Poverty, Grit, and School Success

In an earlier post, we touched on the debate over the relationship between poverty, school failure, and school climate.  More fuel to this debate is provided by Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity and the Power of Character.  Tough compellingly lays out how much poverty adversely affects learning and offers us a roadmap to school success in high-poverty communities that leads directly through developmentally-supportive school climates.

Drawing on new neuroscientific and psychological research, he argues that the most severe consequences of poverty on learning are psychological and behavioral rather than cognitive.  Childhood traumas, particularly those associated with poverty, overwhelm the ability of developing bodies and minds to manage stress and block the capacity to learn.  One way this occurs is by undermining a young person’s ability to gain noncognitive, character-building qualities such as grit — perseverance and passion for long-term goals — resilience, self-control, and self-confidence.  These noncognitive, character-related qualities, he emphasizes, may be as important — even more important — than cognitive skills in academic performance and how a young person’s life turns out.

The good news, Tough reports, is that nurturing relationships with parents or other caregivers engenders resilience in children, which insulates them from (mitigates) some of the worst effects of a harsh environment.  Moreover, the grit-related, noncognitive skills can be taught, practiced, learned, and improved, even into adulthood.

In our search for strategies to turn around low-performing, high-poverty schools, Tough directs us to pay more attention to creating developmentally-supportive learning conditions that foster both noncognitive skills and academic achievement.  His emphasis on grit has contributed to a surge in interest in this quality.  But his broader message is a familiar one backed by a wealth of research:  the power of resilience to foster positive academic, social, emotional, and physical outcomes even among youth growing up in the harshest environments.  He adds his voice to others who have shown that the road to student success lies in creating school conditions that encourage students to strive, that help them develop a strong sense of self-efficacy and autonomy, that provide a network of caring and support that fosters a sense of belonging, and that, as a result, involve and engage them in learning.

And I’ll add more good news:  through the Cal-SCHLS surveys, schools can measure whether they have in place developmentally supportive school climate conditions that foster resilience and these gritty character-building qualities. The Resilience and Youth Development Module measures many of the student characteristics that Tough endorses.


  1. Laurie Richardson says:

    It’s easy to agree with Austin’s report on Trough’s points in his new book about the most severe impact of poverty both psychological and behavioral being greater than poverty’s impact upon cognition.
    Educators in schools serving as role models for students are in a position of providing the very form of needed, nurturing relationships for their students lacking positive relationships with caregivers in their home environments. Fortunately this information has led to the development of classroom management approaches and social-emotional curriculums that help foster these relationships within our learning environments. Relationship building has repeatedly been reported as one of the key components of social development.
    Some examples of classroom management, discipline, and social skills focused programs implemented well at the elementary level include: The Responsive Classroom Approach to Discipline, Second Step: A Violence Prevention Curriculum, and Tools of the Mind. What educators do to create a caring, responsive, and engaging learning community matters as the programs implemented seem to change with funding initiatives.
    Resiliency and how it correlates with those from poverty who’ve become achievers and successful is one concept teachers are interested in studying. Positive relationships with learners is one step in the right direction toward achievement gains.

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