Book Review: Helping Children Succeed

*Many thanks to SAIS for allowing me to, again, review a best seller.*

“It is a responsibility we are failing to meet.” It is with this sentence that Paul Tough begins the follow-up to his 2012 best-seller, How Children Succeed, in his new data-filled book, Helping Children Succeed. We, as a nation, are failing to meet the needs of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in American schools. He proceeds to offer extensive data in 23 areas that identify the challenges in meeting these needs and providing support to meet these challenges.

It all comes down to the earliest of childhood development. While How Children Succeed, focused on the non-cognitive (soft, character) skills required for success in academia and adulthood, his newest book focuses on the ways that these skills are often stunted in communities of poverty. Beyond the access to books and responsive parenting, he discusses the way that childhood trauma, neglect, and chronic stress, found in childhood adversity can have irreparable impact on physical and mental health as well as academic and social readiness.

He points to the key Building Blocks (ch. 12) necessary for children to develop strong executive function skills. It is within the early childhood (birth to 5 years) where children “deepen and evolve into a more complex collection of habits, mindsets, and characters strengths” that will be required of them to be successful when they enter formal academia in pre-K or Kindergarten. These executive function skills are established through “calm, consistent, responsive interactions in infancy with parents and other caregivers [to] create neural connections that lay the foundation for a healthy array of attention and concentration skills.” (p. 49) Without these foundations, children are more apt to struggle on a wide array of situations, including academic development, motivation, and behavior – all three areas which are crucial to school and learning success.

Mr. Tough offers examples of early intervention programs from throughout the U.S. that are typically on a small or pilot level to increase the responsive caregiving of young children. He makes the case that these are needed on a greater scale within disadvantaged communities. However, he does not draw correlations between any of these studies and communities of privilege. More often than not, independent school students are not subject to early childhood trauma as defined by Mr. Tough’s research. While there are certainly avenues in which children of privilege experience stress and trauma in early childhood, this particular body of work does not address these issues.

However, independent school educators can draw learning from the chapters on motivation, mindsets, relationships, pedagogy, challenge, and deeper learning. In his section on motivation, Tough points to the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the originators of self-determination theory,

a theory that is frequently cited as the key to intrinsic motivation. Our students are motivated by their needs for competence, relatedness (connection), and autonomy. Growth mindset (based on the work of Stanford’s Carol Dweck) coupled with positive, pro-failure messages also stimulate non-cognitive factors of success. We are reminded that positive classroom climate, appropriate levels of challenge, and building strong relationships are all necessary factors for student success.

Mr. Tough ends his book with a call to action for public education in America: “…if there are children suffering in your community – or your nation – there is something you can do to help.” (p.114) This can serve as a strong conversation starter for public-private partnerships in order to strengthen our communities. How are we, as independent schools, working to solve the complex problems facing our surrounding communities? Do we, as independent schools, believe it is our purpose to be an integral part of our communities outside of the campus? I think Mr. Tough would offer a resounding “yes.”

Like many of our fellow independent schools across the Southeast, students at The Montgomery Academy participate in programs to build cultural competency and serve disadvantaged communities through organizations like Bridge Builders of Alabama and Mary Ellen’s Hearth as well as tutoring at a local public schools. While our students may have different early childhood experiences than those described in this book, we have a unique opportunity to serve as advocates for justice and equality in education by guiding our leaders and scholars to a greater understand of the world around them.

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