School Climate & Safety Opinion

Q&A With Paul Tough: Environment Matters for Student Success

June 30, 2016 10 min read
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There’s a growing push nationwide for schools to increase their focus on the role that children’s emotions, relationships, and out-of-school experiences play in shaping their success. The writer Paul Tough has put himself in the thick of that discussion for a decade, unpacking research, visiting schools that were early leaders in the social-emotional learning movement, and studying firsthand the debates around the development and measurement of noncognitive skills in the classroom. His first full-length book on the subject was How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, published in 2012, which stressed the importance of perseverance, grit, and curiosity in the outcomes of children from low-income backgrounds. His latest book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) delves further into how children who grow up in adversity are hindered from developing the character skills that will help them thrive in school.


Tough, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to the radio program This American Life, has written extensively about education, parenting, and poverty. Helping Children Succeed draws on a number of researchers, including Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University; and Clancy Blair, professor of cognitive psychology at New York University; and recent studies to suggest how communities can make changes to spark noncognitive growth and improve student outcomes. The findings are especially important, Tough says, given that low-income children now make up more than half of public school students.

The increased attention on social-emotional learning in education has been a source of debate, particularly as some schools begin to implement programs to develop and measure noncognitive traits for report cards, school accountability, and teacher evaluation. In Helping Children Succeed, Tough suggests that the best way to cultivate noncognitive skills is not by teaching them outright or measuring them as schools would academic skills; instead, educators should think of the skills as mindsets influenced by the environment. The key, Tough advocates, is to make environmental changes in students’ lives by adjusting the behaviors of the adults around them. Programs that provide support for parents of young children not yet in school and classrooms where these skills can flourish require the work of individuals across communities and can be independent of large-scale policy changes, says Tough.

Commentary Associate Kate Stoltzfus recently spoke to Tough by phone about some of the science behind student success and how educators, parents, and policymakers can make a difference in the character of their students—both in and outside of the classroom.

EW: Who have been some of the biggest influences on your work?

TOUGH: One is neuroscientists—specifically a subset known as neuroendocrinologists. These are people who study our stress response system and how this network in us functions as this sort of thermostat in early childhood that gets clues from the environment as to what life is going to be like and then makes adaptations accordingly. In recent years, these scientists have discovered that the kind of adaptations that growing up in a stressful environment produces might [help children] in the short term in those environments but [are not helpful] when it comes to school. What these scientists have done—people like Clancy Blair, Philip Fisher, Mary Dozier—is give us a clear sense of what those kids are bringing to school and how poorly so many of our school systems react to dealing with kids who come in with that kind of background.

The other is in the realm of motivation and mindset. These people tend to be psychologists—Camille Farrington, David S. Yeager, Carol Dweck—who are looking at the reality of how adversity affects kids in school as a question of what kind of environments and what kind of messages can we provide in the classroom. They are going beyond the traditional behaviorist paradigm of trying to figure out the right mix of punishments and rewards to motivate kids, and, instead, looking at intrinsic motivation and what kind of environmental forces tend to make kids feel motivated, not just for an immediate reward but for a deeper sense of accomplishment.

EW: Though the cultivation of these character strengths are crucial, you make the argument that we should not test or teach these qualities the way we would cognitive skills. Instead, the key to the development of these qualities is to change children’s environments, which takes the responsibility off students to learn these skills and focuses on the attitudes and behaviors of the educators, parents, and other mentors who create these learning spaces. Say more about why we shouldn’t measure these qualities.

TOUGH: It’s not that I think we shouldn’t measure them; it’s that I think we don’t know how to measure them. But part of what I’m saying in this book is that that’s OK. We should just accept that these qualities in children are not measureable skills like math and reading skills are. They aren’t skills the way we think of academic skills, something that you learn and don’t forget. They are much more about psychological frames of mind that are very much dependent on where kids are. That’s why I think focusing too hard on trying to measure and assess these skills isn’t a very productive direction to go, and it’s a place where we are putting a lot of energy right now that could be better spent. Trying to figure out whether those students have that much grit or that much self-control is not important. What’s important is the kinds of behaviors that come out of having these mindsets or traits, and those are the things we actually care about as educators—how motivated, how connected, how engaged our students are.

EW: How we can begin to change environments both in and outside of school?

