In recent years, several writers, thinkers and educators have opened the door to new ways of thinking about the paths that lead to success. They collectively avow that non-cognitive skills — those traits like grit, conscientiousness, determination, and persistence — actually do more to elevate someone to success later in life than do cognitive skills.
Paul Tough, author and speaker, has spent a career examining these traits in children. His two books, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” and “Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America,” take a long, hard look at the educational and social institutions and how they support — or fail to — children in developing these important skills.
Effects of Poverty
One theme Tough explores in both books is the negative effects poverty can have on children from a very early age, affecting both their cognitive and non-cognitive development. In fact, he would argue that the lack of early non-cognitive development leads to poor cognitive development.
Inadequate nutrition, troubled schools and neighborhoods, and stressful home lives take a toll on the brain development of disadvantaged children. This is because early stress affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with self-regulatory decision making.
Tough says, “As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school. When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet.”
Despite the disadvantages many young people face, Tough does believe children and adolescents can learn to develop non-cognitive skills, though it will take more than just schools and teachers to do the work.
In both books and his current work, Tough highlights institutions, individuals, and programs that help turn the tide for young people who did not develop non-cognitive skills early.
Culturally relevant parenting programs, youth advocate programs, and mentoring organizations can all make a positive impact on non-cognitive skill development. Schools will also play a key role, though Tough believes schools and teachers will definitely play a pivotal role.
Schools and teachers can’t do it alone, though.
Turning the Tide
A big shift that will need to take place is reducing the single minded focus on standardized test scores. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top had a goal of increasing school accountability. The fallout, as many educators will readily tell you, is too great a focus on test preparation, and equating intelligence with a test score.
Children and young people are far more complicated and nuanced than any one test score could measure. Non-cognitive skills are more nuanced and difficult to measure but far better indicators of where students need additional development to help them succeed later in life.
A next step is to advocate for programs that make a difference for kids, like the programs Tough champions. These programs can intervene along the entire course of a person’s life, from infancy, like the Harlem Children Zone’s Baby College, on through early adulthood, like with America’s Future Workforce.
Tough’s work, and the work of his colleagues, is needed as we look to build up the next generation of successful leaders.