Paul Tough

Education reform expert and best-selling author

Tough lectures on various topics including education, poverty, parenting and politics.

The Children and Families Commission of Orange County, THINK (Teaching, Helping, Inspiring and Nurturing Kids) Together and Orange County United Way invited Tough to discuss proven methods for closing the educational and achievement gap experienced by many at-risk children.

His address challenged commonly held beliefs about children’s success being dependent entirely on cognitive skills. Instead his talk, delivered to business leaders, elected officials, educators and health care professionals emphasized the importance of strong character and the ability to overcome adversity.

Tough underscored the importance of parenting skills and of cultivating traits such as grit and self-control to help give kids the tools they need for a successful life – particularly for low-income children, for whom other resources are likely not available.

The author explained how having a strong character is an essential ingredient of educational and life success. Certain traits, such as zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity are in many ways more predictive of success than wealth for children. Having a threshold for struggle, for uncomfortable experiences, teaches kids grit and tenacity. Challenge, he told the group, presents opportunities for learning.

At the same time, research shows that adverse childhood experiences affect everything from childhood health to the ability to learn. Trauma may cause life-long damage to a child. Therefore, encouraging strong parenting skills and providing an education system that promotes resilience and strong character can serve as a kind of substitute for the social safety net that more affluent communities enjoy, Tough said.

“There are plenty of things parents can do to help their children succeed, from reading with them to providing a safe and stable and secure home for them. But one of the most important steps parents can take is to nurture their children’s non-cognitive skills or character strengths – qualities like grit, persistence, self-regulation, and optimism,” Tough said. “In infancy and early childhood, parents can do that by developing a close, responsive, attuned relationship with their children. And in later childhood, they can do it by giving their children the right kind of autonomy. When children are taught that struggle is O.K. – that they can learn from their failures and mistakes – they are more likely to succeed.”

Tough’s talk kicked off a collaboration between the three organizations, the Children and Families Commission, THINK Together and Orange County United Way, which pledged to work together to help all children receive the tools they need for a successful life.

Tough is the author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character” and “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.”

To read a summary from his book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and Hidden Power of Character” click here.