How Children Succeed

by Paul Tough

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: February 23, 2024
How Children Succeed
How Children Succeed

What are the big ideas? 1. The Power of Early Intervention and Noncognitive Skills Development: This book emphasizes the importance of early intervention programs t

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What are the big ideas?

  1. The Power of Early Intervention and Noncognitive Skills Development: This book emphasizes the importance of early intervention programs that focus on noncognitive skills such as self-control, emotional regulation, and social fluidity to improve long-term outcomes for disadvantaged children, even if they don't significantly impact IQ. For instance, the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan demonstrated this effect.
  2. The Role of Character Development in Academic Success: KIPP schools prioritize character development alongside academic achievement, believing that building a growth mindset and grit in students will help them overcome challenges and succeed academically. This is different from traditional educational approaches that solely focus on cognitive skills.
  3. Individualized Instruction and Perseverance for High-Risk Students: Programs like YAP and OneGoal provide intensive, individualized support to high-risk students, focusing on their emotional and psychological development rather than just their academic performance. This approach can help students transform their lives, as seen in the case of Keitha Jones from Fenger High School.
  4. Comprehensive Interventions for Deeply Disadvantaged Children: The book highlights the need for comprehensive and well-coordinated interventions that start from early childhood and continue through high school to support children growing up in poverty. This may include programs like trauma-focused pediatric care, parenting interventions, executive function skills development, challenging classrooms, and college preparation.
  5. The Politics of Addressing Family Dysfunction: The book discusses the challenges of discussing family dysfunction in low-income homes due to societal unease and deeply held beliefs on both sides. However, it argues that acknowledging the importance of character development and understanding that society can influence its development through targeted interventions is crucial for helping disadvantaged children succeed academically and in life.

Chapter Summaries



  • The study of human development has long focused on IQ as a predictor of success, but recent research suggests that noncognitive skills, such as self-control and social fluidity, play a more significant role.
  • The Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, is an example of early childhood intervention that improved noncognitive skills and led to better long-term outcomes for children, despite not having a lasting impact on IQ.
  • James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics, has devoted his career to understanding the role of noncognitive skills in shaping future success.
  • In adulthood, the effects of noncognitive skills can be seen in graduation rates, employment, income levels, criminal behavior, and welfare usage.
  • The study of these skills and their development is a relatively new area of research, and there are ongoing debates about how to measure and improve them.
  • Some researchers argue that parenting practices, such as setting clear expectations and providing consistent feedback, can help children develop noncognitive skills.
  • Other interventions, such as early childhood education programs and community-based initiatives, have shown promise in improving noncognitive skills and long-term outcomes for children.
  • The study of noncognitive skills and their role in shaping future success is an important area of research, as it has the potential to inform policies and interventions aimed at helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed.


“Tools of the Mind, by contrast, doesn’t focus much on reading and math abilities. Instead, all of its interventions are intended to help children learn a different kind of skill: controlling their impulses, staying focused on the task at hand, avoiding distractions and mental traps, managing their emotions, organizing their thoughts. The founders of Tools of the Mind believe that these skills, which they group together under the rubric self-regulation, will do more to lead to positive outcomes for their students, in first grade and beyond, than the traditional menu of pre-academic skills.”

“What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.”

“What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character. For certain skills, the stark calculus”

“Ellington would be growing up in a culture saturated with an idea you might call the cognitive hypothesis: the belief... that success today primarily depends on cognitive skills - the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests... and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.

...But in the past decade, a disparate group of scientists have begun to produce evidence that calls into question the cognitive hypothesis. What matters most in a child's development... is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities: self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.”

“Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes—annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs—GED recipients look exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.”

