How Do Kids Succeed

How do kids succeed?

Kids succeed or fail purely on their academic ability – that has been the notion for many years.

Maclean’s journalist Brian Bethune reveals that for the last 25 years, the American education reform movement has been relentlessly searching for education’s equal opportunity so that kids succeed regardless of their heritage or economic background. Cause after cause has been targeted from standardized testing, to teacher quality, to the number of words a child heard by the time they reached the age of three as the trigger for the disparity in school achievement. Rich or poor, the age-old question has been how do kids succeed?

Bethune’s article in the September 6, 2012 Maclean’s Magazine issue suggests reformers have looked in the wrong place – and hints that kids succeed not just through academics, but points to new insight from the cutting-edge neurological and psychological research that Toronto-born journalist Paul Tough surveys in his book How Children Succeed.

Our children’s inability to deal with disappointment, dissatisfaction and upset have played the biggest role in their ability to succeed. Good old fashion character-building and personality traits like persistence, grit, curiosity, self-control, and conscientiousness—play a crucial role in life’s outcomes asserts Paul Tough.

Tough explains in the The Maclean’s article “I came into this interested in the problems of poor kids,” says Tough, “but whenever I talked about ‘character’ education to people from well-off schools, they’d say, ‘Oh, we’ve had that for decades.’ ” Tough goes on to describe two different types of character: moral (Are you fair? Are you honest?) and performance (Are you tenacious? Are you a hard worker?).

While Tough’s book lists the poorest children’s many crippling obstacles or ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) to educational success ranging from unemployment; disability; depression; substance abuse; household or community violence; the often frequent upheavals; along with the statistically high probability that many children are being raised primarily by an uneducated single mother, but he also points out that ACEs can also cross class lines (family breakup is a significant one).

Studies have shown a child’s reaction to constant stress or accumulating ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), changes their brain chemistry, making them depressed, anxious and, at times, traumatized. While the affluent can be poor parents, the disadvantaged can be great parents, however, parents encumbered with a challenging living environment and limited resources find it more difficult to deliver great parenting skills leaving their ACE-high children to arrive in the classroom marked by an inability to handle stressful situations (aggression or panic attacks being common responses), with poor concentration, disjointed social skills and a simple inability to sit still.

Two great studies on how kids succeed

To illustrate that kids succeed on more that academics, two noteworthy educational initiatives focusing on low-income black and Hispanic kids – the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy in the South Bronx in 1999 and the 1960 Perry Preschool Project were cited in the article.

Yale Grad student, David Levin, through a mix of high-intensity teaching and profound behaviour modification ushered 38 Grade Four KIPP Academy students through stellar grade school academic achievement on to hi-school and into college acceptance. The KIPP program’s success grew and today there are now more than 100 schools. However, as the original 38 students transitioned through college, the once academically successful students didn’t fare as well with only 21% of the students graduating from college.

Levin ultimately realized that the minority who persevered through college were not necessarily the most academically gifted. Instead they were the ones with grit and resilience, the ones who could accept a bad grade and resolve to do better, the ones who sought extra help, who did the work to master boring but necessary steps along the road.

Persistence and Grit help Kids Succeed

The 1960 Perry Preschool Project, a high-quality two-year pre-kindergarten program, followed enlisted children of low-income, low-IQ parents in the black neighbourhoods of the industrial town of Ypsilanti, Michigan through adulthood. Initially considered an abysmal failure when the Grade 3 results showed that the Perry Project participants IQ test scores were no better than the control group.

It wasn’t until Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman reviewed the adult data that the success of the Perry Project was revealed.

“IQ may remain stubbornly unmovable after about age 8, but something else, something perhaps even more positive, happened to the treatment group. Their teachers had rated and directed their “personal behaviour” (swearing, lying, cheating, absences) and “social development” (relationships with classmates, levels of curiosity). The adults who’d enrolled in the program as kids were more likely than the control group to finish high school, to be employed at age 27 and to be earning more. And they were less likely to have been arrested and less likely to have been on welfare. The Perry reformers hadn’t increased cognitive skills, but they had ramped up non-cognitive skills to the long-term benefit of their subjects. And for those who look at proposed education interventions with a flinty eye to the cost-benefit ratio, Tough helpfully notes Heckman’s calculation: the Perry project generated $7 to $12 in economic productivity, and it decreased taxpayer costs (health care, police, welfare), for every dollar put into it.”

Who teaches character?

Kids succeed with character, the tenacious kind, but who teaches that? Can we really expect our teachers to take on that responsibility or do we as parents need to re-think how we raise our children? Here’s an excerpt from Are We Raising a Nation of Wimpy Kids?

Apparently, in our efforts to protect our children’s self-esteem and nurture our culture of instant gratification we have unwittingly created a nation of wimps as Dr. Jared Balmer, a contributor to the FamilyIQ’s clinical advisory board; member of the Joint Commission Youth Advisory Council; and leader in the field of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, advocates. Well intentioned as it may appear,” chides Dr. Balmer, “the net effect is making kids more fragile and that may be why adolescents are breaking down in record numbers.”