• Literature Review: Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

    By Paul Tough


    Paul Tough’s previous book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback bestseller lists and was translated into 27 languages. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to the public-radio program This American Life.

    Tough introduces the issue of the American public school system failing to meet the needs of low-income students. National education policies such as President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Barrack Obama’s Race to the Top program have been able to make a genuine difference for some low-income students but Tough argues that they have led to little or no improvement in the performance of low-income children as a whole. Working with students who face poverty or other adverse circumstances can be challenging for educators because they can be difficult to motivate, difficult to calm down, and difficult to connect with. As a result, some educators can feel burned out and desperate over the frustrations of their work.

    Tough argues that we do not yet entirely understand the mechanisms behind childhood adversity and throughout this book he is on a quest to answer the following question: What is it that growing up in affluence provides to children that growing up in poverty does not? Tough proposes that non-cognitive or “soft” skills — qualities like perseverance, conscientiousness, self-control, and optimism — are critical tools for improving outcomes for low-income children.

    After releasing his second book, Tough spoke to groups of educators such as teachers and child development professionals about the latest research on the biology of adversity and he described the doctors, mentors, teachers, and children that he encountered in his reporting. After telling his stories, he would often be met with the same question from the audience: Okay, now that we know this, what do we do? Educators agreed that non-cognitive skills are an important element of educational success, especially among low-income students, but they had not yet seen a clear description of which practices and approaches were most effective in developing those skills in children and adolescents. Consequently, Tough extended his reporting to new scientific discoveries, school models, and approaches to intervention with children, both inside and outside the classroom.

    After compiling data about these new scientific discoveries, school models, and approaches to intervention, Tough proposes three solutions for educators. The first solution is to change education policies and although this is not an easy task, we can start by having public-policy discussions with educators. The second solution is to change our practices so that they meet the needs of students growing up in adversity. The third solution is to change our way of thinking and take meaningful action in order to help meet the needs of students growing up in adversity. Overall, I definitely recommend this book to all educators who want to learn about new interventions that can help meet the needs of students growing up in adversity.

    Courtesy of Leidi Arias, Sonoma State University Graduate School of Counseling

    Spring 2017