The qualities that matter most when it comes to success in life are not how early children learn to read and write or subtract and add. Rather, they are character traits like determination, curiosity, conscientiousness and optimism.
In his new book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character," author Paul Tough pulls together the latest research from economists, neuroscientists, psychologists and medical doctors to make the case that it is resilience developed over time that enables children to successfully confront life's challenges and excel.
Children who suffer major stress early in life - a common theme for children who live in poverty - often fall short with academics, too, Tough writes, and that adversity actually can alter the physical development of their brains. But studies are revealing that good parenting and teaching go beyond providing emotional or psychological repair. They actually can create a biochemical change in the brain and improve a child's desire and ability to learn.
Children who learn patience and self-control experience long-term gains, Tough writes. He cites a well-known study, informally known as the marshmallow test, as one of many examples. The study tested the willpower of 4-year-olds by placing a single marshmallow in front of them and telling them if they waited to eat it they could have two marshmallows instead of just the one. A decade later, follow-up studies showed that children who were able to wait 15 minutes for their treat had SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than those who had chosen to eat the marshmallow after 30 seconds or so.
Developing positive character traits such as self-control can be a struggle for children, especially those facing other daunting life challenges. But "How Children Succeed," makes a strong case that parents, caregivers and educators can have a big impact on a child's future success, regardless of the challenges that child may face.
While there aren't any easy fixes when it comes to helping children in poverty, Tough's thoughtful analysis offers educators and parents information and tools that show promise and merit further consideration.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader's Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader's Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.