We’re reading How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. You’re welcome to join us whether or not you are participating in other activities related to the Back to School Reading Challenge.
The first discussion post was last week:
Last week, I’d barely completed the introduction. Now, I’m about half-way through the book, having completed Section 1, “How to Fail (And How not to)” and Section 2, “How to Build Character.”
So far, much of the material is about early childhood intervention and about middle school intervention.
The revelation about early childhood is that cognitive development appears to be less important to the long-term success of the child than attachment to a caregiver, usually the mother. The good news is that’s a much easier intervention. Asking a mother who didn’t get a good education to increase the vocabulary she uses with her child is hard. Asking her to engage in the parenting behaviors that are proven to create a strong parent-child bond is much easier. A strong attachment to a caregiver, combined with good education to handle the vocabulary and other cognitive skills, can produce enough resilience in a child that she or he can break the cycle of disadvantaged (and too young) mothers raising children who grow up to be disadvantaged (and too young) parents.
Did How Children Succeed change your mind about what the emphasis of early childhood development and intervention should be?
Fortunately, it’s not too late to improve the lives of children who didn’t get the best upbringing before they started school:
It is hard to argue with the science behind early intervention. Those first few years matter so much in the healthy development of a child’s brain; they represent a unique opportunity to make a difference in a child’s future. But one of the most promising facts about programs that target emotional and psychological and neurological pathways is that they can be quite effective later on in childhood too–much more so than cognitive interventions. Pure IQ is stubbornly resistant to improvement after about age eight. But executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood. p. 48
The “How to Build Character” section compares the advantaged students at Riverdale school with the disadvantaged students in a program called KIPP, both in New York City. Administrators with both schools, in a happy accident that came from looking into the same research, ended up consulting with the same experts and with each other to develop character improvement programs.
Of course, if you’re going to improve character in students, you have to first believe that can be done:
For many of us, character refers to something innate and unchanging, a core set of attributes that define one’s very essences. [Martin] Seligman and [Christopher] Peterson defined character in a different way: a set of abilities or strengths that are very much changeable–entirely malleable, in fact. They are skills you can learn; they are skills you can practice; and they are skills you can teach. p. 59
Page 76 lists the seven traits that Riverdale and KIPP administrators chose to focus on: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. What do you think of those as character traits to develop in your self or the young people you know?
It turned out that the emphasis and desired result of character improvement at the two schools were different. When I think about it, it’s not so surprising that discussions about character at Riverdale are about being nice, as a way to counter the entitlement that can come along with being advantaged. Meanwhile, at KIPP, the character traits needed to give disadvantaged students a chance at some of the opportunities that Riverdale students take for granted are different — less about being nice and more about being determined and enthusiastic and hopeful.
More surprising to me was the discussion about the documentary Race to Nowhere and the book The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine, about wealthy kids with limited emotional connections to their parents but high levels of expectation for achievement and the dark emotional toll that takes on the children. And, then, there was the effect on wealthy students of being constantly shielded from pain, suffering, and even minor failures:
Traditionally, the purpose of a school like Riverdale is not to raise the ceiling on a child’s potential achievement in life but to raise the floor, to give him the kinds of connections and credentials that will make it very hard for him ever to fall out of the upper class. What Riverdale offers parents, above all else, is a high probability of nonfailure. p. 85
In other words, we take our most well-advantaged students and turn them into failure avoiders instead of happy, productive adults. Maybe the same character traits that the KIPP students are motivated to embrace as their chance to go to college are exactly the ones that the Riverdale students need as well, even if they and their parents and their teachers don’t initially see that.
What struck you in the differences and similarities between KIPP and Riverdale?
This all reminded me of a back to school essay I saw at Salon: If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person. According to some of the findings in How Children Succeed, you may not only be taking your energy out of the important institution of public schools, but sending your kids to private school may rob them of important lessons and role models that will help them develop into self-fulfilled adults with missions to improve their world.
I was pleased to see that one of the techniques employed at KIPP was
…a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy, the practical psychological technique that provides the theoretical underpinning for the whole positive psychology field. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, involves using the conscious mind to recognize negative or self-destructive thoughts or interpretations and to (sometimes literally) talk yourself into a better perspective. p. 91
CBT techniques contributed to my losing 70 pounds and still help now, at age 51, with maintaining my weight loss and with forming my new-found writing habits. I especially loved that on page 93, Paul Tough used examples from the book The End of Overeating by David Kessler — that’s the book that started me on my journey.
Are you reading How Children Succeed? What thoughts are you having so far? How does what your reading confirm or contrast with your experiences?
If you write a post about How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, link to it below. Or, we can discuss it in the comments or tonight at the Twitter chat with hashtag #WSChat — 9 Eastern, 8 Central.