How Children Succeed

A few Saturdays ago, I attended a talk by Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough is the author of the much quoted New York Times article What if the Secret to Success if Failure? The book is an extension of the article, and the case for the importance of character in the success of children. If you have time, read the book, but if not, here are a few thoughts that made me think of our children and our school. First, relationships and attachment matters. I know that I am preaching to the choir here, but it is worth mentioning that scientifically, we understand that the ways that parents and children attach during childhood provide the secure base from which children can feel empowered to explore.

Second, Tough reminds us, some adversity helps to build resilience, perseverance and grit. Paul Tough writes about a kind of U curve. When scientists asked a cross section of people to identify incidents of adversity, he found that (predictably) those with high incidents of adversity in their lives often faced incredible challenges as adolescents and adults. However, he notes that those who had no incidents of adversity also struggled a great deal. Those who were the most successful in work and relationships as adults had 2-5 incidents of adversity growing up. These experiences with mistakes and even failure helped them build resilience, perseverance, and ultimately character. While obviously, no parent wishes for adversity for their children, it is important to know that these experiences are key factors in the pursuit and attainment of happiness, success, and meaning in their lives. In the minutia of the everyday classroom, we take this stance towards risk, mistakes, and setbacks. While we want to give children tools to keep getting better and practicing, we also have to be willing to let them struggle and fall a bit, and be there to help them get up and try again.

One example of this was a moment I observed in a classroom today. A child had made a mistake yesterday which caused upset and hurt among classmates. A discussion took place among the class, and the child apologized for stepping outside of the bounds of what the children expect from each other. In turn, each child put their hand over their heart, looked this young person in the eye, thanked him for his apology, and said that they'd forgiven him for his mistake. What an important lesson to learn that mistakes happen, are hard, incur feelings from other people, and can be resolved and learned from -- for every child in the class.

Third, and related, is grit. It is a bit of a buzzword these days, but the meaning Duckworth (the originator of "grit," and TedxBlue speaker) posits is this: perseverance in pursuit of a passion. As I mentioned in an earlier blog and in my remarks at our event earlier this year, we are working on praise for effort and practice, and on searching for the best combination of an open ended exploration of ideas with a disciplined approach to fleshing them out. That is, how can we embolden children to pursue their passions by exposure and explorations in many domains and through many lenses, but also provide them with practice and discipline in those pursuits so that they can notice a shortcoming, a place to work harder, or a next step? How can we help them persist rather than give up?

When we speak about the Blue "bubble" which I have heard some here do, it makes me think. In so many ways, school should be a bubble where warmth, engagement, and curiosity reign, and some of the harder things we face as adults are kept at bay, and yet I also believe that school can and should be the place where we test out our mettle, learn from conflict and struggle, understand multiple perspectives that look different from our own, and wrestle with sometimes hard moments.

I'd love to hear from those of you who have read or are reading this book. It's a great, fascinating read, and one that I think underlies much of what we consider here each day.

Posted on October 11, 2012 and filed under Uncategorized.