How Children Succeed: Who's Telling the Story?

I spend a lot of my waking hours thinking about how we can inject ECE into the national conversation.  So when young kids pop their downy heads into the mainstream, and early child development and poverty go viral, my day is made.

Last week, after my regular rant at Huffington Post, “Education Is the Economy, Stupid,” I tuned in to Ira Glass’s back-to-school segment of This American Life. Which, coincidentally, featured two of the characters in my post:  ECE’s godsend, economist James Heckman, and  Paul Tough,  whose new book, How Children Succeed, explores the importance of “non-cognitive” skills—self-control, regulation, ability to delay gratification, persistence, or what Tough refers to as grit—in children’s academic success.

What’s holding these children back, said Ira Glass, is not poverty, but stress—his lead-in to a wide-ranging conversation about toxic stress, bonding and attachment, teaching non-cognitive skills, among other things.  Although I bristled at his offhand dismissal of poverty as an obstacle to children’s achievement—how about getting rid of the root cause of the stress?—I loved listening to pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, who offered the best description of toxic stress—replete with bears in the forest and the home—that I’ve yet heard.

As for Paul Tough:  Glass, and other media meisters are spinning his notion of the importance of grit into yet another teaching strategy, the latest in a huge arsenal of silver bullets for a broken education system.  Tough, himself, isn’t deluded about the ravages of poverty; he gets it.  But I have to agree with the pithy assessment of a colleague, who said all this grit stuff “seems to have devolved into this month’s alternative to the Tiger Mom,  and misses the boat on the complete package of social and emotional skills necessary for success.  If letting kids fail is the key to producing persistence and character, then America’s urban education system should be producing geniuses by the bushel.”

I’m happy to report, though, that an ECE professional stole everyone’s thunder in this NPR episode (here’s the segment: 37:24-42:48).  After all the other participants—only one of whom works directly with children—had  held forth on the importance of early development,  Simone Smith entered, stage left, along with nineteen-year-old Barbara McDonald, and her three-year-old daughter, Aniya.  Smith, a home visitor on a project funded by the Ounce of Prevention, has been working with McDonald since Aniya was an infant, and mom was in early, tumultuous adolescence, to foster bonding and attunement. “When the mother can see what her child can do, even the smallest things,” said  Smith, “they begin to think, oh my God, that’s my baby, I helped my baby do that.”

Let’s leave the last word to parent Barbara McDonald:  “I love being with her [daughter Aniya]: she just makes my day.”


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3 comments to How Children Succeed: Who’s Telling the Story?

  • Julie Shuell

    Excellent episode of This American Life, so glad you highlighted it. In all our efforts to improve curriculum, standards, teacher education, etc. we forget that toxic stress actually changes children’s brains. We must not forget to partner with social service organizations when working with at risk families so they can get the mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, and other services they need.

  • Ruby Takanishi

    Your blog reminded me of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s message (now forgotten with all the “new” insights): All that a child needs is someone who cares passionately for him/her.

  • A K-12 school system if it reached into the community to be certain 100% of the children arrived at kindergarten ready to read it too would have a ureka moment and realize its more fun to avoid the gap (harder but more fun). And, they would create money by doing first things first right the first time. Enough money to reach into the early community. Proper managment of policy contraints could even remove the threat of staff reduction in K-12 as it turns into K-10 or more or less. Key words ERSD-RA, PVofPE-Prek, FTFRTFT.

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