True grit: the truth about success and failure

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True grit: the truth about success and failure

What’s the secret to a child’s success?

Funny enough, failure may be a part of the answer.  Not surprisingly though, a strong and supportive parent or adult mentor and what Paul Tough likes to call “character” are also key pieces to answering this age-old question asked by everyone from parents to educators to social scientists to policy makers.

Tough, New York Times best-selling author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character spoke at the opening plenary session of the National Network of Statewide Afterschool Networks annual conference yesterday.  He began his speech with the idea that we are using the wrong strategies to help kids in our schools succeed and the conventional wisdom that has governed our thinking about education and success is misguided.  As a nation, we have been obsessed with “cognitive hypothesis”—the belief that IQ scores alone measures what matters in determining success.

What his research uncovered was that an individual’s IQ and academic test scores weren’t the most significant factors in their life trajectory.  What mattered more was the amount of trauma a child did or did not experience growing up—that the level of trauma one experienced in childhood had a direct linear correlation to negative adult outcomes.  This means that the higher the trauma and stress levels a child experiences, the worse the outcomes would be in adulthood, such as higher levels of addiction and a higher likelihood of chronic illness.  And the converse also held true, the lower the level of trauma, the healthier and better off the individual. 

Tough then moved on to research supporting the notion that if we can improve a child’s environment, if we can combat the toxic stress that builds up in their system, and if we can reach them in early childhood and in their adolescence when they can be the most malleable, we can dramatically increase their prospects for success.

How do we do this?  We strengthen and build on what economists refer to as “noncognitive” skills, the medical community refers to as “executive functions” and what Tough likes to call “character.”  The list of seven strengths that was developed to quantify character include:

  1. Grit
  2. Self-control
  3. Zest
  4. Social intelligence
  5. Gratitude
  6. Optimism
  7. Curiosity

Circling back to the opening paragraph, the word “failure” isn’t quite accurate.  He gave a fantastic analogy of running on a treadmill versus climbing a mountain.  Both are forms of exercise, but when you get on a treadmill, you know the level you’re going to program into the machine and you know that you will be able to finish your run.  On the other hand, when you climb a mountain, there’s a possibility that you are going to fail and that you won’t make it to the top.  In other words, in one instance you’re going through the motions but you’re not pushing yourself to the next level.  In the latter instance, you may not succeed, but by facing adversity, you are practicing how to handle failure and the bumps in the road everyone experiences in life. 

It’s this adversity that Tough believes teaches kids how to manage failure and how to develop character.  However, he refers to the “adversity gap”—where if there’s too much adversity, the youth need to have protection and support to face the challenges in front of them, but if there isn’t enough adversity, youth need more exposure to challenges and opportunities to fail.  Visiting schools across the country, he found that more often than not, kids living in high poverty areas were falling behind academically and were let fail too often.  In lower income schools, a number of students faced high stress and other negative factors outside of school that directly affected their school performance, their behavior and their overall well-being.  At the other end of the spectrum were affluent schools, where most students were overachievers and highly competitive and where students were protected from failure by their school, their parents and the overall culture of their environment.  These students were missing out on the opportunity to develop grit.  

Tough makes the argument that we as a society need to learn how to model failure for children and show them that falling down is not the worst thing in the world.  He also believes that it’s the relationship that children develop between their parents, their teachers, their mentors and other supportive adults that is the most important factor in guiding kids toward success. 

Tough closed his speech with the hope that his research makes people want to help more, to want a better system where all kids are given the opportunity to succeed, and to want to work on policies and with organizations to make all of this happen.  All in all, it was a great way to start off a week that will culminate in our Afterschool for All Challenge—letting Congress know how important afterschool programs are for our kids, families and communities.

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