TOUGH: The best lever that we have to change children’s environments when they’re young is their parents or caregivers. I write about a few interventions that work directly with parents, especially parents living in poverty, [and the need to] support them in terms of the kind of emotional connections or attachment that they have with their children. These sorts of interventions, which are on the level of how you are holding and singing and talking with your baby, are the kind of intimate interactions that go on between parents and young children. When parents get the right supports and encouragements in those early years, it changes things for their children in terms of their behavior, academic skills, and neurobiology—you see the effects in their cortisol levels, even though the intervention is with the parents and not with the children. That’s one set of interventions that makes a difference in how children do on the first day of kindergarten and beyond.

Childhood is a continuum—that's how children and families experience it—and this continuum really matters, especially for kids who are growing up in poverty.

There are some school models that look at what growing up in poverty or other forms of adversity do to children and try to come up with interventions that help them. One has to do with relationships: creating situations inside schools where students feel a real sense of belonging and connection and relatedness. The other toolbox has to do with work and challenge. One of the things that the researchers of motivation have found is that work is actually deeply motivating for students. When they’re doing work that feels to them meaningful and challenging and rigorous, they’re actually more motivated to work. So the schools that I think are doing the best job of intervening are finding ways to structure challenges for students that are achievable but really push them—and push them not just academically but socially as well.

EW: You also put an emphasis on early childhood as a crucial time to lay the foundation that will lead to these skills, and you say that the home environment is vastly important even before children enter school. For students who grow up in low-income homes with stressful environments, it is much more complicated—and some might argue, intrusive—to change home life in the same way schools can alter classroom settings. Could you unpack this?

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TOUGH: There is absolutely a sense that Americans have—and for good reason—that the home and the family is something outside the public sphere. The flaw in the thinking that has kept us from using these strategies that have been demonstrated scientifically to work so well is that they have to be intrusive. Anytime that I’ve been to any of these programs that offer support and encouragement and community to low-income parents, there is no resistance at all. When I first started reporting on these interventions, I wasn’t a parent myself, so I was more prone to the idea that maybe it’s not right to tell parents how to parent. Then I had my own children and realized that parents are desperate for help. All I wanted was someone to talk to and make me feel like I was doing a not-terrible job. That’s especially true for parents who are isolated, stressed out, young, or who have all the additional stresses and pressures that come from growing up in poverty or in a low-income community. I think the real obstacle is our commitment as a society to provide enough of these kinds of programs.

EW: You write in the book that in 2013, 51 percent of public school students qualified as low-income according to the National Center for Education Statistics—the highest rate, according to the Southern Education Foundation, since 1989. It is more crucial than ever, you say, that public schools work to improve the futures of the growing number of students who face adversity. What are the most important solutions you offer at both the policy and classroom levels that schools should pay attention to?

TOUGH: Part of the answer at the policy level is for us to think differently about the continuum of childhood. There is this disconnect between what happens in early childhood and what happens beginning on the first day of kindergarten. That disconnect starts at the federal policy level, where early childhood is under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services and K-12 is under the Department of Education, and replicates itself at the state and county level and in individual communities. The pre-K and childcare teachers are not talking to the kindergarten teachers. Childhood is a continuum—that’s how children and families experience it—and this continuum really matters, especially for kids who are growing up in poverty, especially now as we understand in science how important those early years are. If you’re running a school system and you want the children in your community to succeed in your school system, one of the best tools you have to make that happen is to support and help parents and families of young children. One of the things that’s really striking to me in the research is how much small changes in the atmosphere of the classroom, in the way that we discipline and the way that teachers talk to their students, can make a big difference when you’re emphasizing classroom climate, a sense of connection and belonging.

EW: “Grit"—the notion, at times controversial, that student perseverance is a predictor of success—has gained national attention through the work of researchers like psychologist Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania. Could you talk about how your work differs from hers and where it aligns?

TOUGH: The place where our work aligns is that we’re both concerned about how to help more children succeed, and we’re both persuaded that the psychological dimension of being a student is a big part of why some kids aren’t succeeding and where we might find the tools to help students succeed more. I think she would say there needs to be a balance between thinking about how we use the environment as a tool to shape kids’ psychology and more academic, pedagogical techniques. She thinks more than I do that there are particular ways to teach skills like grit: lessons and exercises you can do in the classroom that can improve students’ grit and other noncognitive skills. I also think those things have some validity, but I’m more convinced than I was a few years ago that that’s not the most productive direction for us. The most productive direction to try to change students’ psychology is to think about what educators and policymakers can do to shape the environment that surrounds kids.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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