Author discusses the ‘adversity gap’ with Barrington parents, teachers
“There is no perfect formula for the development of character, but I think what we have in this country is an adversity gap," said Paul Tough, referencing his book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character."
Paul Tough’s latest book debunking the idea that test scores alone predict a child’s future drew hundreds of guests Tuesday night to the Barrington High School auditorium.
To write “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” Tough conducted extensive research in psychology and neuroscience to get a broader, more contextual vision of what measures a child’s ability to flourish and thrive in school and beyond.
“At it’s heart, it’s a book about an idea,” Tough told the BHS crowd. “There is no perfect formula for the development of character, but I think what we have in this country is an adversity gap.”
Tough described the adversity gap as the imbalance in stress levels faced by children from low- and high-income areas. Tough, who researched what he called the biology of stress, said children do best when exposed to moderate, manageable levels of stress.
“The problem comes when children are experiencing stress that is not moderate or occasional,” he said.
Severe and constant levels of stress can be very harmful, but Tough said sheltering children and teens from stress can lead to similar problems.
His research found that individuals who experienced the most challenges in adulthood were on either end of the spectrum. The people who are most successful were in the middle.
“Right now, we have a very unbalanced system,” he said.
To fight the imbalance, Tough shared suggestions that he said applies to teachers and parents across all socioeconomic levels. He identified several key character factors — grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, zest and social intelligence — which should be nurtured.
“One of the reasons I like this list is that there are elements on it that you don’t always find,” Tough said. “Take zest for example. Zest is very important.”
After the presentation, Mundelein High School teacher John Stowers said Tough’s comments about zest and enthusiasm in the classroom resonated with him.
Stowers said he provided his sophomore students with binders, tutorials and other organizational tools, but found these physical items did little to improve motivation.
“A carpenter has to build the house; the tools aren’t going to do it themselves,” Stowers said. “They lacked grit and motivation, so that led me to start talking with them.”
Stowers said he now uses Tough’s “How Children Succeed” philosophy as a major part of his curriculum.
Paul Wrobbel, principal of Trinity Oaks Christian Academy in Cary, said he also has incorporated advice from the book into his school’s curriculum.
“I really liked it,” he said. “We bought the book and had all our teachers read it.”
Tough also talked about his research with a San Francisco pediatrician who found that children who are exposed to toxic levels of stress have higher rates of heart disease, cancer, emphysema and had a much higher suicide rate.
Recognizing the difference between stress and challenges is a key, Tough said.
“For me, it’s the difference between running on a treadmill and running up a mountain,” he explained.
Tough recommended parents and teachers allow their children to fail occasionally and to examine their failures so they can learn. This is one way to balance and positively respond to stress, he said. If failures are ignored or a child is punished for failing, learning does not take place.
Tough said the educational experience should go beyond the classroom to teach kids how to handle everyday setbacks. Although that transformation has not occurred on a national level, he said it’s becoming more common on the grassroots level.
“If we build that system, we could have a country where success stories are not rare or random, but around us all the time,” he said.
Tough’s work has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. His visit to Barrington was made possible through a partnership between the District 220 Educational Foundation, the PTO President’s Council and the Barrington Area Public Library.