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On Our Shelf: How Children Succeed

By Julia Wickes

SCCS is launching a new series called On Our Shelf. In this series we plan to review and recommend our favorite books on education and parenting. We hope this series will be a useful resource for SCCS parents and others who share our perspectives on childhood. The first book we would like to share with you is How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough.


Brandy Greiner, Director of Education

I assigned How Children Succeed for our staff’s Summer 2017 reading assignment because I wanted our teachers to have a common understanding of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and because I think it is important for us to stay up to date on best practices in our field.

There has been a lot of research in recent years about grit and resilience. There has also been a lot of interest in ways to understand and care well for kids who have been through trauma. This book addresses both of these topics, and is written by an author I respect and admire. Paul Tough also wrote Whatever it Takes, a book about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone, which our staff read several years ago and found valuable.




Sarah Crow, Fifth Grade Teacher

In his book How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough shows how experiences in our early years connect to outcomes in adulthood. While offering diverse statistics and student anecdotes, Tough demonstrates what separates the students who will swim instead of sink when confronted with a tough challenge, noting key factors such as grit.

I have found that, as a teacher who is new to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, this book made a compelling case for the Charlotte Mason practice of teaching habits in the classroom. One part of the book that made a deep impression on me was when Tough described a study in which teachers of one group of students were told that the children were highly intelligent. As a result, students in this group were taught as if they were above average. Later in life, these students had a more positive outlook when confronting challenges because they had been told as children they were capable and could try, fail, try again, and succeed. This empowers me as a teacher to have high expectations of my students and teach the habit of persistence in the classroom.

This book also dovetails nicely with things I learned at the Charlotte Mason education conference our staff attended in the fall. Kevin Washburn, an educator and expert on student achievement, spoke at this conference about the power of our words. What teachers say about students, or even themselves, can reinforce good habits, or poor habits. For example, saying, “Math is just not my thing,” is defeating language that undermines persistence and grit. As a teacher, I enjoyed this book, but I also think that it would be a great read for parents. For caretakers and educators wondering what we can do to help our children overcome adversity and find success, How Children Succeed offers many useful ideas and tools.


Lindsay Perkins, 7th-8th Grade History and Language Arts Teacher

Months after finishing How Children Succeed, I still think about one of the book’s main tenets: the definition of “success” for students, and what determines future success. The book tells the story of school administrators and teachers who spend many hours tracking their students into the future to discover who is successful and in what ways. As both a teacher and a parent, I often think of what the future of my children and students will look like. What was surprising about the conclusions of this book is that early academic achievements were not necessarily an indicator that a child would go on to earn a college degree, find steady employment, or support a stable family. The development of certain character traits, as well as a nurturing home and school environment were much bigger factors determining success.

This book made me think a lot about the question of privilege. My own family is not rich; we are solidly middle class. But we are a close-knit family and my kids are supported at home and at school. The underlying message I received from Tough was that many school-age children in our city, country, and world simply do not have the support they need in these areas. And that, regardless of economic status or how much they are pushed academically, the support of the home and school are a great boon and privilege to children. Children who have love, care, and mentorship are predisposed to be successful. For the children who are coming to school from more difficult conditions, school itself and the mentorship that can be found there can make all the difference in their lives. This is a great reminder for educators and parents everywhere that our lives touching the lives of kids matters.


Sue Pitzer, Interim Head of School

In his 2012 book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough introduces us to a new generation of neuroscience researchers and educators who are using the tools of science to give us new information on how to improve the education and the lives of children growing up in poverty. In this fascinating and engaging book, his conclusions seem to affirm that Charlotte Mason, in her holistic approach to children, was a woman ahead of her time. Tough says,

What matters most in a child’s development, is not how much information we can stuff into a child’s brain in her 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.

Charlotte Mason, who believed that children were divine image-bearers, would certainly concur with Paul Tough’s conclusions in this book. How Children Succeed gives us contemporary stories and evidence-based conclusions that support a Charlotte Mason understanding of how children learn and flourish in an educational setting.