Paul Tough

How Children Succeed 
Due to contractual obligations, the DLC has not been authorized to release the recording of How Children Succeed conference session. Below is a summary of his presentation.
Many people think intellectual ability and good marks bring a good life. We are a culture obsessed with test scores. In his work, Paul Tough found a group of scholars and educators interested in other qualities just as important; qualities such as optimism, curiosity, conscientiousness and selfcontrol. These skills go by different names; personality traits, executive functions, non-cognitive skills and character. But these are all qualities that pull people through challenges.
When Paul started the book, he became a father. Mornings were spent reading academic studies by neuroscientists, psychologists and economists and the afternoon playing with his son. A good balance, no doubt.

Watch Paul Tough in conversation with the Dalai Lama Center:
The research with the most impact in early years is around the biology of stress. Some of the most important work at the time was done by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris.
A Jamaican-American, she grew up in Silicon Valley, went to Harvard, came back to California and opened a clinic in an impoverished area of San Francisco.  She had all the right skills, after all, she was a Harvard grad. But she was puzzled by what was making her patients chronically sick. She felt like she was patching them up to go back out into a war zone full of violence, stress, trauma and noise.
In her research, she found one study that changed her whole practice. It looked at long-term effects of chronic stress. Adults who were exposed to high levels of stress as children had higher rates of cancer, heart disease, emphysema and significantly higher suicide rates. We now know the mechanism is stress.
Early childhood is a time of major development of all kinds of systems. One of the least understood is the stress response system. Every infant experiences stress. They cry, get picked up and comforted. But when children face chronic and intense stress, toxic stress, as doctors call it, it debilitates the stress response system. It causes damages in physical, emotional and attention capabilities of children.
Research on stress is daunting. But there is a secret weapon---parents. Close, attentive, attuned -- bonding is an antidote.
This comes from research done in with rats by Michael Meaney , a neuroscientist at McGill. In the lab, Meaney and his colleagues noticed a behaviour that certain rats did and others didn’t have -- the licking and grooming mother rats used to calm down the pups. They conducted a test to examine the long-term effects of this behaviour. Those who had experienced a significant amount of licking and grooming did better. They were healthier, more curious and lived longer. There was also a significant difference in the size and shape of their brains.
So what is the human equivalent of licking and grooming? These are activities that come naturally to most parents, such as soothing, calming, singing, nurturing and holding.
How does what is known about infant brain chemistry connect with adult psychology? And is it possible to intervene in a person’s life in terms of developing character skills? Turns out research shows there are two times that are fruitful. One is in early childhood and the other is in adolescence. That’s because of meta-cognition, the ability to think about thinking.
Paul looked at two very different schools in New York City interested in the idea of developing these non-cognitive qualities or character. KIPP Infinity Middle school in a low-income neighbourhood and Riverdale Country school, an exclusive private school.
Both are very different schools, but educators were in the same place. Students were doing well academically, but they both felt something was missing in their students. There was a lack of inner strength to deal with challenges.
Dave Levin of KIPP schools and Dominic Randal, from Riverdale collaborated to help students succeed in a deeper way. Working with the University of Pennsylvania and Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology group, specifically Angela Lee Duckworth, they identified 7 character traits: Optimism, Zest, Grit, Curiosity, Social Intelligence, Gratitude and Self-Control. At KIPP students are evaluated by each teacher on each of these characteristics.
Some of the thinking behind the idea of a “character report card” comes out of the work of Stanford Psychologist, Carol Dweck. Her research focuses on something she called mindset. Fixed mindset believes intelligence is fixed. Growth mindset believes intelligence is malleable. And while, there may be facts to support the fixed mindset, people with a growth mindset do better in life. They work harder, try harder, deal with failure better and understand practice is an important thing.
Riverdale School is a high-stress environment. Competition is fierce, with high anxiety. Students work hard, but it’s easy to confuse stress for a challenge. The children in this community are overprotected by their school, their parents and their culture. Yet, the idea of failure is important. Grit and self-control are born out of failure.
Parents have a reaction to exposing their kids to adversity and tough times. Kids in poverty face too many stresses and would benefit from care and protection. And yet kids from affluent homes just don’t experience enough adversity and challenges. In overprotecting children, we may be doing them more harm.
Support for this idea comes from a study done by a psychologist at the State University of New York in Buffalo. 
