Mentoring Matters: Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed”

Book coverIf you’re looking for a book that will engage, educate, and inspire you, Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character might be for you. Written to highlight the effects of poverty on children and marketed to the parenting audience, the book discusses findings about the deprivations poverty visits on infants and children, the problem with both over-parenting and disengagement among well-off children, and interventions to mitigate these, all by pulling together disparate lines of research and practice. In addition, although Check & Connect is never mentioned, its guiding principles can be seen throughout the book.

The Importance of Character

Tough’s main argument is that cognitive skills alone do not assure children’s success. Children also need to develop persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence—what the literature calls non-cognitive skills and what Tough calls character. According to Tough, character is built by experiencing and overcoming failure. He contrasts the lived experience of both rich and poor children regarding failure, with rich children overprotected from experiencing failure and poor children overwhelmed with life challenges from inadequate nutrition to neighborhood problems and dysfunctional schools.

Both rich and poor children can be equally neglected by parents, for different reasons. Tough describes the research of Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. She “found that parenting mattered at both socioeconomic extremes. For both rich and poor teenagers, certain family characteristics predicted children’s maladjustment, including low levels of maternal attachment, high levels of parental criticism and minimal after-school adult supervision. Among the affluent children, Luthar found, the main cause of distress was ‘excessive achievement pressures and isolation from parents—both physical and emotional'” (p. 83).

Check & Connect Connections

Check & Connect focuses on what we can do to enhance student engagement, and the theory of engagement undergirding C&C includes behavioral, academic, cognitive and affective engagement. C&C works with the whole child. Those qualities that Tough calls character are part of what we promote in C&C—persistence, self-control, good decision making, and the ability to solve one’s own problems.

Tough uses case studies of several children and youth to make his case. Most of the children he describes who successfully overcame life’s obstacles had a mentor. Keitha, who had reputation as one of the most violent kids in a violent school, was paired with a mentor who helped her turn her life around and graduate from high school. Tough also describes the mentoring work of Elizabeth Spiegel, who coaches chess at an intermediate school in Brooklyn and uses both mentoring and thinking through problems as strategies.

Tough is a journalist, so the research he describes is synthesized to support his argument that character matters. The book, however, makes an important point for educators—that our government’s push for quality teachers is not enough to meliorate the effects of poverty and neglect. Adults, too, need grit and commitment—not unlike the persistence-plus of Check & Connect—to address the issues our children face in modern society.


About the Author: Karen Stout, Ph.D. provides training nationally and internationally on Check & Connect, serves as an investigator on several Check & Connect research projects currently underway, and is one of the authors of the 2012 Check & Connect manual, “Implementing with Fidelity”.

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

2 thoughts on “Mentoring Matters: Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed”

  1. Our principal used this book as a bookclub book. The goal was for the entire school to read it and pay it forward to another educator at another school or even at our school. It was very successful! I read it and I am now re-reading it to include in my dissertation. Please, if you have not read it, do so. You will not be disappointed!
    Carmilla

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