Paul Tough

Writer & Speaker

A Conversation with Paul Tough (2016)

What is Helping Children Succeed about?

It’s about what children need in order to thrive – especially children growing up in difficult circumstances – and what kind of practices and policies, in the home and at school, will provide them with the best possible chance at success.

Your last book was titled How Children Succeed. This one is Helping Children Succeed. What’s the difference?

Both books are about the same broad subject: why some children succeed and others don’t. But this new book is much more practical and specific: a clear, concise handbook with useful, everyday ideas for how best to help children do better.

How Children Succeed introduced readers to an exciting new body of research showing that the traditional way we measure children’s abilities – through standardized tests of their cognitive skills – was missing a crucial dimension: the importance of so-called non-cognitive skills or character strengths, qualities like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, self-control, and optimism. Helping Children Succeed expands on that research, takes it in some new directions, and distills it into strategies to more effectively help children who grow up in adversity.

What inspired you to write it?

After How Children Succeed was published, I heard from countless readers around the country – often teachers or other professionals who worked with children – asking how to put this new research into practice. Helping Children Succeed is my answer to those questions.

Does the new book explain how to teach grit?

Well, one of the ideas that I explore in the book is that “teaching” is probably not the best way to think about character strengths like grit or resilience or perseverance. The initial reaction of many educators, when they first encounter the research about non-cognitive abilities that I wrote about in How Children Succeed, is to try to figure out how to teach their students these skills. On one level, this instinct makes sense – if we know the best way to teach the Pythagorean theorem, can’t we also figure out the best way to teach grit? But, unfortunately, there’s no evidence that any particular curriculum or textbook or app can effectively teach kids grit or self-control or curiosity.

In Helping Children Succeed, I write about a new generation of researchers – neuroscientists, psychologists, and economists – who are questioning the idea that character strengths should be thought of as skills at all. Instead, these researchers say, qualities like perseverance or self-control are more like psychological states or mindsets – which means they’re mostly the product of a child’s environment. So if we want to help kids to persevere, these researchers say, we need first to figure out how to improve their environment, both at home and at school.

Why does that distinction matter?

Because it changes where we put our emphasis in education and child development. If we think about grit and self-control as skills, then the pressure is on children to master these skills – just like it’s their responsibility to learn their multiplication tables. But if instead we think of these qualities as byproducts of a child’s environment, then the responsibility is on us, the adults surrounding that child, to figure out how to change his environment in ways that will help him succeed. That approach is not only more scientifically accurate and more likely to be effective, it’s also more fair.

Which environments matter most in developing these capacities?

First, the home environment, especially in early childhood. Neuroscientists have conclusively demonstrated in recent years that when children spend their early years in environments that subject them to toxic levels of stress, it can impair the development of certain mental capacities that matter a whole lot when they get to school – the ability to manage strong emotions, to process complex instructions, to bounce back from disappointments.

That research convinced me that part of the solution to our persistent educational gaps has to be found in early childhood. Right now, our early childhood policies put very little emphasis on how to create the nurturing home environments that foster those skills. And most of our schools don’t have the tools or the capacity to help kids who arrive in kindergarten without having experienced that kind of environment at home in their early years.

If children don’t develop those capacities at home, can schools really help?

Absolutely. But it may require some strategies and approaches that right now are quite rare in American schools. In Helping Children Succeed, I write about an emerging school of thought in educational psychology that focuses on the importance of students’ motivations and mindset. For a long time, motivation has been the missing piece in our educational thinking. Ask any teacher, especially teachers working with children in poverty, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Some of my students don’t seem motivated to succeed. I know if they apply themselves they’ll do better. But I don’t know how to get them to apply themselves.

Now these researchers are finding some answers to this longstanding dilemma. They’re showing that students, especially those growing up in adverse environments, aren’t deeply motivated by the kind of reward-and-punishment structures that prevail at most schools. Instead, these researchers have discovered, students are more often motivated by deeper psychological needs: the need to feel connected, to feel capable, to feel competent. Schools can’t produce those feelings in students just through slogans or posters or assemblies. Students have to genuinely perceive that the adults in their school building care about them and think they can succeed. Students need to feel like they belong. And they have to feel that the work they’re doing is meaningful and challenging, and that they’re able to get better at it when they work hard.

So what should schools do differently?

Instead of just thinking about the academic content that they are delivering to their students, school leaders should also be thinking about the messages that students are receiving implicitly and explicitly from their teachers and their school environment. That might seem touchy-feely, but in fact the new research in educational psychology shows that for young people – and especially young people growing up in family poverty or other adverse circumstances – those messages are enormously important. They change the way students conceive of themselves and their purpose in school. Which in turn has a huge impact on how they behave: how likely they are to persevere, to apply themselves, to recover from setbacks.

Your book is mostly about children who grow up in poverty. What about other children – middle-class or upper-middle-class kids? Does this research have any relevance for them and their parents?

Definitely. My wife and I have two sons, and encountering this research has had a big effect on how I think about raising them. The younger one is just a year old, and since his very first days, my wife and I have spent a lot of time thinking and talking (and occasionally worrying) about the research on stress and its effect on early brain development. It’s been powerful to realize that the environment we are creating for him – the way we talk to him, the schedules and patterns we set, the mood in our home – is influencing his development in a profound way, on a neurobiological level.

And when I began reporting this book, my older son had just started kindergarten at the public school in the small town where we live. This research has given me a new lens through which to consider his school experience. I’m much more inclined now to think not just about the facts and information and skills that he’s learning, but also to consider how his experience in school is shaping his psychology as a student and as a person: what it’s teaching him about belonging and challenge and community and purpose. I’m convinced that those lessons – which are often conveyed by schools and teachers very subtly, sometimes even unintentionally – are every bit as important as the lessons he’s getting in adding and subtracting and reading and writing.

What are your hopes for this book?

My first hope is that a lot of people will read it! I think there’s valuable information in Helping Children Succeed that can potentially improve the way that teachers and parents and community leaders engage with the children in their care. And so Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and I are publishing this book in an unusual way. We’re putting it out as a regular hardcover book and e-book and audiobook, sold and distributed in all the usual ways, in independent bookstores and chain bookstores and online. But then, at the same time, thanks to the support of a number of charitable foundations that are committed to increasing opportunities for children growing up in adversity, we are also making the contents of the book available as a free downloadable PDF and as a scrolling web article, both of which will be accessible on my website. We felt it was important for readers to be able to access the information in this book in as many different forms as possible. And because part of our goal is to reach families and teachers who are working with kids in poverty, we wanted to make sure that the cost of a hardcover book wouldn’t be a barrier to any potential reader.

On a deeper level, my hope for this book is that it will spark conversations among parents and teachers and early-childhood educators about how to improve the prospects of the low-income children they serve – and beyond that, that it might help to shift the national conversation about what we can all do to help our most vulnerable children to succeed.