Helping Children Succeed – a short review.

Reading Helping Children Succeed is a useful way of reflecting on the current enthusiasm for “No Excuses Discipline”. (see here, here, here and here. See some critical reactions here, here and here.)  Paul Tough examines a wide range of evidence that questions its effectiveness. I work in school that has its fair share of challenging students and as such needs to be clear about what works in education and why.

Does Michaela offer an alternative, maybe even more effective approach to teaching disadvantaged students? What might explain is success and its attractiveness? What can we learn from its advocates?

How might it’s “no excuses” approach help its cause? What might be the limitations of this approach – why does it provoke discomfort in many teachers? Under what circumstances does it work?\

What is it about growing in poverty that leads to so many troubling outcomes?

Paul Tough’s book is an easy read – a short overview of studies into working with disadvantaged children and some reflection on why they have worked.  He argues that schools need to build an effective environment of care, an atmosphere of relatedness and offer academic work that provides challenge and its own intrinsic rewards. The importance of building a sense of relatedness leads him away from a “No Excuses” approach its foundation in behaviourism.

He opens his book with two questions:

  • What is it about growing in poverty that leads to so many troubling outcomes?
  •  What is it about affluence that provides to children that growing up in poverty does not?

He starts out by looking into research that shows that growing up in harsh and unstable environments can create biological changes in the growing brains of young children:

“Those changes impair the development of an important set of mental capacities that help young people regulate their thoughts and feelings, and that impairment makes it difficult for them to process information and manage emotions in ways that allow them to succeed at school.”   page 4.


He discusses research that has started to put the importance of character on the map for schools – particularly as certain character traits go along with being a successful and healthy adult.

When discussing research, he is wary of taking small scale successful ventures as if they can be straightforwardly scaled up. Whilst small scale stories can work at a narrative level to inspire we also need to know why these things work – what are the principals behind the success.

He is clear that character is impossible to teach. He describes a few case studies of adults working with disadvantaged young people and successful engendering non-cognitive capabilities (grit, curiosity, self-control, optimism and conscientiousness.)

For example, he describes a chess instructor who conveyed a sense of belonging and purpose in her students. She displayed careful and close attention to improvement at chess – and did not discuss things such as resilience or grit. However, it was in developing their ability as chess players they became more resilient as young people.

This sort of insight leads Paul Tough to suggest:

“It was also clear that certain pedagogical techniques that work well in math or history are ineffective when it comes to character strengths.”  Page 12

Toxic stress – changing the environment not the child. 

He suggests that in order to develop non-cognitive skills in young people “that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first, it seems, is his environment.”  I think this seems persuasive – programs that try to teach explicitly skills like grit or resilience don’t always seem successful.

He recognises that stress is a central influence on the way environment is experienced and understood.

 “On an emotional level, chronic early stress – what many researchers now call toxic stress – can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. Small setbacks feel like crushing defeats; tiny slights turn onto serious confrontations. In school, a highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behaviour that are self-defeating: fighting, talking back, acting up in class, and also more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers and resistant to outreach from teachers and adults. “ Pge 15:

These words have a strong resonance with the school I work in. Again and again I meet students who react with such disproportionate anger and confrontation at sometimes the slightest of correction or challenge. It’s tempting to believe that appropriate and strong discipline would correct these responses and box students into a more compliant frame of mind but if there is anything in the theory of toxic stress then this would be highly unlikely outcome.

We learn from research that has tried to improve the outcomes for disadvantaged students that early intervention (before the age of three) is key and that the most effective interventions are the ones that encourage creating a nurturing environment for the child.

“The St. Petersburg experiment worked because it changed the environment of the babies in and children in the orphanage. The children didn’t get nicer beds or food or more stimulating toys. What changed was the way the adults around them behaved towards them. If we want to try to improve the early lives of disadvantaged today, there is considerable evidence that the best leveller we can use is that same powerful environmental element: the behaviours and attitudes of the adults those children encounter every day.”  


Paul Tough discusses one large project (based in the poorest neighbourhoods of Kingston Jamaica) that looked at home visits for disadvantaged children. He found that the most powerful interventions were the ones that encouraged parents to play – these had greater impact than for example  providing better nutrition. He shows that successful intervention gave parents psychological and emotional support – they weren’t design around just tips around parenting.