They gave 2000 adults an adversity questionnaire, asking people if they had been subjected to things like a divorce, a natural disaster, job loss; events that may have affected their mental health and well-being. People who ticked off 12 to 15 items on the list were not doing well on the mental health and happiness scale. But there was a curious anomaly; a group of about 200 hadn’t experienced any adversity in childhood at all.
Turned out they reported the same results as those who had many adverse items. Those who reported the best results, were people who had somewhere between 3 to 5 adverse events. So why is some adversity good? It allows us to practice failure and teaches us how to manage failure. In many ways this is the theme of the book, how to manage failure. The place where it is most vivid is in the central chapter of the book, on a Scholastic Chess school.
Paul was interested in how they became a championship team. They were winning all the tournaments and were featured in the New York Times, so he followed them around. In part, it was because their teacher, Elisabeth Spiegel taught them how to manage failure. In chess, you’re always making mistakes. Kids have a tendency to laugh it off, or wallow in shame. But she taught students to look at their mistakes honestly and straightforwardly.
After every tournament students had to replay the game with their teacher. She criticized them and got them to look at their mistakes. There’s a rule of thumb for teachers for every criticism you give, you should give 5 compliments. She knew she wasn’t making the ratio…but she made it clear to the students that she cared and she had high expectations for them. She helped them learn how to manage failure.
So what is the best way to develop character in young people as a teacher and a parent? For Paul, he is most involved in parenting. When he started off as a parent, he was a typical anxious parent, wanting to give his son everything to develop his cognitive skills. But this research helped him calm down. Yes, the early years are critical. But the important skills are about relationships, not flash cards.
According to attachment psychology, you can’t be too loving and responsive, especially in infancy and early childhood. But that doesn’t work with a 25- year old in the basement. It’s important to find a balance. Paul’s son is 4 years old. He’s in the middle of a transition. It’s important to let him solve his problems. He has to learn how to fail in order to succeed. This is challenging time for parents, especially those who are naturally lickers and groomers.
When children face adversity, it’s just important to look at how we talk to them about it, and also how we model it. We don’t need to manufacture adversity. Kids always face adversity anyway. What matters is how we talk to them about it. And just as important, how we model it, how we react to their failure and how we talk about our own failures.
In high poverty neighbourhoods we don’t need to let children fail more. We need to apply a different strategy. All this research on brain chemistry and attachment theory can make us feel fatalistic. The neurochemistry seems so powerful. It is hard to imagine that children can overcome the stress and that stress and adversity will take a toll no matter what. Yet, success stories happen all the time.
One person Paul followed in his book is Kewauanna, a junior in high school in the south side of Chicago. She came from a very unstable family. She reacted to her difficult upbringing in a typical way. She fell further behind and yet, she made a major transition -- from an upset angry kid with an average of 1.5 to someone who got straight A’s. She applied to college and finished her freshman year with a 3.8 GPA. She worked hard. She persisted. She bounced back.
These stories are inspiring, but how do these kinds of transformations happen? We’re just starting to understand the science. We have some good ideas about how her environment got her off track, now we’re beginning to understand, what kinds of interventions got her back on track.
Those who come from difficult environments and manage to stay on track, have a few things in common. They have character strengths, deep resources of hope, grit, resilience and optimism. And the second thing they have in common is that they get help.
Paul hopes this doesn’t make us fatalistic, but hopeful and helpful. One clear way to help is through a one-on-one connection; to connect with students one teacher, one coach, one person at a time; to make help available in organizations. It’s critical we get the attention of politicians and policy makers. To create systems that work with parents and families. We don’t have a system to help kids in deep disadvantage. We need to start working with families and parents earlier.
And in the classroom, we need to encourage and develop skills in the area of non-cognitive learning. We need to teach kids how to bounce back, persist, deal with confrontation and learn from failure. If we could build a culture around these, then the success stores would not be rare, but would all around us.
Further references:
Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Robert Karen, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love
Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers 
Martin E. Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life 
L. Alan Sroufe, Byron Egeland, Elizabeth A. Carlson, and W. Andrew Collins, The Development of the Person: The Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood. A summary of a longitudinal study of parental attachment and child development.
Paul Tough, “Can Play Teach Self-Control?” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 25, 2009. 
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University
OneGoal: A non-profit that is using the teaching of noncognitive skills, or character strengths, to help students growing up in poverty to persist and succeed in college.