education | May 23, 2016

Want to Help Children Succeed? Help Their Parents, Says Paul Tough

Last week, education speaker Paul Tough wrote a piece for The Atlantic called “How Kids Learn Resilience,” in which he champions the development of noncognitive skills—grit, optimism, self-control, among others—in children. The foundation for these skills is laid in our first few years of life, he argues; and for children raised in safe, nurturing environments, these attributes develop healthily. But many who grow up poor, spending their formative years surrounded by stress, already lag behind by the time they enter school. So how can we address this problem? In this week’s New York Times Sunday Review, Tough provides the answer: “Help children by supporting and coaching their parents.” The piece is adapted from his new book, Helping Children Succeed, available today (May 24) from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Tough’s new article cites a two-year study of impoverished families in Kingston, Jamaica. One set of families received weekly hour-long visits from a researcher who encouraged play between parents and children. A second set received a kilogram of milk-based nutritional supplement per week. A third received nothing. The results? Those counseled to play scored higher on tests of I.Q. and self-control, and lower in aggressive behavior.

To Tough, the Jamaica experiment signals that “one of the most powerful potential levers for change is not the children themselves, but rather the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of the adults who surround them.” And indeed, more recent studies have corroborated this belief: researchers from the Universities of Delaware and Oregon found that just 10 home visits improved key emotional indicators in toddlers with foster parents. These noncognitive skills, while harder to gauge than traditional metrics, are immediately valuable in school, Tough says, and highly indicative of a child’s capacity to thrive.

Laying a strong noncognitive framework may be the key to helping children succeed—and it all begins at home.

Education speaker Paul Tough is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and the author of three books on education. His latest, Helping Children Succeed, answers pressing questions about childhood development, especially with respect to poverty, adversity, and other environmental factors. To hear Paul Tough’s trailblazing ideas on modern education theory, book him for a keynote by contacting The Lavin Agency, his exclusive speakers bureau.