“How do our experiences in childhood make us the adults we become? It is one of the great human questions, the theme of countless novels, biographies, and memoirs;”

1. How to Fail (and How Not To)


  • YAP is an intervention program for students identified as high risk for involvement in violence and other negative behaviors.
  • The program is based on the belief that early intervention can make a significant difference in a child's future, particularly in the areas of emotional and psychological development.
  • YAP advocates work one-on-one with students to provide support, mentoring, and guidance to help them navigate school, family, and community challenges.
  • Keitha Jones, a seventeen-year-old Fenger High School student enrolled in YAP, had a difficult upbringing marked by neglectful parents, drug addiction, and sexual abuse. She struggled academically and behaviorally throughout her school career.
  • After being assigned to a YAP advocate, Keitha underwent a transformation, both internally and externally. She began praying, stopped fighting at school, and focused on graduating from Fenger. She also reported her abuser to the authorities, leading to his removal from the home and eventual arrest.
  • With the help of her advocate, Keitha graduated from Fenger in June 2011 and enrolled in Truman College to pursue a cosmetology degree. Her long-term goal is to provide a stable home and support system for herself and her younger sisters.
  • YAP's success lies in its focus on addressing the underlying emotional and psychological issues that contribute to negative behaviors in high-risk students. It provides intensive, individualized support to help students overcome these challenges and build a foundation for a successful future.


“She sometimes felt less like a primary-care pediatrician and more like a battlefield surgeon, patching up her patients and sending them back to war.”

“the key channel through which early adversity causes damage to developing bodies and brains is stress.”

“modern humans rarely have to contend with lion attacks. Instead, most of our stress today comes from mental processes: from worrying about things.”

“most of our stress today comes from mental processes: from worrying about things. And the HPA axis isn’t designed to handle that kind of stress. We “activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies,” Sapolsky writes, “but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.” And over the past fifty years, scientists have discovered that this phenomenon is not merely inefficient but also highly destructive. Overloading the HPA axis, especially in infancy and childhood, produces all kinds of serious and long-lasting negative effects—physical, psychological, and neurological.”

“Stress physiologists have found a biological explanation for this phenomenon as well. The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school. When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet. And in fact, when kindergarten teachers are surveyed about their students, they say that the biggest problem they face is not children who don’t know their letters and numbers; it is kids who don’t know how to manage their tempers or calm themselves down after a provocation.”

“So if we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success in a particularly efficient way.”

“When we look at these kids and their behavior, it can all seem so mysterious,” she said. “But at some point, what you’re seeing is just a complex series of chemical reactions. It’s the folding of a protein or the activation of a neuron. And what’s exciting about that is that those things are treatable. When you get down to the molecules, you realize, that’s where the healing lies. That’s where you’re discovering a solution.”

“We now know that early stress and adversity can literally get under a child’s skin, where it can cause damage that lasts a lifetime. But there is also some positive news in this research. It turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects of early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators but from parents. Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment. This message can sound a bit warm and fuzzy, but it is rooted in cold, hard science. The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical.”

“the child of a supermom who gets lots of extra tutoring and one-on-one support is going to do way better than an average well-loved child. But what Blair’s and Evans’s research suggests is that regular good parenting—being helpful and attentive during a game of Jenga—can make a profound difference for a child’s future prospects.”

“Babies whose parents responded readily and fully to their cries in the first months of life were, at one year, more independent and intrepid than babies whose parents had ignored their cries. In preschool, the pattern continued—the children whose parents had responded most sensitively to their emotional needs as infants were the most self-reliant. Warm, sensitive parental care, Ainsworth and Bowlby contended, created a “secure base” from which a child could explore the world.”

“The other thing that is underemphasized in the Minnesota study, Lieberman said, is the fact that parents can overcome histories of trauma and poor attachment; that they can change their approach to their children from one that produces anxious attachment to one that promotes secure attachment and healthy functioning. Some parents can accomplish this transformation on their own, Lieberman said, but most need help.”

“Pure IQ is stubbornly resistant to improvement after about age eight. But executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood.”

