Home All What a College Dropout Has to Say about Success

What a College Dropout Has to Say about Success

written by Sherri Fisher 13 May 2013

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

“What can we as a country do to significantly improve the life chances of millions of poor children?”

This is the question that reporter Paul Tough (the college drop-out in the title above) asks us to tackle with him in his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. More than a book about what schools can do to effectively educate students out of the grip of poverty, journalist Tough weaves newspaper feature-like stories into a call for action on behalf all children, from affluent to poor.

By sifting through stories from young people, educators, pediatricians, and parents and melding them with research findings from areas like positive psychology, medicine, and neuroscience, Tough challenges the conventional wisdom that building intelligence and content knowledge is the route to success.

Sound overwhelming? From this complex array of information Tough has distilled three key areas where we need to think differently to truly understand how children of any economic background can succeed, and why we must create room for these approaches in our families, schools, and communities.

Begin at Home: Learn Mindful Nurturing

A child’s success begins with nurturing parents and other adult caregivers whose attentive, mindful, warm, and calm interactions build both secure attachment and resilience, creating a buffer for adversity.

Tough cites harrowing statistics of the correlation between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE is a measurable score) and negative adult outcomes such as addictive behavior and chronic disease. The ACE score explains the likelihood that, among other things, a child will have sex before age 15, become alcoholic, attempt suicide, or have chronic health problems like heart disease. Reaction to the stresses from ACE is long-lasting, and runs the gamut from learning to physical to psychological to neurological. Yet a simple intervention with parents can reduce children’s ACE scores, and even undo their effects.

Key research finding: Children succeed and take appropriate learning risks into adulthood when they feel loved and connected from infancy.

At School: Build Character

Student success is also supported by attending schools which build conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism. These character strengths support success and achievement more robustly than IQ and make it possible to stay focused on long-term goals such as attending college, even among lower-income students whose families have no prior experience of college.

Here Tough traces research from the world of positive psychology at work in education, including the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Schools, Riverdale Country School, a prestigious independent school in the Bronx, and at OneGoal, an innovative three-year college persistence program for high-risk students that begins at the junior year in high school and continues through the first year of college.

Even in schools where poor students are able to become high achievers and graduate from high school, for example, they still face the need to be self-regulated and resilient enough in college to avoid dropping out. These education settings share a mission for students to:

  1. effectively gain essential content knowledge needed for college success (yes, the cognitive skills)
  2. learn the road map through the numerous school processes that lead to college
  3. explicitly learn to use character strengths needed to become highly effective people as students and as adults

Without this last part, which includes goal-directed self-regulation behaviors (commonly known as executive function skills); social self-help skills; and the grit to stick with a passion, even students from the most affluent upbringing can fail to develop their potential.

Key research finding: Children succeed when they develop character strengths alongside cognitive skills and resourcefulness, managing limits and learning from failure.

In the Community: Integrate Effective Resources for Flourishing

Children’s success is reinforced by a coordinated community-based system of resources that not only work to prevent problems but also build flourishing citizens in flourishing communities. Problems that we think of as social issues, and requiring broad-based fixes are better evaluated from a biological level and thus treated with targeted, effective interventions within existing resources.

Tough points out that the current public policy approach to helping poor children become high achievers remains connected to a wildly expensive and inefficient system of after-the-fact treatments taking place in clinics, emergency rooms, and social service offices. He recommends a better path from the beginning, at the community level. (For more on an approach like this one, see work by Isaac Prilleltensky on Strengths-Prevention-Empowerment-Community Change (SPEC)).

Further, Tough asserts, in America’s effort to give children of poverty a fair chance at success, the education debate has been conflated with the poverty debate, leading to wide-ranging but inconsistent school reform under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and the creation of assessment tools and statistical approaches that have collected mounds of data along with disagreements about what the numbers mean and how to use them to close the achievement gap.

Beyond inefficiency and extreme cost of these poorly coordinated interventions, the reality is that few children from lower income families who pass through this system graduate from college, have good and stable careers, families, and homes.

Tough’s research, both journalistic and scientific, has led him to conclude that a system of comprehensive pediatric wellness could begin with

  1. Research-based parenting interventions that work
  2. Pre-school programs that encourage self-regulation in young children since we know these predict desirable outcomes into adulthood
  3. Schools and community programs that challenge and support student success through building character as well as academic skill

Key research finding: A comprehensive community-based wellness approach that values the development of character at every level will be less expensive and more effective than the current ad-hoc system of fixes.

Personal Note

I wish that I had read the end of this book first, where Tough really lays out his position. As a journalist, he makes his case with stories, which were moving, but at times disconnected from each other and the research, until the end when the threads are pulled together into a passionate and potentially controversial call to action. Suggestion: You may want to read the last chapter first.

