A big part of what we love doing here at The Neuropsychotherapist is giving our members and readers insight into what other people in various related fields are doing to make a difference on a grand scale. Paul Tough, who writes and speaks extensively about education, parenting, poverty, and politics in various formats, has recently written a meticulously researched text, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. I’ve put together a summary of the book with the hopes that if anyone is more interested in the topic, you’ll pick up a copy for a more in depth analysis on the subject.
In this easy to read book, Tough has masterfully compiled information from many dedicated professionals who have come up with novel ways to help children succeed. By bringing together the panel of experts as Tough has done, he provides access to a wealth of knowledge that can give people who are just starting down the journey of working with children the advantage of having the knowledge from those before them. Helping Children Succeed goes into just the right amount of detail regarding the work of those who put into practice tried and true ways of working with children on a daily basis.
An inherent underpinning of the book is creating environments and providing effective tools to the growing minds of today so that they can make a difference in the world tomorrow. Much of the text focuses on children who grow up with all-encompassing adversity, but the concepts can largely be applied to children of any background. The noncognitive skills that are required for creating a peaceful enough state of mind for a child to succeed are qualities like perseverance, grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, self-control, and optimism. Tough finds over and over that “children with strong noncognitive capacities go on to complete more years of education and experience better health. They’re also less likely to be single parents, to run into problems with credit, or wind up in jail (p. 4-5).”
The importance of noncognitive skills resonates with many of the teachers and professionals that Tough interviews. As the value of these softer skills warrants more and more attention, the demand for curriculums that encompass these skills increases. Many of the adults who teach these skills don’t talk about them directly. Tough finds that it isn’t necessary to explicitly talk about the character strengths that are being built. Instead, they instill these qualities in the children through indirect and caring ways.
This is where neuroscience plays a huge role in the changes that happen in the mind of a child. When a child has the opportunity to learn from an empathic and knowledgeable mentor, they have enough sense of calm in their nervous system to absorb the information that is being taught while simultaneously absorbing the encouraging energy from the mentor. Children who learn in supportive environments are found to internalize the fact that it takes hard work to achieve long-term happiness. The many interconnected parts of the brain are activated when this approach is taken. As all of us in the Neuropsychotherapy community know, mindfulness becomes a much more likely outcome when more of the brain is integrated. When there is internal peace, knowledge can be absorbed, empathy can be learned, kindness can be given.
Changing the environment in which a child learns is a necessary starting point to improving a child’s sense of grit, self-control, and resilience. Tough states that “researchers have concluded that the primary mechanism through which children’s environments affect their development is stress…Adversity, especially in early childhood, has a powerful effect on the development of the intricate stress-response network within each of us that links together the brain, the immune system, and the endocrine system (p. 14).” When this complex network is in overdrive in early childhood, it is highly sensitive to environmental cues as the brain is imprinting patterns of what to expect in the future. When fear and pain are experienced as a young child, the brain and subsequently the body, adapt accordingly by heightening vigilance, increasing heart rate, and adrenaline production. Such physical changes in the brain can lead to both physical and mental ailments which are far too numerous to list. As Tough says, “if from the beginning of the year the classroom is stable and reliable, with clear rules, consistent discipline, and greater emphasis on recognizing good behavior than on punishing bad, students will be less likely to feel threatened and better able to regulate their less constructive impulses (p. 47).”
The intricately intertwined feedback loop of the brain and body create the space for the mind to take form. Executive functioning and noncognitive qualities are evolutionary adaptations that allow us humans to be the dominant species on the planet. We have a brain that is more advanced than Artificial Intelligence because it learns from itself. That is the main underlying reason that we cannot predict the destiny of our species because one small affect in the way we live and see things can completely change the trajectory of our future. These affects happen all over the world every moment of everyday on small scales. What Tough’s book urges mentors to do is to think on a deeper level of what they are bringing to the table in an interaction with a child. Instead of assuming that the child can’t learn, or is defiant, Tough gives numerous examples where children entrenched in adversity or neglect are encouraged to shift gears from operating in unstable, unpredictable, and chaotic ways, to be able to navigate through life in functional and happy ways.
This book can instill hope and a firm belief for caregivers and teachers of children in any capacity that anything is possible if you try in the most effective ways. By being an adult in a child’s life that provides this environment for learning noncognitive skills, Tough shows that you can also teach parents and other mentors to be much more likely to adopt a secure attachment approach. These specific tools that help promote secure attachment are face-to-face play, a calm voice, smiles, warm touches, and what Tough calls serve-and-return interactions. Serve-and-return basically means that a child attends to an object or feeling, and the adult returns the curiosity by engaging with the child in some way about the object or feeling. This creates a sense of connection that allows the most ideal mind space for children to learn how to acclimate to any situation and come up with innovative ideas which will in small, and eventually large, ways change the future.
Tough’s goal with this book is to provide expert knowledge to anyone reading it so that we can build upon the ideas when working with children. From parenting, to teaching, to counseling, to public policy, it is rare for someone to go through an entire lifetime without having a direct or indirect effect on a child. Knowing what works and why can give us adults the tools to leave a positive imprint on a child’s life.