2. How to Build Character


  • KIPP schools focus on academic achievement and character development, with an emphasis on growth mindset and grit.
  • The Texas Experiment study showed that girls who received a growth-mindset message in an anti-drug program performed better on standardized tests than those who did not receive the message.
  • Character report cards are used to help students understand their character strengths and weaknesses, with a goal of encouraging self-improvement.
  • KIPP Through College helps students transition from high school to college and beyond by providing support in academic preparedness, financial stability, socio-emotional wellness, and noncognitive preparedness.
  • The challenge for KIPP is to help students develop the character strengths necessary to overcome the challenges of poverty and graduate from college at a higher rate than the current 46%.


“Pessimists, Seligman wrote, tend to react to negative events by explaining them as permanent, personal, and pervasive. (Seligman calls these “the three P’s.”) Failed a test? It’s not because you didn’t prepare well; it’s because you’re stupid. If you get turned down for a date, there’s no point in asking someone else; you’re simply unlovable. Optimists, by contrast, look for specific, limited, short-term explanations for bad events, and as a result, in the face of a setback, they’re more likely to pick themselves up and try again.”

“Character Strengths and Virtues was an attempt to inaugurate a “science of good character.”

“help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

“When children were invited to think of the marshmallow as a puffy round cloud instead of a marshmallow, they were able to delay about seven minutes longer.”

“But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to shift a person’s motivation. In the short term, in fact, it can be surprisingly easy. Let’s stay in the candy aisle for a bit longer and consider a couple of experiments done decades ago involving IQ and M&M’s. In the first test, conducted in northern California in the late 1960s, a researcher named Calvin Edlund selected seventy-nine children between the ages of five and seven, all from “low-middle class and lower-class homes.” The children were randomly divided into an experimental group and a control group. First, they all took a standard version of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Seven weeks later, they took a similar test, but this time the kids in the experimental group were given one M&M for each correct answer. On the first test, the two groups were evenly matched on IQ. On the second test, the IQ of the M&M group went up an average of twelve points—a huge leap.”

“agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, and conscientiousness. And”

“People high in conscientiousness get better grades in high school and college; they commit fewer crimes; and they stay married longer.”

“Peterson identified a set of strengths that were, according to his research, especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement. After a few small adjustments, they settled on a final list of seven: grit self-control zest social intelligence gratitude optimism curiosity”

“Wealthy parents today, she argues, are more likely than others to be emotionally distant from their children while at the same time insisting on high levels of achievement, a potentially toxic blend of influences that can create “intense feelings of shame and hopelessness” in affluent children.”

“It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we know—on some level, at least—that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As”

“the best way for a young person to build character is for him to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure. In a high-risk endeavor, whether it’s in business or athletics or the arts, you are more likely to experience colossal defeat than in a low-risk one—but you’re also more likely to achieve real and original success. “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

“the most fruitful time to transform pessimistic children into optimistic ones was “before puberty, but late enough in childhood so that they are metacognitive”

3. How to Think


  • James Black, a twelve-year-old African American boy from Brooklyn, became the youngest national master in US Chess history by winning the Junior High National Championship.
  • His chess teacher, Elizabeth Spiegel, saw his potential beyond chess and began preparing him for the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) to help him gain access to a better education.
  • James faced significant challenges in studying for the SHSAT due to gaps in his foundational knowledge and limited resources.
  • Spiegel, who believed that James could succeed with focused effort, spent hours teaching him various subjects, but she began to feel discouraged as they progressed.
  • Despite the challenges, Spiegel's determination and belief in James' potential kept them pushing forward.
  • The story of James Black highlights the importance of individualized instruction, dedication, and perseverance for students who may not have had access to quality education otherwise.


“Think about it,” Spiegel said. “Remember, when I ask you a question, you don’t have to answer right away. But you do have to be right.”

“I definitely have a warm relationship with a lot of the kids,” Spiegel told me at one tournament. “But I think my job as a teacher is to be more like a mirror, to talk about what they did on the chessboard and help them think about it. It’s a big thing to offer a kid. They put a lot of work into something, and you really look at it with them on a non-condescending level. That’s something that kids don’t often get, and in my experience, they really want it. But it’s not like I love them and”

“when children reach early adolescence, what motivates them most effectively isn’t licking and grooming–style care but a very different kind of attention. Perhaps what pushes middle-school students to concentrate and practice as maniacally as Spiegel’s chess players do is the unexpected experience of someone taking them seriously, believing in their abilities, and challenging them to improve themselves.”

