seemed to me that the tl;dr is that Dr. Montessori was right: kids are natural scientists and learners, observe the kid, set up the right environment to promote their independence, then mostly get out of their way. It did seem like there was something for everyone in here though:
* agreement that the American public education system is not very good at education (example of math instruction in Japan where students are presented with an unfamiliar problem and try to struggle to solve it for awhile before getting guidance from the teacher, vs. American teacher demonstrating the steps to take and students practicing the steps over and over)
* school suspensions have disparate impact and are ineffective even at improving the learning environment for unsuspended students
* importance of diversity and representation amongst teachers ("[students] feel a sense of relatedness when they perceive that theire teachers like and value and respect them")
* caring about the costs of certain intervention programs
* placing importance on good parenting, etc.

I appreciated the analysis of what promising programs have in common. Also, just makes intuitive sense that "grit" is not a skill to be successfully acquired via a classroom lecture, but instead something that has to be learned over time by seeing the results of effort. There's further support to my personal unifying theory that learning healthy emotion management needs to come before everything else.

Other things I liked learning about:
* parenting "interventions" could be successful by having observers focused on noting all the positive types of interactions to do more of, instead of a picture I'd had of shaming parents. This approach makes the parents "feel better about their relationship with their infants and more secure in their identity as parents." "The message to parents is: You don't need to learn something new. We just want to show you what you're already doing, because if you do more of that, it's going to be transformative for your baby."
* clever ways of measuring a particular teacher's long-term impact outside of standardized test scores (work by Kirabo Jackson, who developed proxy measure for a students' non-cognitive ability using existing administrative data--attendance, suspensions, on-time grade progression, and overall GPA, for whether the student showed up, whether the student misbehaved, and how hard the student worked in classes. Even as a rough measure, this was a better predictor than a student's test scores for whether the student would go to college, their adult wages, and future arrests. Then used this to calculate a value-added assessment of teachers. Some teachers can reliably raise students' standardized test scores--these teachers are already recognized and rewarded. Some other teachers could reliably raise the measure for noncognitive ability and grades went up even in classes with other teachers.)


chronic early stress--what many researchers now call toxic stress--can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. Small setbacks feel like crushing defeats; tiny slight turn into serious confrontations.

when parents behave harshly or unpredictably--especially at moments when their children are upset--the children are less likely over time to develop the ability to manage strong emotions and more likely to respond ineffectively to stressful situations

When a child's caregivers respond to her jangled emotions in a sensitive and measured way, she is more likely to learn that she herself has the capacity to manage and cope with her feelings, even intense and unpleasant ones. That understanding, which is not primarily an intellectual understanding but instead is etched deep into the child's psyche, will prove immensely valuable when the next stressful situation comes along--or even in f the face of a crisis years in the future.

when their immediate environment is in constant flux--when the adults in their orbit behave erratically or don't interact with them much--the child's brain and the stress-response systems linked to it are triggered to prepare for a life of instability by being on constant alert, ready for anything

the educational value of pre-K for children who aren't poor is still in dispute; studies have found little or no positive effect (or even a negative effect) of universal pre-K programs on the skills of well-off children. That said, pre-K does see mto reliably help *disadvantaged* four-year-olds develop the skills they need for kindergarten, as long as the program they are enrolled in are considered high quality.

the ability to focus on a single activity for an extended period, the ability to understand and follow directions, the ability to cope with disappointment and frustration, the ability to interact capably with other students

Yet schools that educate large numbers of children in poverty are generally run, even more than others, on principles of behaviorism rather than self-determination. These are often the schools where administrators feel the most pressure to show positive results on high-stakes standardized tests and where teachers feel the least confident in their (often unruly and underperforming) students' ability to deal responsibly with more autonomy. And so in these schools, where students are most in need of help internalizing extrinsic motivations, classroom environments often psh them in the opposite direction: toward more external control, fewer feelings of competence, and less positive connection with teachers.

[in contrast to the skill-development paradigm where teachers teach new noncognitive skills; students learn new noncognitive skills; those new skills lead to different behaviors] in effective classrooms, teachers create a certain climate, student behave differently in response to that climate, and those new behaviors lead to success.

Moments of failures are the time when students are most susceptible to messages, both positive and negative, about their potential.

academic perseverance: the tendency to maintain productive academic behaviors over time. What distinguishes students with academic perseverance is their resilient attitude toward failure (Farrington)

if you were a teacher, you might never be able to get your students to *be* gritty, in the sense of dveloping some essential character trait called grit. But you could probably make them *act* gritty--to behave in gritty ways. [Farrington argues] that that is eactly what mattered.
1. I belong in this academic community.
2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.
3. I can succeed at this.
4. This work has value for me.

The first toolbox has to do with relationships: how you treat students, how you talk to them, how you reward and discipline them. The second has to do with pedagogy: what you teach, how you teach i, and how you asses whether your students have learned it.
[different successful programs target different toolboxes]

Is my teacher criticizing my work because he's trying to help me improve or because he doesn't respect me?

The guiding principle for American teachers seemed to be that practice should be relatively error-free, with high levels of success at each point. Confusion and frustration, in this traditional American iew, should be minimized. Japan: 41% basic practice, 44% to inventing new procedures or adapting familiar procedures to unfamiliar material. America: 96% on repetitive practice, <1% on new approaches.
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7 reviews
November 12, 2017
"Helping children in adversity to transcend their difficult circumstances is hard and often painful work. It can be depressing, discouraging—even infuriating. But what the research shows is that it can also 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. It is work we can all do, whether or not it is the profession we have chosen. The first step is simply to embrace the idea, as those researchers did, that we can do better."

What a wonderful way to sum it up
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