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Q&A: How to build character that leads to success

Q&A: How to build character that leads to success

Posting in Education

Author Paul Tough explains that character traits like perseverance, confidence, and curiosity are the true predictors of life success, not test-driven academic achievement.

I.Q. tests have been proven to predict a lot in terms of life success, especially in the realm of academic achievement. And we might tend to think that academic achievement is a main route to all successful lives. So many parents spend countless hours and dollars sending their children to as many cognitive-based activities as possible, from early pre-schools to after-school tutors—all to get them to become the best they can be. But this approach might be completely wrong, according to the extensive research and reporting that Paul Tough completed for his book, "How Children Succeed."

Tough replaces the cognitive approach with what the research is showing to be a much more reliable predictor of success: The character approach or "character hypothesis." Traits like persistence, curiosity, self-control conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence are proving to be the true keys to a successful life.

SmartPlanet caught up with Tough to dig a bit deeper into this notion of a "character hypothesis" and learn how we can instill such valuable traits in our own children, and perhaps even ourselves.

SmartPlanet: What is your definition of success?

Paul Tough: I think that the kind of success that my research points to is pretty general, including some material indicators, things like educational attainment, salary, but it also includes things that are harder to measure, like satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness, and connection.

What is new about this research is two things: One is the path we take in order to reach that level of success, and the other is whether we should be measuring success in the short term or the long term.
I think for when we talk about children and success we tend to think of it in terms of short-term success, so how kids do on the standardized statewide tests. But what’s striking to me about this research is that once you start look at those longer term goals like graduating from high school or getting a college degree, the skill that helps reach that goal tends to be quite different than the skills that lead to short term success as we measure it on standardized tests.

In order to put this finding in the context of your book could you explain the cognitive hypothesis and the character hypothesis?

Sure, so the cognitive hypothesis is this phrase that I made up for the book. It’s my phrase for the conventional wisdom that the one quality that matters most in a child’s success is his or her IQ.
And science educators who I’m writing about have identified this different set of skills including things like curiosity, conscientiousness, self-control, optimism, that they say are better predictors of how well kids will do, especially in the long term.

So IQ may be better for predicting short-term success and the character traits like curiosity and self control are better at predicting long-term life success?

One thing that turns up I think in a lot of research is that cognitive skills really do matter in terms of standardized tests. We may think of college as being the ultimate place where IQ really matters. In fact it’s striking that it’s character strength that matters much more in terms of which kids graduate, especially from public university.

There’s a book that came out a couple of years ago called Crossing The Finish line that did some really interesting research around who graduates from colleges and who drops out. One of the things they found was that students’ GPA tends to be a better predictor of who graduates than their SAT or ACT scores. But the SAT and the ACT were invented because it was thought that GPA was unreliable, that it was an objective measure by teachers. But it turns out the GPA is a better predictor of which kids will graduate. And the theory behind this is that character strengths make a bigger difference in GPA. So if you have grit, perseverance, self-control, and social intelligence, you can do well in GPA even if you don’t have the most fantastic test scores. And it turns out that that makes a difference not just in high school, it also makes a big difference in college and it makes a big difference in life beyond college. These are the skills that we call non-cognitive skills or character skills.

Do you think character is partly innate or mostly learned?

I think that the kind of character that I’m talking about is something that can be learned and developed in kids.

How can one develop strong character?

The reality is two things: One, we don’t know all the answers and it’s more complicated than teaching cognitive skills. But I do think that we have learned some important things.

Such as?

One thing is how much of what we call character is related to things that happen to us in infancy. That’s the science that is most surprising to me, how things like the amount of stress that kids experience has a huge effect on the development of these skills, what kind of relationship the child has with their parents, their other caregivers. What kind of attachment they have with their parents that then in adolescence and adulthood expresses itself in what we think of as character.

One of the ways to develop character in kids is to improve their home and family environment, especially in the first years of life. And if we can provide for kids both better attachment relationships with parents and less of what doctors call toxic stress, that can make a huge difference, especially to kids growing up disadvantage.

Can you unpack that just a little bit just so we understand what good attachment is versus a toxic environment?

There are these two factors that are interrelated in terms of the kind of environment that kids grow up in, and one is stress. The other is attachment.

The development of the stress response system is one of the most important processes that happen in early childhood. Every infant undergoes stress…they get tired, or hungry, or lonely. And for the most part that’s a positive experience that helps develop the stress response system.

But when kids are surrounded by stress that is intense and chronic, that’s what doctors call toxic stress. That can include trauma, instability, chaos, noise, and violence. When kids grow up in that kind of environment their stress response system develops poorly, it gets damaged and there is a lot of research that can trace how those experiences lead to problems as adults.

Attachment is a term from the field of psychology. It tries to measure and track the effect of infants’ relationships with their parents. So it’s really about the first twelve to eighteen months of life. When kids have what psychologists call a secure attachment, meaning a close, in tune relationship with a parent or another caregiver, this has positive effects that last a lifetime. And when they have an anxious attachment it has negative effects that can last a lifetime.

Well to be optimistic too about it can we talk about the idea of malleability and the fact that character can be built later on. So even though some of these influences also happen before children reach kindergarten, there is hope that we can repair let’s say, a poor attachment later on in life.

Yes. When kids do not grow with a developed and secure attachment it just means that we need to do extra work, that those children or adolescents need more intervention, more help, more support. But absolutely, there are interventions that can help them overcome that early disadvantage.

How do you instill good character? Especially with someone overcoming a bad childhood.

We still don’t have the answers but there are some systematic programs. I think when these programs work they tend to do two things: One is they tend to work in this realm of character strength and non-cognitive skills even if they don’t use those terms.

The second thing is: When kids are able to make those sorts of transformations in adolescence it invariably involves a close connection with one caring adult, whether that’s a family member, or a teacher, or a mentor, or a coach.

I’ve never met a kid who had that sort of disadvantage beginning who went on to success without having one person that they can point to that has had a transformative effect on them.

And so I think a lot of the programs that I’m writing about in the book are based somehow on something that looks like mentoring or coaching.

And typical modern education systems are not set up to have many individual mentors or coaches.

Yes that’s not generally what teachers do. I mean, it’s what some individual teachers do in the classroom, just in the sort of instinctive way, but it’s not the way the whole school system is set up.

What do you think about the fact that technology and digital learning is increasingly inserting itself firmly and deeply into the education system from kindergarten all the way up to university? Will that further remove this idea of mentorship and coaching?

I think that those technologies have great potential to transform education. For some kids they’re going to provide a huge opportunity. But for kids who have grown up with disadvantaged circumstances and need help in with personal strength and non-cognitive skills, I think the technological solutions are not the right answer. Because when these positive changes happen with these kids they happen through very close relationships with adults. I worry about some of these credit recovery programs that I’ve seen in high schools in low income neighborhood where kids who have failed a math course will then go in a computer lab and take this online course in math where in three weeks they take a number of tests and they’re graded by somebody in another state. At the end of three or four weeks they’ve officially passed ninth grade math.

Clearly those kids are the ones who really need more support, more connection, more one on one time. That’s hard work. It’s really frustrating work. It’s also really expensive work. So I think for any school system if their two options are to spend a lot of money to find the perfect mentor for a student or put them in a room with a computer to get their high school diploma, there’s going to be a real temptation to use the latter option. In terms of what those kids needs, it’s clear they need more of the former and less of the latter.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure