I broke down and read How Children Succeed this weekend. Basically, if you've been following the excerpts and commentary, the book is unnecessary. To save me writing this stuff myself, here are some choice recent quotes:
The first two chapters, How to Fail (and How Not To) and How to Build Character were quite compelling. The third chapter, How to Think, is almost completely about one public school in New York City and its chess program. I found it mildly interesting but not nearly as much as Tough clearly did and it slowed my progress considerably (that and the end of my vacation and school starting). The final two chapters, How to Succeed and A Better Path were more interesting to me, but still paled in comparison with the first two.
One of the studies Tough references very early in the book, beginning on page nine, has haunted me for the past six weeks. It is the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. It was run by Kaiser Permanente in California beginning in 1995. Patients were asked to complete a questionnaire about their personal history in regards to adverse childhood experience, such as abuse neglect and various types of family dysfunction (ten total categories). This was requested when patients came in for a comprehensive physical exam. More than seventeen thousand questionnaires were returned, a rate of almost 70%. The individuals tended to be middle class, most were white and most had attended college.
They found that "the higher the ACE score, the worse the outcome on almost every measure from addictive behavior to chronic disease." (page 10) The statistics Tough states blew my mind.
The most astounding thing was that these adverse childhood experiences had a negative impact on health even for people who did not smoke, drink to excess, or were overweight. The new theory became that the cause of these health problems was the stress of these experiences. Essentially our bodies are not made to endure ongoing, constant stress and managing that stress day in and day out wears on our bodies.
I am not clear on what all the hype is about regarding Tough’s book. I teach on a child/adolescent inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. We teach very similar types of social skills (I refuse to call it “character” which adds an implicit deficit understanding of children’s behavior.) In the mental health field, clinicians and mental health workers have been teaching these skills for decades. This research is nothing new. As a trained special education teacher, I spent a large part of my education graduate program learning the direct instruction of social skills. Schools have emphasized social/emotional learning for as long as I have been a teacher.
To me, the biggest difference in what KIPP does and what happens at my hospital is that we teach these skills in a therapeutic context. That is, children spend the whole day discussing their personal lives, including abuse, trauma, neglect, violence, and home lives. We teach them ways to overcome frustration in the moment, so it does not blow up into aggression or self-harm. We connect their depression (lack of “optimism”), their feelings of hopelessness (lack of “grit”), and their anger (lack of “zest” or “self-control”) with their lives and then teach them ways to cope. We are always clear that these types of coping skills are intended as a momentary fix to get kids through difficult situations, but the real healing happens through the long process of directly dealing with the trauma by trained professionals.
Basically, the research he cites on the real, physical damage caused by adverse childhood experiences is solid and compelling; his case studies of things that might work to overcome that damage is hand-wavy in comparison.