“Lapshun was gracious enough to analyze the game with them, occasionally adding some dark, fatalistic observations that were made somehow darker by his heavy Eastern-bloc accent: “Eet ees hopeless,” he would say, indicating the board. And then, a few moves later, with a mournful shake of his head, “Here I am feenished.”

4. How to Succeed


  • OneGoal is a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides intensive college preparation and support for low-income, high-achieving high school students.
  • The program was founded by Jeff Nelson in 2005, inspired by his own experience as a first-generation college student from a low-income background.
  • OneGoal students are selected based on their academic potential and motivation to attend college, despite struggling academically in high school.
  • OneGoal provides its students with weekly afterschool classes during their junior and senior years of high school, as well as summer programming and college visits.
  • The program focuses on developing students' noncognitive skills, such as time management, study habits, and goal-setting, in addition to academic skills.
  • OneGoal has been successful in increasing college enrollment and persistence among its students; 84% of the class of 2009 were enrolled in college three years later, compared to a national average of 67%.
  • The program's success can be attributed to its intensive approach to college preparation, as well as the noncognitive skills development.


  • OneGoal is a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides intensive college preparation and support for low-income, high-achieving high school students.
  • Founded by Jeff Nelson in 2005, inspired by his own experience as a first-generation college student from a low-income background.
  • Students selected based on academic potential and motivation to attend college, despite struggling academically in high school.
  • Program includes weekly afterschool classes during junior and senior years, summer programming, college visits.
  • Focuses on developing noncognitive skills (time management, study habits, goal-setting) alongside academic skills.
  • Class of 2009: 84% still enrolled in college three years later, compared to national average of 67%.
  • Success attributed to intensive approach to college preparation and noncognitive skill development.


“As Goldin and Katz put it, a young American today who is able to complete college but does not do so “is leaving large amounts of money lying on the street.”

“Nelson knew when he started that he couldn't remake the entire high-school experience for his students. But he thought that perhaps he didn't need to. By helping his students develop the specific nonacademic skills that would lead most directly to college success, he believed he could compensate, relatively quickly, for the serious gap in academic ability that separated the average senior at a Chicago public high school from the average American college freshman. Nelson, using instinct more than research, identified five skills, which he called leadership principles, that he wanted OneGoal teachers to emphasize: resourcefulness, resilience, ambition, professionalism, and integrity. These words now permeate the program.”

“Kewauna traced a lot of her current academic difficulties to sixth grade, when, because of her poor grades and bad behavior, she was placed in a remedial class called WINGS. Officially, WINGS stood for Working Innovatively Now for Graduation Success, but Kewauna told me that at Plymouth, the joke was that it was called WINGS because the kids used to sit in class all day just eating chicken wings. That was an exaggeration, she said—but not much of one. “We never did anything in that class,” she said. “It was for kids who needed help, but they didn’t give us any help. We didn’t read. We didn’t study. We just played video games and watched movies and ate popcorn. It was fun, but that’s why I’m struggling with the ACT now. That’s why I’m getting denied from scholarships. Those two years were when we were supposed to be learning punctuation, commas, metaphors, all that stuff. When they bring it up today, they say, ‘Remember when we learned this?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t! I never learned any of that.”

“Recently, two labor economists at the University of California, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, analyzed surveys of time use by college students from the 1920s through the present. They found that in 1961, the average full-time college student spent twenty-four hours a week studying outside of the classroom. By 1981, that had fallen to twenty hours a week, and in 2003, it was down to fourteen hours a week, not much more than half of what it had been forty years earlier. This phenomenon transcended boundaries: “Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups,” Babcock and Marks wrote, “for students who worked and those who did not, within every major, and at four-year colleges of every type, degree structure, and level of selectivity.” And where did all those extra hours go? To socializing and recreation, mostly.”

