The day after I posted my blog piece on the Maverick Launch, the program at my high school for at-risk freshmen, Paul Tough’s newest book, Helping Students Succeed, arrived on my doorstep. I read it in a single sitting and finished with a whoop!
This slim volume packs a big punch. Tough tells us what works to transform the lives of kids who are our biggest challenges: the unmotivated ones who can’t sit still—or pay no attention, don’t do homework, don’t use class time productively, disrespect adults, get into trouble. Constantly.
Yes. Those kids. The ones we suspect come from dysfunctional homes, from situations of poverty. In this book, Tough concentrates on the 51% of public school students in this country who are officially “low income.” Being poor makes it more likely that children will lack the nutrition and medical care they need to be healthy. Being poor means that books and summer camp and trips to museums will be missing from their lives. Being poor also increases the likelihood that these children experience extreme stress on a daily basis.
Tough is not talking about the kind of stress I experience when I am overwhelmed with papers to grade and lessons to plan and still have sixteen trips in the car for soccer lessons, swim meets, and parent conferences to make and have to stop at the grocery store, too. That’s temporary stress and I know it will end.
The kind of stress Tough is talking about is the stress of unpredictability: constantly changing addresses, shortages of food, abuse or neglect, a backdrop of drug or alcohol problems. He’s talking about traumatic stress, such as the markers delineated in the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACES) conducted by physicians at the CDC and Kaiser Permanente from 1995-1997 with follow-up that is ongoing to this day. What this study has found is that traumatic stress experienced as a child correlates strongly with health-related problems in adulthood ().
That kind of stress has implications for learning, too. In children under the kind and amount of chronic stress in the ACES study, the development of the part of the brain responsible for “executive function”—things like memory, self-discipline, organization, impulse control—is disrupted. A child experiencing the stress of neglect or chronic hunger or the ramifications of divorce grows up processing life and school differently than children of privilege. If you are worried about food, scared of your dad, subject to the ill effects of your mother’s drinking, it’s hard to care about school. Life is grim and the future looks bleak.
To teachers, these kids seem unmotivated. They aren’t engaged with learning and they can’t seem to concentrate. They don’t plan ahead, so they don’t do homework, and if they do it, they forget to turn it in. Tests, to them at least, are confirmations of what they don’t know rather than demonstrations of what they do. They don’t respond well to punishment systems, but they don’t respond to positive incentive programs, either. They just don’t seem to care. No amount of pleading, cajoling, punishing, or rewarding seems to change them.
What Tough argues in his book is this: We have to change the environment. In fact, as he goes on to explain through examples of intervention programs that do just that, changing the environment is the best hope there is for changing the child’s trajectory.
Of course, as educators, we can’t change a student’s home life. The only environment we can change is the classroom.
Specifically, citing the studies of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, psychology professors at the University of Rochester, and the work of former teacher, Camille Farrington, an urban education policy expert, Tough discusses the elements that, when present, can turn these kids around, elements that—sustained long enough—can help these kids develop the character traits and positive mindset that the other 49% of the population developed by experiencing the stability of a safe home and a nurturing parent. In a way, the teacher has to become that nurturing parent—and provide a classroom environment that allows the student some degree of autonomy, a sense of belonging, a feeling of competency.
That means helping the child discover his own agency—that he is in fact in charge of his learning—and his life. That means providing a calm and predictable way of relating to the child and making him feel that he belongs in the classroom community. That means treating the child with respect—even when he’s out of line. That means fine-tuning instruction so that students are not defeated before they even start but at the same time are challenged—so that mastering a skill or learning a concept means something.
In other words, structuring learning for success but making sure it isn’t a hollow success. And then building on that success to achieve the next one. And the next one. Step-by-step, carefully and caringly taught, in the right environment these kids can thrive.
Of course, good teachers try to do these things every day, but, by the time kids growing up in adverse circumstances reach high school, attitudes have solidified. Learning problems may become behavior problems—if they haven’t already. That means dropping out is on the horizon and from there life only gets harder. Interventions like Maverick Launch (and the Raider Success Center at Harrison High School, our sister school) are literally life-savers. They’re worth every penny in terms of the individual students’ lives and they’re worth every penny in terms of averting probable future costs to the community, too.
This book is compelling reading. It’s a short book, but it’s packed with research-based ideas, illustrative examples, and general food for thought. It’s beautifully written, logically argued and deeply felt. It’s an excellent candidate for a book study by a faculty and I’d argue mandatory reading for all educators. Paul Tough is so devoted to this topic—so deep into trying to understand how best to help these students succeed—that his book is free and downloadable from his website. Go there today: .