REVIEW: Yes, Disadvantaged Kids Can Excel in School -- Paul Tough Explains How

Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why by Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt        144 pp.   

By Charlie Gofen

Back in the 1990s, health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control conducted a large study showing that adverse experiences in childhood such as abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence greatly increased the likelihood that an individual would contend with physical and psychological problems later in life.  The strength of the correlation surprised researchers, and the findings have held up well in subsequent studies.

It’s instructive to take the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) test to get a sense of the traumas that were found to have such a profound effect.  This is one exam where you hope for a low score.  For each of the following 10 questions, score one point for each “yes” answer and zero points for each “no” answer.  In your childhood (up to age 18):

Did a parent or other adult in your household frequently swear at you, humiliate you, or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
Did a parent or other adult in your household frequently push, grab, slap you, throw something at you, or hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
Did an adult (or a person who was at least five years older than you) ever touch or fondle your body in a sexual way, make you touch his/her body in a sexual way, or attempt to have any type of sexual intercourse with you?
Did you frequently feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special, or that your family didn’t look out for and feel close to each other?
Did you frequently feel that you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, had no one to protect you, or that your parents were too drunk or too high to take care of you?
Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
Was your mother or stepmother frequently pushed, grabbed, slapped, kicked, bitten, hit, or ever repeatedly hit for over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?
Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?
Did a household member ever go to prison?

The ACE study found that the greater an individual’s score, the greater the risk for later problems.  Individuals with an ACE score of four or higher had a much higher incidence of cancer, heart disease, liver disease, emphysema, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and suicide.
And as subsequent studies have shown, many problems stemming from adverse childhood experiences show up long before kids reach adulthood.  Social, emotional, and cognitive impairment may lead to significant academic and behavioral struggles in school.

While any of us might have had the misfortune to chalk up a high ACE score, children who grow up in poverty in the U.S. are more likely than well-off kids to suffer multiple adverse childhood experiences.  Thus, the odds for success are stacked against children who grow up poor.
It is against this backdrop that author Paul Tough continues his pioneering work on disadvantaged kids in his new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.  Tough’s focus is largely on how best to increase the odds of academic success, on the basis that economic mobility for children who come from poor families and don’t get a college degree is staggeringly low.

“We want kids in middle school and high school to be able to persevere, to be resilient, to be tenacious when faced with obstacles,” Tough writes, “but we don’t often stop to consider the deep roots of those skills, the steps every child must take, developmentally, to get there.”
Tough has written previously about the importance of so-called non-cognitive qualities such as grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism, and in his latest work he delves deeper into how we can promote the development of these qualities in children.  “Rather than consider non-cognitive capacities as skills to be taught,” he writes, “I have come to believe, it is more accurate and useful to look at them as products of a child’s environment.”

The key takeaway of Tough’s book is thus that if we want to help kids develop resilience and related capacities, we need to find ways to change their environment, specifically their homes, daycare, and school.

Tough’s book is completely apolitical – all he cares about is what works – and he has boiled down a complex topic into a highly readable, powerful argument for proactively addressing deficiencies in children’s environments in hopes of changing the trajectory of their lives.  To build his case, he draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, pediatrics, and education, particularly a series of studies on the negative physical and psychological impact on children of chronic stress.

“Adversity, especially in early childhood, has a powerful effect on the development of an intricate stress-response network within each of us that connects the brain, the immune system, and the endocrine system (the glands that produce and release stress hormones, including cortisol),” he explains.  When you’re under great stress, your blood pressure rises, and you produce more adrenaline.  This physiological response has evolutionary significance because people in a dangerous environment may need to be on high alert, but if the stress continues for an extended period, it can cause considerable damage.

“Chronic early stress,” he writes, “what many researchers now call `toxic stress’ – can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations.  Small setbacks feel like crushing defeats; tiny slights turn into serious confrontations.  In school, a highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are, over time, self-defeating: fighting, talking back, acting up in class, and also, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers and resistant to outreach from teachers and other adults.”

