What Children Really Need to Succeed in School

Journalist Paul Tough wrote a powerful book in 2012 that described his research on what helps children succeed in school, especially in the early grades. [How Children Succeed]

I think the following quoted section speaks for itself:

Tools of the Mind, a relatively new kindergarten in prekindergarten curriculum that was created by two educators in Denver and based on the unorthodox theory of child development… doesn’t focus much on reading and math abilities. Instead, all of its interventions are intended to help children learn a different kind of skill: controlling their impulses, staying focused on the task at hand, avoiding distractions and mental traps, managing their emotions, organizing their thoughts… These skills, which they grouped together under the rubric self-regulation, will do more to lead to positive outcomes for their students in first grade and beyond, then the traditional menu of pre-academic skills…Students are taught a variety of strategies, tricks, and habits that they can deploy to keep their minds on track. They learn to use ‘private speech, talking to themselves as they do a difficult task to help them remember what step comes next.

Some of you may remember experiments done with young children called the Marshmallow Test in which those children who were able to delay eating a marshmallow they were offered did better later in life than those who quickly gobbled up the marshmallow. The following is a recent article revisiting this classic experiment:

Paul Tough says the following:

This book is about an idea, one that is growing clearer and gathering momentum in classrooms and clinics and labs and lecture halls across the country and around the world. According to this new way of thinking, the conventional wisdom about child development over the past few decades has been misguided. We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach the skills.… The argument they [the researchers] are piecing together has the potential to change how we raise our children, how we run our schools, and how we construct our social safety net.

Until recently, though, there has never been a serious attempt to use the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of childhood, to trace, through experiment and analysis, how the experiences of our early years connect to outcomes in adulthood. That is changing, with the efforts of this new generation of researchers. The premise behind the work is simple, if radical: We haven’t managed to solve these problems because we been looking for solutions in the wrong places. If we want to improve the odds for children in general, and for poor children in particular, we need to approach childhood anew, to start over some fundamental questions about how parents affect their children; how human skills developed; how character is formed. At its core, the book is about an ambitious and far reaching campaign to solve some of the most pervasive mysteries of life: who succeeds in sales? Why do some children thrive while others lose their way? And what can any of us due to steer an individual child-or a whole generation of children-away from failure and toward success?

Shouldn’t our schools pay attention to the research about what will help children succeed and change some of their focus from academics to promoting self-regulation and self-control? It is heartwarming to know that some schools are making these important shifts, but we need all schools to have this information and make the appropriate adjustments to accommodate all the new brain science behind what Paul Tough shares. Children deserve it!

All parents want their children to succeed. It can be helpful to know a little more about what can promote that success.

Invitation for Reflection

1. Do you recall when you were a young student in elementary school possibly struggling to stay focused and perform as you were expected to, even if it was difficult to sit still or concentrate? How did that impact your perception of school? Your perception of yourself?
2. How might it have been if the focus was on the kinds of things that Paul Tough shared about new approaches to education with an emphasis on helping children regulate?
3. What do you know about the approaches and underlying beliefs and values of the schools your children attend? Might they benefit from knowing about this research?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute, LGI