The Hidden Power of Character

What Skills Are Most Important for Children?
The Answer Might Surprise You.

What helps children to succeed? According to reporter and author Paul Tough, it’s more than just cognitive skills and a high IQ. In his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Tough examines research around “non-cognitive skills,” otherwise known as personality traits, or character.
It does not matter, “how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years,” according to Tough. “What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.”

Some skills can be improved through more practice—like reading more books during the summer or shooting practice free throws. However, other skills are subtler. “We can’t get better at overcoming disappointment just by working harder at it for more hours. And children don’t lag behind in curiosity simply because they didn’t start doing curiosity drills at an early enough age,” he explains. The solutions to building these skills in children are complicated.

Some of the country’s top public schools are experimenting with ways to “teach” character. In New York City, David Levin, co-founder of KIPP Public Charter Schools, noticed that alumni from KIPP schools, which have predominantly low-income student bodies, were dropping out of college–despite beating the odds and making it to college. Those that stayed in college and graduated weren’t necessarily the high-performing students, but those “who were able to recover from bad grades and resolve to do better next time,” Tough writes. KIPP schools have since begun providing character lessons in addition to academics that teach skills like teamwork, empathy and perseverance.

Last week, Tough spoke at a Woodlawn Community Foundation fundraiser in the Woodlawn community of Birmingham, where community partners and local residents are working together to revitalize the area’s schools and revitalize the neighborhood.

Tough was also featured on the radio show This American Life last month. His previous book, Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, brought attention to the work of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, which has since been used as the model for the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative.