Paul Tough

Writer & Speaker

Monday, September 17th, 2012

This American Life on “How Children Succeed”

This weekend the public-radio program “This American Life” devoted its full hour to “How Children Succeed.” The episode is now available for download here.

7 comments on “This American Life on “How Children Succeed”

  1. Judy Meikle says:

    I have just finished reading your book after hearing about it on “This American Life”. On the whole I found it interesting and constructive with regard to informing the discussion around issues of poverty and education. However, there is cognitive dissonance in the following statement (“The Politics of Disadvantage”) – “that while largely impersonal influences like toxins in the environment, food insecurity, inadequate health care and housing, and racial discrimination are problems that are genuine and important, they don’t accurately represent the biggest obstacles to academic success that poor children, especially very poor children, often face; a home and a community that create high levels of stress, and the absence of a secure relationship witha caregiver that would allow a child to manage that stress. What could be more stressful in our communities than not enough food in the house, terrible health care, sub-standard housing, toxic dumps in our neighborhoods and racist criminal justice policies that tear our communities apart and leave our kids with single parents? To talk about stress and not name the causes, to mitigate the problems with interventions that essentially are based on a”character deficiency model” and not drill down to the root systemic malfunctions is – in my opinion – problematic.
    Thank you for your heartfelt writing and for caring about the issues.

    • admin says:

      Hi Judy.

      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. You raise an important point. I hope that my book doesn’t minimize the significance of the “systemic malfunctions” in communities like Roseland and Bayview-Hunters Point. During the months I spent reporting in those neighborhoods, I was certainly very aware of the depth of those malfunctions, and I tried to reflect that awareness in my book. (I definitely tried to “name the causes” of the stresses that each of the various young people I wrote about had experienced.)

      But I was struck in my reporting by the way that even committed social activists like Nadine Burke-Harris and Steve Gates had concluded that the most effective way to deal with those malfunctions was to work to improve the lives of individual children and increase their prospects for success. And that for both Burke-Harris and Gates, that meant starting with the family and the individual child and moving outward from there.

      I don’t agree with the notion that YAP or Dr. Burke-Harris’s Center for Youth Wellness or OneGoal or Ounce of Prevention’s home-visiting program — or any of the other interventions I profile — are based in a “character deficiency model.” I would say, instead, that they are focused on what kind of support young people require in order to develop the skills they need to succeed.

      To me that seems like a very effective way to improve things right away for young people like Keitha and Makayla and Monisha and Kewauna, and at the same time to empower them to bring about the kind of structural changes that will improve their neighborhoods, their cities, and the country.

      Thanks again for writing, and for reading the book.

      all best,


  2. P. Shaver says:

    Your description of commercial positive-incentive programs, that shape behaviors for the wrong reasons, sounds like the one adopted by our public school district. What do you recommend as an alternative for elementary ed? Waiting until sophomore year in H.S. seems like a lot of lost time between years.

  3. B. Doughty says:

    Dear Mr. Tough,

    I heard about your book on TAL and ordered it immediately. I loved it and couldn’t put it down. I have wanted to write to you about my thoughts for a long time.

    As an elementary school teacher, (and mom to a 3 month old and 3.5 year old) your book struck a huge chord with me. I have been searching for a way to discuss the ‘character’ strengths you describe for many years. I am a huge believer in Magda Gerber’s RIE principle of respecting young children and giving them room to try new things without adults leading them. I have tried the Tribes Collaborative Learning process in my classroom and most recently the HeartSmarts program. Tribes focuses on community building, and HeartSmarts teaches kids metacognitive techniques of managing their emotions and actively focusing their thoughts.

    Both are fantastic, but I have always wanted a better way of explaining how I want to teach my students (and sons) not only to be smart, but to be good, curious, helpful, zestful, kind, and caring people. Your book has done much to help me articulate that idea. I have written and jotted notes down all over it, and have been checking out many of the books you gathered your research from. I am currently on maternity leave (I live in Sweden and get a long time to stay home with my son, and am American raised and educated) and am excited to bring much of what you wrote about to my school when I go back to work. I have been telling colleagues and insisting they order your book.

    I also brought your book with me to a discussion I led at my older son’s child care center with the teachers. The reason I picked his center is because of the way they respect young children and nurture their character development. It is not something often spoken about explicitly- these value questions, so it was a great way of affirming their work.

    Thank you for your outstanding and thought provoking work.

    • admin says:

      Thanks so much for this generous and thoughtful comment. I’m thrilled to hear that the book is resonating with you as both a parent and a teacher. Thanks for spreading the word in Sweden!



  4. Grandma K says:

    This is a terrific book. I went over some of it twice. I so appreciate your research and hope it will have an inpact on American Education. It is pitiful what is happening to our future generations. You show us ways folks are tackling some of the big issues and some reasons the new ideas are not moving into the American Public Schools quickly. I will refer people to it.
    This was a good book. I am just a caring grandma.

  5. admin says:

    Thanks, Grandma K. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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