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How Children Succeed

by

Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

by Paul Tough

This US bestseller isn’t quite as simple as the title suggests. This isn’t just a guide for the creation of successful children. The main thrust of the book is the importance of character development in young people. Tough argues that the most important factors in the success of young people are character traits such as resilience, self-control, positivity and ‘grit’.  He also cites several studies that show that these character traits were better predictors of final exam results than IQ scores are.

 He also covers the difficulties of children from below the poverty line, looking at various arguments as to why children from these backgrounds struggle when they are at school. He argues that the reason for this is that pupils from more affluent backgrounds are more resilient, not because of wealth but as a result of character development. Interestingly, he puts this down to a lack of stress in their early years. He states that from a very young age disadvantaged children “find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments and harder to follow directions.”

 He also examines the psychology of teenagers and points out that there is something uniquely “out of balance” within them, which makes them particularly susceptible to making bad decisions. If teenagers have unresolved problems from early childhood, the wounds can open, just at the time when building resilience through new experience becomes important. This applies equally to impoverished children and the wealthy.

 There is an especially interesting passage about the chess coaching of Elizabeth Spiegel at an average state junior high school, with an outstanding chess programme. It detailed the extensive feedback that Spiegel gave to pupils, both on their chess, but also their ‘character’. A particular example was a little uncomfortable, as the reader hears how she berated a boy for ‘stupid moves’ and threatens to withdraw him from a competition. Though the purpose of the story is to illustrate the importance of children learning to reflect on their actions.

 This is a very provocative book and brings up plenty of talking points. From the point of view of the educator it might have been useful for the author to give some specific advice on the development of character. However, the overriding message of the book will serve as further justification for the use of extra/co curricular activity in schools where academic pressure increases year by year.

 Jamie Taylor