social development
Crib Notes

How Some Kids Succeed, Why Others Fail, And Whether Schools Should Be ‘Building Character’

Crib Notes summarize all the parenting books you’d read if you weren’t too busy parenting. For great advice in chunks so small a toddler wouldn’t even choke on them, go here.

Paul Tough is a New York Times reporter with an infinitely punnable name and a contrarian take on the best way to teach kids that, for educators, might be a bit … tough to swallow. (Didn’t even need the Dad Joke Bot for that one!)  Tough’s polemic on contemporary education, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, And The Hidden Power Of Character, has been described as “essential reading for anyone who cares about childhood in America.” The book explores how schools of all kinds operate on a flawed theory of intelligence, and proposes a new way of thinking about how our kids learn. Here are the main takeaways and most actionable advice from How Children Succeed.

“Measurable Intelligence” Only Sounds Smart
Measurable intelligence refers to things like IQ, recognizing letters and words, and the ability to calculate and detect patterns as the key indicators of long-term success. In this rubric, “long-term success” is more about kids acing standardized tests and less about things like GPA or college graduation rates. However, GPA is a better predictor of college success than SAT scores, and graduating is just a little bit important.

Executive function skills allow kids to deal with “confusion and unpredictable situations and information.” So, you know, life.

“Executive Function” Matters More To Academic Achievement
Executive function is a catchall term for a set of cognitive processes that drive and develop things like persistence, self-control, curiosity, motivation, determination, and confidence. An executive function-focused curriculum would help develop those skills that allow kids to deal with “confusion and unpredictable situations and information.” Otherwise known as, “life.”

The Evidence Is There From Kindergarten Through High School
Surveys of kindergarten teachers indicate that kids who are behind on letters and numbers are preferable to the emotional time bombs who can’t control their impulses that make up more and more of their classes. At the other end, organizations like OneGoal, which prepares underprivileged high schoolers for college by developing character traits associated with executive functions, has an 85-percent success rate.

What You Can Do With This: Recognize that schools are not currently set up to develop executive function in kids, but you are. In fact, as a parent, you’re uniquely positioned to develop these skills more effectively than anyone else.

Executive Function Is More Teachable Than Measurable Intelligence
The prefrontal cortex is flexible and responds to intervention through a kid’s adolescence and even early adulthood. Teaching that targets this part of the brain can be effective throughout K-12 education, but if you enter today’s middle schools without solid letters and numbers learning, all they’ve got for you is a short bus.

If you enter today’s middle schools without solid letters and numbers learning, all they’ve got for you is a short bus.

Stress Has An Even Bigger Impact Than Poverty
When children experience major trauma or consistent lower-level trauma as infants and toddlers, their prefrontal cortexes are adversely affected, leaving them neurologically predisposed to poor concentration, determination, and behavioral skills, and thus academically predisposed to poor grades. This is regardless of their economic background.

Nurture Is The Best Medicine 
Studies of lab rats prove that pups grow up better adjusted if they’re consistently licked and groomed. Further, in adulthood, these rats’ brains processed stress hormones more effectively. In the classroom, a study of kids under 4 that focused exclusively on their parents predicted with 77-percent accuracy which kids would drop out of high school.

What You Can Do With This: No, that doesn’t mean you should go licking your kids. That will cause way more problems than it’ll solve. Yes, you do want to nurture them; safe environments are key to executive function development early on. However, as kids enter adolescence, they need to feel they’re being taken seriously. That means taking on challenges, learning discipline, and understanding that failure isn’t something to be feared but, rather, an opportunity to improve.

Photo Credit: Harlem Children’s Zone

Executive Function Begets Character, Character Begets Success
According to Tough, the 6 key character traits of successful students are learned optimism, self-control/willpower, motivation, conscientiousness, grit, and identity. Kids with these traits routinely have higher college graduation rates and GPAs, regardless of other factors like IQ or economic background. They’re also generally nice to be around.

Character, though, isn’t defined merely by success but, as your old coach tried to tell you, how you handle failure. The Headmaster at Riverdale Country Day, one of the country’s most exclusive private high schools, believes that the greatest challenge facing his students are family and academic environments where failure is either not tolerated or simply doesn’t happen because everyone’s a winner!

Kids with these traits routinely have higher college graduation rates and GPAs, regardless of other factors like IQ or economic background.

Young kids need “child-sized adversity,” or ways to better measure and understand their strengths and weaknesses. As they get older, rules and expectations create guardrails that can be used for guidance, but they also provide kids with something to push against to learn their limits. Although you should probably clarify all that once the kid starts driving.

What You Can Do With This: According to psychologist Martin Seligman, “Learned optimism” refers to the way individuals explain to themselves why good or bad things happen to them. Pessimists define negative events as being permanent, personal, and pervasive. Optimists see them as short-term setbacks. The best time to teach your kid this skill is after they’re “metacognitive” (able to think about thinking) but before puberty (able to think about nothing).

As for a definition of “grit,” psychologist Angela Duckworth talks about it in terms of the difference between motivation and volition. Teach your kid that wanting something isn’t the same as choosing something – a kid who wants something might continue to want it; a kid who chooses to be that thing will become it. Or, you could have your kid take Duckworth’s quiz, which accurately predicts the success rate of West Point cadets and college GPAs. Maybe you should take it, too – this parenting stuff isn’t for wusses, right?

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