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Paul Tough discusses how to overcome school stress

A new book looks at how external forces impact student well-being
Paul Tough offers practical steps that adults can take to improve students’ chances for a positive future in his book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Paul Tough offers practical steps that adults can take to improve students’ chances for a positive future in his book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

In his previous book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, journalist Paul Tough looked at how non-cognitive personal qualities like perseverance, self-control and conscientiousness play a critical role in children’s success.

Now, in the follow-up to that book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Tough looks at how teachers and schools can create the kinds of environments—both at home and at school—in which those qualities flourish.

Mining the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, Tough shows how external influences, particularly what he calls toxic stress, can greatly impact student behaviors and their ability to learn.

Tough offers practical steps that adults—from parents and teachers to policymakers and philanthropists—can take to improve students’ chances for a positive future.

You discuss something that we’ve only recently seen identified as an issue affecting education, and that’s stress.

A few years ago, I started becoming aware of the research in neuroscience and psychology about the impact of stress. It’s this whole scientific field of stress biology and what stress does to us. The scientists who study this have made great strides in terms of understanding the mechanisms of how stress affects developing children.

That research, until recently, hadn’t been translated into the educational sphere. As I was working on my previous book, I saw that people were starting to make those connections.

First, doctors and later, educators were starting to look at these connections and understand how much of an effect intense levels of stress were having on children’s development and how that affected them when they got to school.

In Helping Children Succeed I was trying to look into this new question of how the policies and practices of schools themselves affect kids who arrive with the impact of early stress.

What the research finds is that, in general, what we do in schools is not designed to help kids who have experienced a lot of stress. It often makes the problem worse rather than better.

Is that because it’s not well understood?

I think that it’s just the science is still making its way into the realm of education. My sense is that once educators are exposed to this research and read about it or hear about it, it makes intuitive sense to a lot of them. Educators working with kids who grow up in stressful situations will often say, “This really explains a lot of what’s happening in my classroom.”

If their parents are stressed, do children model that behavior?

It’s more than just modeling. It’s being in an environment that is itself stressful--and stressed out parents often do help to create and perpetuate stressful environment. It’s also the specifics of getting yelled at and not knowing where you’re going to sleep at night or where your next meal is going to come from.

It’s being in a place where bedtimes aren’t stable, where rules aren’t stable, where people are yelling and fighting. All of those things create stress in kids. Anything that is about instability—when a home environment is unstable and chaotic—that causes a lot of stress for kids.

School districts have limited power over what they can do. How can they help this situation?

I think there are a couple of ways. The most important, and in some ways the simplest one, is to really be aware of the situation, to understand children are arriving in school with very different experiences and one of the ways that those experiences shapes them is through stress.

If kids show up to school with lots of stress, that’s going to change them, usually.

One big realm where that can affect school policy is in discipline. I think educators in the past have looked at discipline issues as a question of will: There are some kids who are just misbehaving because they are bad kids and they’re overreacting to criticism or to punishments because they’re just defiant.

Educators think the right way to deal with that is to punish kids and to win this battle of wills.

But for kids growing up in really stressful situations, that’s not going to work. You might be able to get compliance out of kids by doing that, but you’re not actually going to get them to a place where they can exercise more self-control.

If we as educators can create environments and rules and practices that help kids develop more self-control—rather than just punish them for not exercising self-control—that’s going to work a lot better for the kids. It will also work better for the school and for the educators.

Where would that change begin? At teacher colleges? At the district level?

I would say both. At the end of Helping Children Succeed, I come out on this point. What the research tells me is that an individual teacher can make a whole lot of change in the classroom that can create a better environment for kids who are growing up with a lot of stress.

But it’s hard to do it on your own and it’s not the most replicable approach. There’s a lot that administrators can do to shape the environment, both through policies and practices. There are all sorts of things a principal can do to create a climate of community and belonging and challenge, which is what I think kids need.

There’s a lot that district administrators can do, too. The policies that district administrators enact can have a big effect on the climate and environment in a school. If those administrators are cognizant of how those policies affect kids’ environments, I think there are lots of ways we can do things differently.

You wrote that the educators you observed who were best able to engender non-cognitive abilities in their students never said a word about these skills in the classroom. What do they do differently?

In How Children Succeed, I wrote about educators who were thinking about character strengths and about non-cognitive skills. Some of them were thinking about these skills as “skills”—that is, these are things we need to teach kids the same way we would teach English or math.

In observing many teachers who I thought were doing a particularly good job of helping students develop more self-control or more perseverance, I noticed that those teachers weren’t the ones who were trying to teach these skills as academic subjects.

Instead, they were creating environments—creating connections and relationships with students that just changed the experiences those students were having.

It made students feel more of a sense of belonging and relatedness and connection; made them feel more of a sense of challenge and motivation. They were being more perseverant.

They were being more self-controlled. They were being more curious, but without educators actually saying, “Here’s how you be curious.” In practice, that’s the more effective way to do this.

Is there a way to assess these non-cognitive abilities? There’s no rubric, for example, and they’re not checking off boxes.

Yes and no. There are a lot of researchers and educators who are trying to answer that question and find ways to measure the impact of teachers on the non-cognitive capacities of their students. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad research strain. It’s worth looking into and trying to figure out if we can find a better way.

But at the same time, I think the reality is we will never be able to measure skills like perseverance and self-control as well as we can measure math and reading ability.

You also believe we need to rethink our general testing and assessment process. Can you elaborate?

I believe moving away from an objective system of accountability toward a more subjective one is a good idea. I think most principals and most teachers know when things are working in a classroom or in the school building.

We can take away some of the high stakes around our accountability discussions and instead say, “This seems to be working in Teacher A’s classroom and not in Teacher B’s classroom, so what can Teacher B learn from Teacher A, and how can we improve things in the school as a whole?”

That’s the way conversations used to happen more often in K12 education.

I think that’s going to be really beneficial to everybody. But if we try to create a very narrow, objective accountability system where Teacher A gets promoted and Teacher B gets fired based on the non-cognitive capacities of the students in their classrooms, I just don’t think it’s going to work.


Tim Goral is senior editor.