For years, researchers have shown that raw IQ or academic prowess aren’t everything. Paul Tough’s 2013 book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power if Character showed how grit—defined as perseverance and passion for achieving challenging long-term goals (pdf)—and other character qualities, were critical to children’s success in school and later on in life.
Teaching grit and other character qualities in schools took off: grit guides were developed in Pearland, Texas schools; teachers across the country built grit lesson plans. This fall, a handful of California school districts will test students on the skills, to meet new national education standards.
But teaching grit is tricky. “There’s no evidence that any particular curriculum or textbook or app can effectively teach kids grit or self-control or curiosity,” says Tough.
“It’s not an inherent trait, you can’t give students a test and know if they have it,” Tough said. “It’s a series of behaviors or habits.”
When Tough examined how to actually impart these qualities for his follow-up book author of Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, research into neurobiology and motivation led him to conclude that teaching grit was not nearly enough.
Context matters, he argues. The key isn’t the habit itself, but creating the environment needed for it to flourish.
What stress does to small brains
Kids need environments which are low on stress, and high on belonging, which can activate, or accelerate, motivation. If this sounds obvious, consider why it is so critical: When kids are exposed to moderate, or high levels of stress, the biology of their brains changes. They are less able to perform complex intellectual tasks and regulate their emotions. Working memory is impaired. As adults, they are at higher risk of cancer, heart disease and emphysema.
How parents react to this stress is critical, Tough writes:
Research has shown that when parents behave harshly or unpredictably — especially at moments when their children are upset — the children are less likely over time to develop the ability to manage strong emotions and more likely to respond ineffectively to stressful situations.
Early childhood is when establishing positive connections and minimizing bad events (scientifically dubbed “adverse childhood experiences”) matters most. Programs to coach parents in poverty, and encourage sensitive connections, are necessary because the effects of neglect, weak connections and trauma accumulate. When kids go to school, the disadvantages of early childhood multiply. An inability to self-regulate and manage stress at home becomes exponentially more challenging in a large-group setting predicated on getting everyone to hit certain academic targets.
Tough says schools have been designed around behaviorism, the principle that humans respond to rewards and punishments. But students respond far better to having agency.
Schools, sometimes by necessity, but often by design, do exactly the opposite of this. Kids who misbehave are suspended or punished; kids often have little say in the work they do. None of this fosters grit.
Tough highlights the work of Camille Farrington from the University of Chicago who found that kids could be gritty one day and not the next, or persevere in one class and bomb another. Students’ motivation, she found, is dependent on a variety of factors (pdf). Kids need to believe the following things:
- I belong in this academic community
- My ability and competence grow with my effort
- I can succeed at this
- This work has value for me
This framework shifts the debate. Teaching more grit, or incorporating character traits into assessments for funding goals, as is happening in California, won’t do nearly enough. The key is not to change the information we impart (more grit, better self-regulation), but the way we impart it, changing how children feel about their school, their peers and the substance of the work they are asked to do. Says Tough:
The mechanical approach to childhood—especially where low-income children are concerned—is pervasive in our culture; it influences everything from early-childhood policies to discipline policies to the way we teach math and history.
Building environments to help kids feel more motivated, connected and challenged in school, will improve the odds of helping those kids succeed, he argues.
Tough highlights small ways in which this can be done. Stanford professor Geoffrey Cohen and Julio Garcia did an experiment on a group of of underachieving 7th graders at a suburban middle school in New England. The students had to write an essay describing a personal hero. Teachers corrected the essays with comments in the margin. Then the class was divided in two groups, with each group given the option to revise their papers. One group got a post-it note that said: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper” and the other received a post-it that said: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
White students, who did not face any threat of being stereotyped, performed slightly better in the ”high expectations” group. But the gap among black students was huge: 17% of those who received the standard post-it revised their work, compared with 72% of those who in the “high expectations” group. The authors theorized that right at the moment when a student might view a teacher’s comments as disapproval or bias, the Post-It note operated as a vote of confidence, reducing rather than elevating stress. That paved the way for those children to show some grit.
What parent and schools can do
Tough is primarily interested in how to help disadvantaged kids succeed. It’s a fast-growing group: in 2013, 51% of US kids fell beneath the federal government’s guidelines for being low-income. Low-income kids are exposed to more stress at home and in school, accelerating and magnifying disadvantages.
Fixing a child’s home and school environment feels like a daunting diagnosis. And Tough is not the first to make it. But by focusing on the power of stress to impair the brain, and the roots of motivation, he upends the hope that one factor—grit, self-regulation, IQ—will cure the myriad disadvantages low-income children face (Angela Duckworth, the world’s leading authority on grit, agrees on this point. “Grit isn’t everything. There are many other things a person needs in order to grow and flourish. Character is plural,” she writes in her new book on the subject).
Tough points to programs which show remarkable results, including one 10-week coaching program called ABC, or Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up. Through a series of home visits, professional coaches help parents establish and foster positive connections—big and small—with their children. Studies show that children in these programs show better self-regulation, attachment, and substantially lower cortisol or stress levels.
Schools need to promote belonging as well as deeper and more meaningful learning—something he says is happening in spades in private schools. For example, students at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx can take City Semester, an experiential, project-based class that integrates history, English, ethics, languages and science.
Combine those with small things, and maybe there is hope, he say:
The tone of a parent’s voice. The words a teacher writes on a Post-it note. The way a math class is organized. The extra time that a mentor or a coach takes to listen to a child facing a challenge. Those personal actions can create powerful changes, and those individual changes can resonate on a national scale.