“On the first day of class, Kewauna did what Michele Stefl had recommended: she politely introduced herself to the professor before class, and then she sat in the front row, which until Kewauna sat down was occupied entirely by white girls. The other African American students all tended to sit at the back, which disappointed Kewauna. (“That’s what they expect you to do,” she said when we talked by phone that fall. “Back in the civil rights movement, if they told you you had to sit in the back, you wouldn’t do it.”)”

5. A Better Path


  • Children growing up in poverty face significant adversity both inside and outside the home that negatively impacts their academic success.
  • The new science of adversity shows that family dysfunction, particularly lack of a secure attachment relationship with a caregiver, is one of the biggest obstacles to academic achievement for poor children.
  • Interventions targeted at deeply disadvantaged children must be comprehensive and well-coordinated, starting from early childhood and continuing through high school. This may include programs like trauma-focused pediatric care, parenting interventions, executive function skills development, challenging classrooms, and college preparation.
  • The politics of discussing family dysfunction in low-income homes is uncomfortable due to societal unease and deeply held beliefs on both the left and right.
  • The science of adversity challenges political beliefs on both sides: it acknowledges the importance of character but also shows that society can do a great deal to influence its development through targeted interventions.
  • An effective program of support for parents of low-income children while they're young would save money and improve the economy, as well as help children develop essential character strengths.


“But to me, the most profound discovery this new generation of neuroscientists has made is the powerful connection between infant brain chemistry and adult psychology. Lying deep beneath these noble, complex human qualities we call character, these scientists have found, is the mundane, mechanical interaction of specific chemicals in the brains and bodies of developing infants. Chemistry is not destiny, certainly. But these scientists have demonstrated that the most reliable way to produce an adult who is brave and curious and kind and prudent is to ensure that when he is an infant, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functions well. And how do you know that? It's not magic. First, as much as possible, you protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress; then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two. That's not the whole secret to success, but it is a big, big part of it.”

“is driven more by fear of not being a success than by a concrete desire to do anything in particular.” The postcollege choices of Ivy League students, he explained, “are motivated by two main decision rules: (1) close down as few options as possible; and (2) only do things that increase the possibility of future overachievement.” Recruiters for investment banks and consulting firms understand this psychology, and they exploit it perfectly: the jobs are competitive and high status, but the process of applying and being accepted is regimented and predictable. The recruiters also make the argument to college seniors that if they join Goldman Sachs or McKinsey and Company or any similar firm, they’re not really choosing anything—they’re just going to spend a couple of years making money and, perhaps, recruiters suggest, doing some good in the world, and then at some point in the future they’ll make the real decision about what they want to do and who they want to be. “For people who don’t know how to get a job in the open economy,” Kwak wrote, “and who have ended each phase of their lives by taking the test to do the most prestigious thing possible in the next phase, all of this comes naturally.”

“And so these three facts came together to form a powerful syllogism for people who cared about poverty: First, scores on achievement tests in school correlate strongly with life outcomes, no matter what a student’s background. Second, children in low-income homes did much worse on achievement tests than children in middle-income and high-income homes. And third, certain schools, using a very different model than traditional public schools, were able to substantially raise the achievement-test scores of low-income children. The conclusion: if we could replicate on a big, national scale the accomplishments of those schools, we could make a huge dent in poverty’s impact on children’s success.”

“Any time you need to use the term hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal in order to make your point, you’ve got trouble.”

“Where the typical conservative argument on poverty falls short is that it often stops right there: Character matters . . . and that’s it. There’s not much society can do until poor people shape up and somehow develop better character. In the meantime, the rest of us are off the hook. We can lecture poor people, and we can punish them if they don’t behave the way we tell them to, but that’s where our responsibility ends.”

“character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow”

“a feeling of admiration and hope when I watch young people making the difficult and often painful choice to follow a better path, to turn away from what might have seemed like their inevitable destiny.”


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