According to the Turnaround paper, written by consultant Brooke Stafford-Brizard, “high level non-cognitive skills like resilience, curiosity and academic tenacity are very difficult for a child to obtain without first developing a foundation of executive functions, a capacity for self-awareness, and relationship skills. And these skills, in turn, stand atop an infrastructure of qualities built in the first years of life, qualities like secure attachment, the ability to manage stress, and self-regulation.”   Page 51. (from Turnaround for Children 2016)

“When educators neither prioritize these skills and mindsets nor integrate them with academic development, students are left without tools for engagement or a language for learning.”

 “Without those skills they can’t process the vast amounts of instruction that comes their way each day, and it becomes daunting if not impossible to stay on track. This is the achievement gap.” Pge 52.


What might this suggest to school leaders creating climates and school cultures? This is something that Paul Tough looks at in the second half of his book.

Successful School Climates

His chapter on discipline notes that students who have been exposed to significant adversity most need are the opportunities to develop skills to self-regulate and modulate stress. However, schools often look at how best to discipline and correct students who struggle in these areas. He suggests that schools can see students who misbehave as simply having behavioural problems to solve – rather than as students struggling to develop a healthier set of self-regulation mechanisms.

Behaviour is not based on some sort of weighing up of benefits and costs but is often under the sway of psychological and hormonal factors that are extremely powerful. To improve behaviour we should create an environment in which students can develop the self regulatory capacities they lack. Paul Tough notes how talking back and acting up are shaped by an inability to control impulses and de-escalate confrontation.

He outlines research that shows that behaviourism as an approach has not been successful. The growing trend in no excuses discipline leads teachers to exert greater control and less connection.  He discusses the data from Chicago that shows an astonishing 27% of students who live in the poorest neighbourhoods received a suspension often for fairly minor infringes such as defiance of school staff or school rule behaviour. The students that are suspended are those more likely to achieve lower grades.


He also considers those who suggests that high suspensions benefit those that are left behind.


“But a 2014 study of nearly 17,000 students in a large urban district in Kentucky found the opposite. In those schools, a greater number of suspensions corresponded to lower end-of semester math and reading scores for the students who were never  suspended….Whatever the cause, being in a classroom where your peers were likely to be suspended, even if you never got in trouble yourself, created an atmosphere that was less conductive to your academic success.”   (page 56)


Deci and Ryan were two researchers looking at behaviourist approaches in schools. They argued that intrinsic motivation was much more important that extrinsic rewards. They identified three needs – relatedness, competence and autonomy – that need to be satisfied before we gain intrinsic motivation: 

“Students experience autonomy in the classroom, when their teachers ‘maximize a sense of choice and volitional engagement’ whilst minimizing students’ feeling of coercion and control. Students feel competent, they say, when their teachers give them tasks they can succeed at but that aren’t too easy – challenge just a bit beyond their current abilities. And feel a sense of relatedness when they perceive that their teachers like and value and respect them.” (page 63)

Relatedness autonomy and competence

This leads Tough to argue that schools need to consider how we can make relatedness, competence and autonomy stronger in schools. Of course here this leads us to wonder how “no excuses” school manage their students feeling of coercion and control.

Tough outlines the research of Kirabo Jackson who looked at what made teachers effective (using a database of 465,502 students). He used student attendance, suspensions, punctuality and overall GPA (an average test score) as a proxy for non-cognitive ability. These he found a much better predictor of adult wages and attendance at college than test scores.  What’s interesting is the conclusion that “classroom contexts where students experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness tend not only to foster more intrinsic motivation but also more wiling engagement in less interesting academic activities.”

All interesting and suggestive thoughts in the context of the what we mean by engagement debate. In stark contrast to no excuses ethos is that the further schools ignore the importance of relatedness the more likely students reach a point at which no punishments or incentives reach them.

Kirabo Jackson’s analysis of the data found two groups of teachers with abilities that often didn’t overlap. One group of teachers seemed effective at improving cognitive abilities of students and another seemed more effective at improving non-cognitive abilities. The second group he found had more impact on a student’s later success than the ones raising test scores. In other words, those teachers that appeared not to be successful in improving exam results but in improving non-cognitive skills did more for their pupils in terms of their future success.


