Clayton Early Learning
9Jan/13Off

Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Shedding Light on Character Education

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Open the pages of Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed http://www.paultough.com/the-books/how-children-succeed/ , and you will find stories, research, and narration offering insight into the ways children harness grit and curiosityto overcome obstacles to reach their potential. The book highlights research studies which challenge what Tough calls the “cognitive hypothesis,” the belief that IQ is the key indicator of success. Instead, Tough argues strong character and behavior skills are a better indicator of success than standard measurements of intelligence.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character cover, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin HarcourtTough examines different factors influencing a child’s ability to eventually graduate college and pursue a career of their choosing. He discusses how children who grow up in highly stressful environments must become resilient to adversity in order to be successful in school. One research study by Michael Meaney, a neuroscientist at McGill University, demonstrated how rats were able to overcome stress with a parental buffer. Meaney noticed how rat pups’ stress levels increased when scientists handled them but recovered when returned to their mothers who licked and groomed them. He noticed different rates of licking and grooming among rat mothers and set up an experiment where researchers compared rat pups that experienced high and low rates of licking and grooming. He found that rats who had high rates of licking and grooming did better on all tests; they were better at mazes, more social, more curious, and less aggressive. They had more self-control, were healthier, and lived longer. Meaney also found striking differences in the size and shape of brain centers that regulate stress response of high- and low-licking and grooming rats. While the social and intellectual worlds of human children are likely far more complex than those of rats, Meany and other scientists have seen this phenomenon in humans as well, which is often referred to as attachment. Children who are securely attached to a caregiver have similarly positive results.

Tough also explores Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test and subsequent research studies as evidence of self-control as an essential non-cognitive skill (Tough, 2012, p. 64). In the late 1960’s, Mischel conducted an experiment at Stanford University where children were given a marshmallow and told they could eat the marshmallow or wait until the researcher returned and receive another marshmallow. The experiment tested students’ ability to defer gratification, an important element of self-control. Follow-up studies showed that children who were able to delay gratification longer received higher scores on the SAT assessment.

A focus on social emotional development has been commonplace in Head Start since its inception in 1965 (“Domain 6,” 2003). Social emotional development is included as a domain in Head Start’s Child Development and Early Learning Framework and Clayton’s early learning curriculum. Just as students need to leave preschool with critical thinking skills and letter and number knowledge, kindergarten-bound students must learn self-control, deferred gratification, and positive responses to failure in order to do well in school. As described on the Head Start website, “Promoting young children’s social-emotional development is a major responsibility of any early childhood program. Because so many Head Start children experience emotional and social risk factors, the Head Start program has the added responsibility of taking steps to help children develop skills that contribute to resiliency. These steps include providing warm, positive relationships with teachers and other adults, helping children make friends with other children and developing their interests and abilities” (“Domain 6,” 2003).

While social emotional development has been a priority in ECE for many years, educators on all grade levels are beginning to prioritize both cognitive and social skills. Tough describes how Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) kindergarten through high school charter schools emphasize both academic and character education. Students at KIPP receive report cards that describe both academic and character skills. Teachers discuss students’ progress in grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity (Tough, 2012, p. 76).

Tough’s work causes readers to think about how we educate our students and examines why students need support and teaching beyond ABC’s and 123’s. Tough (2012) wrote:

Science suggests… that character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up. That means the rest of us- society as a whole- can do an enormous amount to influence their development in children. (p. 196).

As a community invested in molding our next generation, we need to remember what we can do. When teaching students, do we praise students’ work ethic and their persistence to complete a task? Do we remember the significance of students waiting their turn, the importance of a positive teacher/student relationship, and the enormous effect of a smile and a high five?  Do we consider the profound impact of engaged and responsive parenting and our ability to influence a child’s environment to create positive outcomes?

References:

Domain 6: Social and Emotional Development. (2003). The Head Start Leaders Guide to Positive Child Outcomes. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. Retrieved from http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/teaching/eecd/Domains of Child Development/Social and Emotional Development/edudev_art_00016_061705.html

Tough, P. (2012).  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

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  1. I agree the children mind developed by the environment in which children grow up. The first five years of a child’s life are fundamentally important because they learn more quickly during their early years than at any other time in life.


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