After laying out the problem, Tough devotes much of his book to exploring interventions that work. The first environment to address is the home.  Abuse and neglect can obviously cause damage, but Tough also discusses the importance of smaller, regular connections between a parent (or other caregiver) and child, what Harvard Professor Jack Shonkoff calls “serve-and-return interactions.”  These day-to-day interactions “trigger the development and strengthening of neural connections in the brain between the regions that control emotion, cognition, language, and memory.”  Tough offers examples of successful programs such as home-visiting intervention for disadvantaged families that aim to foster parental attachment.  Positive parental behaviors such as warm touches and serve-and-return interactions, he concludes, can be learned.

He next describes early childhood programs that are working effectively to improve kids’ environments outside of the home.  Some of the programs he mentions aren’t even aimed directly at kids.  The Chicago School Readiness Project is a professional development program for teachers in low-income, pre-kindergarten classrooms that trains educators in how to maintain a calm and controlled classroom.  “Children who spent their prekindergarten year in a CSRP Head Start classroom had, at the end of the school year, substantially higher attention skills, greater impulse control, and better performance on executive-function tasks than did children in a control group,” he writes.  The CSRP kids also did better on vocabulary and math skills, even though the training the teachers received had no academic component.  “Changing the environment in the classroom made it easier for them to learn,” he says.

Tough argues that as a matter of policy, we should be devoting more resources to disadvantaged children in the first few years of their lives.  He traces problems in older kids that present as academic struggles to non-academic origins much earlier in their lives:   

Students don’t learn to read on time because they can’t concentrate on the words on the page. They don’t learn the basics of number sense because they are too distracted by the emotions and anxieties overloading their nervous system.  As academic material becomes more complicated, they fall behind.  As they fall behind, they feel worse about themselves and worse about school.  That creates more stress, which often feeds into behavior problems, which leads, in the classroom, to stigmatization and punishment, which keeps their stress levels elevated, which makes it still harder to concentrate. . . .

By the time these students arrive in middle or high school, these executive-function challenges are often construed by teachers and administrators as being primarily a matter of attitude or motivation.

But academic success requires high-level non-cognitive skills like resilience and curiosity, and to have those, Tough says, you have to have previously developed executive functions, which themselves require “qualities built in the first years of life, like secure attachment, the ability to manage stress, and self-regulation.”

In addition to arguing for greater support for kids in early childhood, Tough offers a range of ideas – and several examples of programs around the country – that can help troubled school-age children succeed.  The teacher-student relationship is critical.

“Teachers convey to their students deep messages – often implicitly or even subliminally – about belonging, connection, ability, and opportunity,” he writes.  Those messages “have a profound impact on students’ psychology, and thus on their behavior.  When kids feel a sense of belonging at school, when they perceive that there is an adult there who believes they can succeed and who is attending to them with some degree of compassion and respect, then they are more likely to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student’s school day.

Tough suggests that teachers should focus on what psychologists have identified as the three key drivers of intrinsic motivation: “our need for competence, our need for autonomy, and our need for relatedness, meaning human connection.”  Teachers can promote competence by giving students challenging tasks and conveying their expectation that the students can accomplish those tasks.  Teachers can promote autonomy by giving students choices when possible.  And teachers can promote relatedness by showing that they value and respect their students.

Sounds easy, but as Tough notes, “kids who are growing up in poverty or other adverse circumstances … are often difficult for teachers and other professionals to reach, hard to motivate, hard to calm down, hard to connect with.” Thus, the all-important student-teacher relationship may end up contentious and leave kids disheartened and disengaged.  In fact, schools often inadvertently diminish all three key drivers of intrinsic motivation.  Disadvantaged students’ academic struggles may leave them feeling incompetent, and their academic and behavioral problems may result in schools imposing greater control over them, “thus further diminishing their often fragile sense of autonomy.”

And so, just as the home environment is essential to maximizing the odds of kids’ success, so too is the school environment.

Ultimately, Tough’s descriptions of numerous interventions that work both in and out of the home generate a sense of optimism.  As he writes:

When poor children grow up in an environment marked by stable, responsive parenting; by schools that make them feel a sense of belonging and purpose; and by classroom teachers who challenge and support them, they thrive, and their opportunities for a successful life increase exponentially.

Charlie Gofen is an investment counselor in Chicago who has taught high school and been a newspaper reporter.