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Helping Children Succeed: Brain Science in the Classroom

Paul Tough's new book shows why we cannot "teach" character and resilience

Two days after I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Tough about his thought-provoking new book Helping Children Succeed, I gave a talk about the explosion of new science showing us how listening changes the brain. While the audience was primarily psychotherapists, a number of educators had a pressing question. How do we apply this knowledge in the classroom? This is exactly what Tough aims to answer.

In our conversation, he elaborated on his process of discovery, following the publication of his highly acclaimed book How Children Succeed, that grit, curiosity, and character are not "skills" that can be "taught" in the same way that academic skills are taught. He then set out to connect what he had learned about the neuroscience of early adversity with school programs that can help children succeed.

Tough quotes a child psychiatrist, Pamela Cantor, who helped to enlighten him.

According to their framework, high-level "non-cognitive" skills like resilience, curiosity, and academic tenacity that are essential to success in middle and high school are impossible for a child to obtain without first developing, in the early years of formal education, executive function, a capacity for self-awareness, and relationship skills. And these elementary-school skills, in turn, stand atop an infrastructure of qualities built in the first years of life, like secure attachment, the ability to manage stress, and self-regulation.

Tough refers the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a powerful epidemiologic study showing the link between adverse early experiences and a wide range of negative health outcomes. He describes some of the large body of research, and a few of the early childhood programs applying that research, showing that the early experience of stress and adversity gets in to the body and the brain, leading to problems of emotional and behavioral regulation.

While Tough references this research in his first book, he explained to me that he did not connect the research with an understanding of what kinds of school programs are effective. For example he did profile a chess instructor, Elizabeth Spiegal who transformed a group of disadvantaged students into a champion chess team. Tough didn't recognize the full significance of the story at the time. But as he came to appreciate that "the teaching paradigm might be the wrong one" he thought about how Spiegal did not try to teach grit or character, but rather "she only talked to her students about chess." In this book he reflects back, " Something in her careful and close attention to her students' work changed not only their chess ability but also their approach to life."

Tough articulates as his aim in this book "not to find model programs to replicate" but rather "to extract and explain the core principles of each program to look for a set of common ideas that run through successful interventions." He then spends much of the book describing examples of approaches in the education system that make good use of the developmental science of early childhood.

I would have liked to see more of a rather large body of relevant research. For example psychiatrist Bruce Perry, who runs the Child Trauma Academy has written extensively for audiences of parents, teachers and other professionals about how early developmental disruptions affect the developing brain, how this manifests in the classroom, and how to effectively address these problems in multiple settings, His Scholastic series is one example. Perry describes how effective interventions combine a relational milieu with activities that help to regulate the brain and so behavior.

Tough describes a number of programs that employ creative methods. One of these is Becoming A Man or BAM. "BAM uses group discussions, role-playing exercises, and non-traditional sports..." The program has improved grades, attendance and graduation rates. This vignette brought to mind another notably absent figure, Bessel van der Kolk, who has written extensively about how to address early trauma in the classroom, including the evidence-based theater program TraumaDrama. This program offers opportunity to "promote self-expression, cognitive flexibility, creative problem solving... and above all, an embodied sense of personal agency and mastery."

Tough also leaves out the work of world-renowned child development researcher Ed Tronick, who describes everyday or "quotidian" resilience that develops over time in early childhood in an attuned caregiving environment. In contrast, children may experience chronic mismatch in the face of such things as parental mental illness, substance abuse or other adverse experiences. Tronick's research elucidates the mechanism by which stress gets into the body and brain, leading us in turn to appropriate preventive interventions.

By coincidence, I spoke with Tough on the same day that my new book The Silenced Child: From Labels, Medications, and Quick-Fix Solutions to Listening, Growth, and Lifelong Resilience, was released. Our work overlaps in many ways, though while his focus is primarily on the education system, mine looks more broadly at application of the brain science of early adversity. It shows both how to help children succeed as well as obstacles to offering that help. Factors in both the health care and education system, as well as a lack of a culture of postpartum care all contribute to a failure to focus our efforts on prevention.

Tough refers to an alarming statistic that only 6% of early childhood dollars go to programs for children under 3, with 94% to 3-5 year olds. He wisely observes "The United States does not do a particularly good job of reflecting [this] growing scientific understanding of early childhood, and especially early brain development, in its policies towards disadvantaged children."

Tough's new book represents an important step in the right direction. I shared with him my hope that he will, in a future project, turn his considerable journalistic skill to an area he addresses briefly in the beginning of this book- the high-quality and far-reaching research in the field of infant-parent mental health. This field applies the science of early adversity in a model of prevention, early intervention, and treatment.

Until we address this statistic he cites, and begin to funnel dollars in to the first three years, we will be behind the eight ball. Supporting parents and children from the early days and weeks of life will help not only children identified as growing up in adversity, but all children.

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