How character is formed has been a topic of interest for a long time, but if we are to guide children and youth towards success in adulthood we need to explore the question, are these traits teachable? In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough determines that qualities also called non-cognitive skills - such as persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence - are the key drivers behind why some children do better than others as adults. More importantly, Tough draws attention to studies that explore this question, and interventions that aim to instill these traits in children and youth. This is especially relevant for children who grow up in poverty or conflict environments that do not necessarily nurture this type of skills development. Although Tough focuses on evidence from the US, he brings to light several areas for further exploration which are highly relevant to international youth workforce development.
Tough explores the growing body of research surrounding the link between childhood non-cognitive development and future adult behavior, and looks at what can be done to best equip children with the skills needed for success. He sheds light on essential questions such as:
- Which skills and traits lead to success?
- How do they develop in childhood?
- What interventions might help children do better?
While the book points out that the most effective time to help a child develop healthy non-cognitive skills is in early childhood, before the first day of school, Tough also includes examples of non-cognitive skills development in youth (ages 15-24). For youth WFD practitioners, this evidence highlights the potential for non-cognitive skills training or other interventions for youth to have positive impacts on employability.
How Children Succeed highlights studies such as those conducted by Angela Duckworth who is working to establish which non-cognitive skills are predictive indicators of success, both academically and professionally. Initially, Duckworth looked at the quality of self-discipline and she found that a student’s self-discipline scores were better predictors of academic performance than their IQ scores. She started thinking about what strategies could be developed to maximize self-control and whether this quality can be taught. However, she discovered that self-control was only an accurate predictor for achievement of short-term, concrete goals. To achieve more long-term, abstract goals another trait is a better predictor of success, grit. For more information, see Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk about the importance of grit here.
Duckworth is now trying to help young people develop grit through a metacognitive strategy called Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII), developed by NYU psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues. The strategy relies on mental contrasting, concentrating on a positive outcome and simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles. The next step is to create a series of “implementation intentions,” specific plans in the form of if/then statements that link the obstacles with ways to overcome them. Duckworth tested this tool on fifth graders and later with adolescents with positive results in terms of academic achievement and conduct.
Tough also explores key research that is contributing to understanding of the effects of childhood trauma on the development of non-cognitive skills. The Adverse Childhood Experience Study, a Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente project, revealed a strong correlation between traumatic childhood events and negative adult outcomes. According to research by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris among others, repeated stress actually damages the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for self-regulatory activities, both emotional and cognitive. Damage to the prefrontal cortex can explain why children that experience repeated stress – for example those that grow up in negligent households or extreme poverty – are less able to concentrate in class, and find it harder to deal with disappointments. While the trauma occurs in childhood, the effects are more likely to manifest in adolescence.
Interventions highlighted in How Children Succeed aim to counteract the effects of stressful and traumatic childhood environments and equip children with non-cognitive abilities. Some of these interventions occur in the classroom, others at home. Some interventions take a preventative approach by delivering support for parents to help them provide a nurturing environment. Other interventions target children in the classroom to counteract the effects of childhood trauma. Examples include:
- Tools of the Mind, which uses extended make-believe play and other teaching strategies to develop self-regulation in 4- and 5-year-olds,
- Youth Advocate Programs, or YAP, a mentorship program for youth for at-risk teenagers, and
- OneGoal, a Chicago-based high school program that teaches juniors and seniors a particular set of non-cognitive skills designed to help them persevere through college.
OneGoal’s non-cognitive skills curriculum focuses on resourcefulness, resilience, ambition, professionalism, and integrity which can help students compensate for prior inequality that they have faced in the education system. At a relatively low cost of $1400 a year per student, OneGoal has had very positive results with an overall college-persistence of 84 percent. It would appear that it is possible to instill non-cognitive skills in youth who have been exposed to traumatic and/or disadvantaged childhoods.
The message at the heart of How Children Succeed is a positive one. Paul Tough concludes that character is malleable and so educators, policy-makers, and parents can ensure that children and youth have the non-cognitive tools they need to succeed.