Such claims put a question to those teachers who argue that schools should be to make students “cleverer” and also challenge any simplistic measure of accountability by test scores. There are probably many teachers contributing to the success of our students – some of whom may not be getting the best exam results.

What is at stake here is that a strong focus on cognitive skills and viewing a school’s success in terms of cognitive abilities only is paradoxically most likely contributing to our disadvantaged students finding fulfilment after school has finished more challenging.

This doesn’t mean we need to measure non-cognitive abilities but it requires an acknowledgement and consideration of the need to create the right kind of environment in the classroom so that students behave differently.

This belief in the important role of non-cognitive abilities was outlined by some research into education by Farrington called “Teaching Adolescents to become learners.” (2012)


She argued that “noncognitive factors (as the report called them – not skills) should be understood “not as a set discrete abilities that individual children might somehow master (or fail to master) but as a collection of mindsets and habits and attitudes that are highly dependent on the context in which the children are learning.

“There is little evidence that working directly on changing a students’ grit or perseverance would be an effective lever for improving their academic performance.”  (Page 76)

She suggested that these attitudes were context dependent and rather than try to make students be gritty they needed to act gritty.

 “the key factor behind academic perseverance was students’ academic mindset – the attitudes and self-perceptions that each child and adolescent possessed. “

 She found four key beliefs that contribute most significantly to any student’s tendency to persevere in the classroom.

  1. I belong in this academic community
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.
  3. I can succeed at this: and
  4. This work has value for me.

Students in adversity are primed not to believe any of the four statements. These beliefs   echo the 3 aspects of intrinsic motivation – competence, autonomy and relatedness which the author boils down to 2 statements:

One about people

First is belonging – she is welcomed and feels a part of the learning environment.

The second is about work

 Is it challenging and is it meaningful? Is it within their grasp if they push themselves a little?

The implications is that there are two toolboxes:

  1. relationships – how you treat and discipline students.
  2. pedagogy – what you teach and how you teach and assess.

He highlights research that shows even simple things like post-it notes with comments like “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” had an impact on those students that saw themselves as stereotyped.

What Yeager, the researcher, concluded from this was


“teachers have a critical and potentially transformative opportunity, when dealing with students who perceive school as a threatening place, to disarm those threats by changing the way they communicate. For some students, it may only take a relatively minor shift in tone to build that trust. That’s what the Post-it study seems to suggest, at least. But for other students, those whose backgrounds have led them to experience that fight or flight reaction not just in occasional high-stress moments but all the time, developing a sense of belonging and connection in school may require a more immersive intervention.” P86

This takes Paul Tough to consider schools that coached teachers in building a positive emotional climate and showing sensitivity to needs for student autonomy. He notes how schools need to set aside time to give extensive counselling to key vulnerable students as well as trying to equip all staff with suitable skills to deal with volatile students.

Paul Tough also discusses schools that are seeking to also makes forward strides in pedagogy. His investigations take him to schools that are moving away from worksheets and lectures to more time spent working in small groups and “collaborating on longer-term creative projects.” He showcases schools such as the Expeditionary Learning schools which have small pastoral groups (called crews of around 10-15) and show how students build character through experience of preserving through challenging academic work.

Whilst many are critical of project based learning Paul Tough quotes a 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research which showed:

“that students at five urban EL middle schools advanced ahead of matched peers at comparison schools by an average of ten months in math and seven month in reading over the course of three years. The research also shows that an EL education has a greater positive impact on low –income students than on other students.

He recognises that there is a need for student to belong and also work that is challenging, rigorous and deep.


No excuses in context

Paul Tough outlines research that no excuses has not worked. The simplistic behaviourist model unsurprisingly just does not help in understanding the complex needs and emotional lives of disadvantaged students. The no excuses model acts as a powerful inspiring narrative. However, whilst providing a sense of certainty and hope it reduces complexity and the emotional and psychological of lives of students seem almost one-dimensional.

Behaviourism does not seem a convincing theory for building school discipline systems. So why is Michaela so successful?  I feel a great deal of what I read suggests they are able to provide to students a feeling that:

  1. I belong in this academic community
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.
  3. I can succeed at this: and
  4. This work has value for me.

I think the success of Michaela holds a lot to how they foster the above. No excuses discipline is for me a distraction.




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