Book review: How Children Succeed

I love books written by journalists. In his latest, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough weaves together delicate personal stories and obscure academic research into a nonfiction that reads like the biography of a life I would be proud to live.

Beyond a student’s GPA and SAT score,  there is an entirely different measure that determines whether a they have what it takes to succeed. These “hidden” strengths are called a range of terms including non-cognitive skills, socio-emotional intelligence, soft skills, and character. Without a critical mass of these character traits, which range from self-control to optimism, an individual has a significantly lower chance of success. The research on character forces us to look past academic knowledge to something deeper that guides our choices and drives our behaviors. While the new psychological research is fascinating, the idea of character isn’t the most revolutionary.

But there’s another concept that I find to be more eyeopening and important: the idea that stress in life causes harm to the body and the mind. I first wrote about this topic in a blog post a year ago in response to a This American Life episode. In it, Ira Glass (also a reader of the book) interviews Tough and others  about the emerging research on the relationship between stress and the brain. As I listened, I memorized the phrase, “the biology of stress.”

As in, the biological response to the stress of life.

You see, ever since I graduated from college I’ve followed a meandering path of books on topics such as leadership, therapy, and growth. But none of these books made a biological connection between life and the body. In his book, Tough more clearly describes this connection as the HPA Axis which stands for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (the chemical) response to stress. It’s this system that senses stress and responds in an attempt to protect the person involved. When these chemicals flood your brain, you lose the parts of your brain that house the executive function and revert to a “fight or flight” response and a more reactionary animal nature. Sadly, the more often you’re in stressful situations, the more likely this will be your primary response to life.

It’s this connection that most influenced me when I heard  Tough speak about his book at the Sabot School in Richmond. (I’m also proud to say I shook his hand and spoke with him when sat down at the end my row before the program.) While he spoke, I diagramed his speech on my bulletin:

Notes from Paul Tough event

As you can see, I found two main ideas: The Biology of Stress and the Psychology of Growth. It’s clear from the research that trauma and stress (and especially chronic stress) wreak havoc on the human brain, stunt learning, and prevent growth. But there is also incredible research in the field of psychology about the antidote to this stress: a secure attachment to parents who are are comforting and who help children manage their stress. For those who are older, a caring adult and a safe support group can also provide opportunities for people to feel accepted and to accept themselves.

This acceptance is the first step to growth.

But there also is a surprising third point that connects both stress and growth: that is the believe that growth is enhanced by, indeed requires, the presence of stress. And on the affluent end of the spectrum, Tough and others believe there is even a deficit of adversity which prevents students from ever fully developing into themselves. They simply pass from one institution to another seeking stability and a straightforward path of rewards for their work. In contrast, students in poor communities have a much higher risk of failure, but the students that get out have something their wealthier peers lack: the knowledge that they have achieved something great and the determination to do it again. I drew another diagram while trying to explain this concept to my girlfriend and simultaneously trying to understand it myself:

Notes on Class and SuccessThe point is not to be naive about poverty (especially extreme poverty) and it’s also not about “success” in monetary terms, but in the more personal sense of achievement. Tough writes that the point is to be more understanding of the role of adversity. For the high school student I mentor in Richmond, it wouldn’t help for me to remove all adversity from his life. That would stunt growth as well. Instead, I need to give him a safe place to feel accepted, to know he is loved, and to enjoy life for a moment. He can go to school or the basketball court and know that I’m only a phone call away. And, of course, when he needs something that he definitely can’t get on his own, I’ll do my best to help him out.

Which brings me to Fatima.

I first met Fatima while she was walking home from work one day this summer. I am friends with her roommate, but I had never met her so I made the connection and asked her about her life. I quickly realized that Fatima has a goal: she is determined to get her driver’s license. So I agreed I would teach her how to drive and do whatever I could to help her. A month or two later, I got a call and for the past two weeks, her roommate and I have been riding in the passenger seat while Fatima, timid and incredibly nervous, has been learning how to drive.

This morning, I picked her up to go to the DMV and take the driving test for the first time. She told me she has three chances to get it right before her learner’s permit expires on October 14 so she wanted to get an early start. “I want to drive,” she said when I picked her up. “I want to drive to the DMV.” Aside from a few “dad moments,” I kept my cool on the way and she got us both there with relative skill. As expected, the place was crowded so Fatima got in line to get her number (to wait in another line) and I sat in a seat nearby.

As she stood there, a short, middle-aged Moroccan woman, I was amazed by her courage. No mother or father was there to help her. No husband, partner, or lifelong friend was there with her for support. A stranger (me) was her only chance to get this right and to accomplish her goal. But to Fatima, none of that mattered. It didn’t matter that the woman behind the counter was a little rude or that she was surrounded by people speaking a foreign language. She was focused on one thing: getting a driver’s license to get a car to get a job.

And at first I thought she was incredible for her courage, ambition, and resilience (qualities she certainly possesses in great measure). But, as Tough writes in his book, that is never the full story. While we were waiting in her third line of the morning, I asked her about her family. She told me that she has three younger brothers: one who lives in Rhode Island, and who two live in Morocco with her mother. Her father has passed away. “How is your mom?” I asked mostly to be polite.

“She’s doing good,” Fatima replied.

“Do you get to talk to her very often?”

“Oh yes, I talk to her everyday.”

Every day. I don’t quite know what drives Fatima, but I know it’s somehow connected to the relationship she has with her mother and her brothers. She is loved. And every day when she goes out into this stressful, foreign world she knows that she can return home to a conversation with her mom, a peace, a calm. She’s even told her mom about me, about her goal of getting her license and the stressful test she has to take. And from this loving relationship she goes back out into the world, ready to fight every step of the way. Tough writes that this is the fundamental difference between stress that harms and stress that results in growth: a chance to be restored.

This book may make you think about your life, your kids, your students, your friends. It’s a study that pushes the conversation about “education reform” to a new and more meaningful place: failure, success, and the perilous journey in between.

Sadly, Fatima did not pass the driving test today. I don’t even think the instructor let her out of the parking lot. She very gently told us that Fatima needs more practice. She was just way too nervous and unable to complete some basic tasks as a result. I know she was devastated. After months of work and hours of waiting, she her license was still out of reach..

If that were the end of the story, if Fatima went home and gave up on her dreams, it would be a pretty sad story. But I am sure that she is Skyping with her mom as I write this post, telling her all about this morning, the lines at the DMV and the events of the day. And as she shares with her mom, Fatima is slowly replacing her own stress and fear with her mom’s love and acceptance. She even called me a few hours later to make sure I would let her know when I found a time to take her back for her second test. I believe that through her experiences today Fatima will move forward more prepared for the test and determined to pass.

And that is how anyone succeeds.

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