Also, the research Tough cites and the researchers and educators he follows are well-known to those of us in Positive Education, yet not to teachers to whom who I spoke in my admittedly non-scientific study. Visionary ideas can be difficult to embrace when you are already feeling like a target for public criticism.

Suggestion: Don’t be disappointed if you recommend the book to educators and they say that this is just one more thing they will be asked to teach by people who don’t know what it is like in their classroom.


Should you read How Children Succeed? Yes! The book is passionately written and soundly researched. If Paul Tough is right, and I hope that he is, medical professionals, social workers, educators, and parents can join one another to build communities that help all of our children succeed.


Tough, P. (2012). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.

Prilleltensky, I. & Prilleltensky, O. (2006). Promoting Well-Being: Linking Personal, Organizational, and Community Change. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Prilleltensky, I. (2010). Community Well-being: Socialize or Social-lies. TED-X talk.

Image Credits via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Child with pediatrician courtesy of David Mason
High School Graduation courtesy of Berkeley Unified School District
Learning to Study courtesy of World Bank Photo Collection
School setting courtesy of WoodleyWonderWorks

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Don fox 13 May 2013 - 12:11 pm

Tough love? Librarians should shelve it with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Excellent review.

Sherri Fisher 13 May 2013 - 2:48 pm

Thanks, Don. Something that I did not mention is that Paul Tough has a preschooler, and he considers the potential impact of research findings on his parenting of “Ellington, who prefers books about dump trucks.” This is an important book as it connects the dots of longitudinal research with the politics of poverty. You can’t see something different, he is saying, if you keep looking at it the same way.

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 13 May 2013 - 6:11 pm

I’ve had this book recommended to me several times, and it’s sitting on my shelf. I’m really looking forward to the read.

As another perspective, I’m also a parent to two primary school children, and I’ve been having great difficulty getting teachers over the years to even think about focusing on strengths, let alone working in areas of grit, curiosity and so on. I actually had one teacher ask me to my face, “Why should I tell your child what he’s doing well – he’ll start expecting it!” As if that was a negative thing…

I find this completely frustrating.

I know teachers have a lot on their plate – I used to teach and taught for seven years. I also know, from my own experience, that teaching work got a lot easier and a lot more energizing when I started to focus on strengths and what worked well. I left teaching for a whole bunch of reasons, but the students were always the part I liked most. Part of that was due to the positive approach that I learned to use.

Where do we go with this Sherri? There is so much potential, and so many forces restraining this much-needed positive change in schools.

Sherri Fisher 14 May 2013 - 4:03 pm

Lisa, I think that there are lots of frustrated people out there–parents, students and educators–who want change, but who are quick to blame one another and society in general. With this diagnostic view we are a long way from having an appreciative approach in most home, school and work settings, and the most recent push for standards-based education has not made things better. People who could help–education schools, consultants, coaches, trainers, therapists and the like–are often effective in their own fix-it realm but only see part of the “elephant” in the room.

I’d like to see more of the “what might be good about that approach”: A giant virtual AI conference on education, with input from all of the stakeholders and loads of follow up. A shift to teaching appreciative teaching and assessment in E-schools. Training of new teachers to be personalized developers of student learners rather than purveyors of curriculum and basic skills. More emphasis on collaboration and creativity rather than on competition. And that is just a start! There is a conference at Harvard http://www.nexuseq.com in June (same week as IPPA) looking at EI in schools. We need to get out of the conference room and into the community.

Kathryn Britton 15 May 2013 - 9:44 am

I wonder if the teacher was mentally picturing “person praise” — that is, that you wanted her/him to tell your child something like “You’re strong at math,” thereby pasting on a label. Perhaps s/he had had trouble with that kind of labeling reducing the will to learn and the willingness to work hard, which is certainly what Carol Dweck’s mindset work suggests. Not all strengths-talk is created equal.

Or it could be the problem that Daniel Kahneman faced when he tried to teach Israeli pilot instructors to talk more about the well-flown flights instead of yelling so much about lousy flights. The instructors had observed that good flights were mostly followed by less good flights, while lousy flights (when they yelled) were mostly followed by better flights. Not understanding regression to the mean, they concluded that yelling was more effective than praising.

Just a couple of thoughts that occurred to me.

Adolfo B. Gregory 27 May 2013 - 6:13 pm

That’s very different from the message we were just talking about – about getting tough on your kids. I don’t think that is the right message for parents of infants. One of the conclusions I’ve reached is that, in the first year or two of life, kids don’t need adversity, they need comfort and support. But then part of what makes parenting so complicated is that right at the stage I’m at now, my son is 3, kids’ needs shift; now, my son needs to prove his independence and his ability to deal with problems. But when a child has that attachment experience in the first year or so, the research shows they have a lot more confidence to be independent and bold and curious when they get to toddlerhood, and childhood and adolescence.

Sherri Fisher 4 June 2013 - 2:39 pm

In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough cites research that agrees with you, Adolfo. I hope that you have a chance to read the book!


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