In recent years, the idea that educators should be teaching kids qualities like grit and self-control has caught on. Successful strategies, though, are hard to come by.
The following article was originally published in The Atlantic.
In 2013, for the first time, a majority of public-school students in America—51 percent, to be precise—fell below the federal government’s low-income cutoff, meaning they were eligible for a free or subsidized school lunch. It was a powerful symbolic moment—an inescapable reminder that the challenge of teaching low-income children has become the central issue in American education.
The truth, as many American teachers know firsthand, is that low-income children can be harder to educate than children from more-comfortable backgrounds. Educators often struggle to motivate them, to calm them down, to connect with them. This doesn’t mean they’re impossible to teach, of course; plenty of kids who grow up in poverty are thriving in the classroom. But two decades of national attention have done little or nothing to close the achievement gap between poor students and their better-off peers.
In recent years, in response to this growing crisis, a new idea (or perhaps a very old one) has arisen in the education world: Character matters. Researchers concerned with academic-achievement gaps have begun to study, with increasing interest and enthusiasm, a set of personal qualities—often referred to as noncognitive skills, or character strengths—that include resilience, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and grit. These capacities generally aren’t captured by our ubiquitous standardized tests, but they seem to make a big difference in the academic success of children, especially low-income children.
My last book, How Children Succeed, explored this research and profiled educators who were attempting to put it into practice in their classrooms. Since the book’s publication, in 2012, the idea that educators should be teaching grit and self-control along with addition and subtraction has caught on across the country. Some school systems are embracing this notion institutionally. In California this spring, for example, a coalition of nine major school districts has been trying out a new school-assessment system that relies in part on measurements of students’ noncognitive abilities, such as self-management and social awareness.
This article is adapted from Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.