Image: Screenshot from Paul Tough's website
Image: Screenshot from Paul Tough’s website

“What is it about growing up in poverty that leads to so many troubling outcomes? Or to put the question another way: What is it that growing up in affluence provides to children that growing up in poverty does not?”

These are the questions that Paul Tough asks in his new book “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.”

Image: Screenshot from Paul Tough's website
Image: Screenshot from Paul Tough’s website

Tough — a journalist and the author of the 2012 book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” — has seen programs that help children succeed. But he’s not out to promote perfect programs. Instead he’s highlighting the guiding principles that make these programs effective.

“The principle that I take from the programs that I find most impressive in early childhood is that the way that we can help kids succeed, and especially in the beginning in those early years, is through shaping their environment,” Tough told us during an interview last week.

He says that one of the most under-appreciated factors in children’s environments is stress, which is particularly harmful if a child doesn’t have a close, protective relationship with a parent or another caregiver.

“On an emotional level,” Tough writes in his new book, “chronic early stress — what many researchers now call toxic stress — can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. Small setbacks feel like crushing defeats; tiny slights turn into serious confrontations.”

Toxic stress, according to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support.”

How do you improve children’s environments?

“Especially in the early years, the interventions that I’m most excited about are ones that work with parents,” Tough says.

“When programs work with parents and give them the right kind of support and help them create an environment in the home that is responsive and warm and connected and likely to create secure attachments, the effects are huge on kids.”

“A lot of the programs that I’m most drawn to… are ones that work with existing teachers, parents, child care providers and coach them and say here are some things that you can do differently.”

Home visiting programs are high on Tough’s list. In his book he notes, “ABC uses home visits from coaches… to encourage parents and foster parents to connect more, and more sensitively, with the young children in their care.”

Addressing the challenges that parents face, Tough’s book says:

“Parents who are under a lot of stress, because of poverty or other destabilizing factors in their lives, are less likely than other parents to engage in the kind of calm, attentive, responsive interactions with their infants that promote secure attachment. But what excites many researchers today is the emerging understanding that those behaviors can be learned. It appears to be relatively easy to support and counsel disadvantaged parents in ways that make them much more likely to adopt an attachment-promoting approach to parenting.”

Another program puts mental health providers in the classrooms, a resource not only for students but for teachers who spend long days with active 4-year-olds.

Tough also points to the effectiveness of Educare, which his book describes as “a network of early-childhood-education centers across the country that provide full-day childcare and preschool for children from low-income families, beginning as young as six weeks and continuing through age five.”

“The Educare centers I visited, in Tulsa, Chicago, and Omaha, were all beautifully designed and smoothly run, full of natural light and well-constructed play structures, and staffed by trained professionals,” he writes.

“The Educare model puts as much emphasis on the development of children’s noncognitive capacities as it does on their literacy and numeracy abilities, which means that kids in Educare centers are surrounded by lots of the interactive nurturance that fortifies their prefrontal cortex and leads to healthy executive-function development. The environment in the preschool classrooms I visited was invariably engaging and stimulating, yet still calm and warm. In the infant rooms, babies were being held and rocked, spoken and sung and read to. Even if conditions in the children’s homes are chaotic and stressful, Educare’s directors believe, the large dose of responsive care they experience each day at the center will allow them to transcend the potential ill effects of that instability.”

How do you get policymakers to hear this message and invest accordingly?

“I do feel like there’s this really interesting bipartisan push to understand the science and respect it,” Tough says. In addition, neuroscience and economics are both making strong cases for improving early childhood.

This air of can-do optimism runs through Tough’s book. His lively collection of good ideas and compelling examples is heart-lifting. He shows how communities around the country could readily learn from their peers and improve both early childhood and grade school education.

“When you visit a school like WHEELS or Polaris, it is hard not to feel hopeful,” Tough writes, “not just for the prospects of the students there, but for the possibility that a new approach to educating low-income children, rooted in the science of adversity, might be taking hold more broadly.”

But when we asked Tough about his optimism, he said that it is tempered by reality.

“I cite a lot of statistics in the book that show what a bad job we’re doing in early childhood. To think that we’re 31st out of 32 OECD countries in terms of the proportion of education funding that goes to early childhood. The statistics show that even within that number, 94 percent of what we spend is in the last half of early childhood than in the first half.”

“We’ve done a pretty bad job of providing good environments for kids in early childhood and especially for low-income kids.”

“There are literally millions of American children who are growing up in circumstances that are putting them at a vast disadvantage, really cutting them off from opportunity. So it’s hard to truly be optimistic given that situation.”

And yet, despite these glaring problems, change is underway. As Tough writes at the end of his book about the research that’s being done and its implications:

“As much as we draw on the data that those researchers have produced, I think we can also draw on their example. The premise underlying their work is that if there are children suffering in your community — or your nation— there is something you can do to help.”

“Helping children in adversity to transcend their difficult circumstances is hard and often painful work. It can be depressing, discouraging — even infuriating. But what the research shows is that it can also make a tremendous difference, not only in the lives of individual children and their families, but in our communities and our nation as a whole. It is work we can all do, whether or not it is the profession we have chosen. The first step is simply to embrace the idea, as those researchers did, that we can do better.”