The theory behind the “no excuse” philosophy currently used in many schools especially charters is forcefully challenged by Paul Tough in his 2016 book, Helping Students Achieve: What Works and Why and his article in the Atlantic “How Kids Learn Resilience.” Tough asserts that frequent punishment doesn’t work in helping the most severely traumatized students but engagement in a welcoming atmosphere and a hands-on curriculum does. He cites research which demonstrates that one of the arguments for suspension of acting out students—that even if they are not helped the remaining students will be benefitted—turns out to be false.
Tough’s previous book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character (2012) underscored the importance of non-cognitive skills such as perseverance, self-control, conscientiousness, and optimism especially for the low-income students who now comprise more than half of K-12 students in the US.
His first major point is that educators shouldn’t necessarily try to teach these attributes directly, but they should arise from student’s continuous work in an engaging classroom atmosphere with an active curriculum. He further adds that schools shouldn’t be testing for these traits, but examining the high-performances which will be generated by students’ presence in such classrooms.
High levels of continued toxic stress among many poorer children caused by growing up suffering abuse, neglect, or family dysfunctions such as substance abuse or an incarcerated parent hampers learning by creating strong physiological driven feelings of incompetence, alienation, and inability to persevere. While half of our children do not experience any of these circumstances, many of the rest in lower-income areas endure multiple instances of these traumatic circumstances. These students account for the bulk of school problems.
Quoting from the book: 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 into serious confrontations. In school, a highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior 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 other adults….growing up in a chaotic and unstable environment—and experiencing the chronic elevated stress that such an environment produces—disrupts the development of . . .executive functions. . .which include working memory, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility. . .underpinning non-cognitive abilities like resilience and perseverance.
Tough quotes estimates that about 15-20% of students in schools with high levels of poverty suffer from multiple causes of stress at home and act out in school. Another large group suffers similar levels but withdraws and refuses to engage.
Tough found that while there is a group of teachers who constantly produce high cognitive results in their classrooms, there is another group, which although producing lower academic gains than the first group, create the atmosphere that counteracts toxic trauma so that their students subsequently succeed at higher rates in other classes and later in life. The first group gets recognition; the second is usually neglected.
How do they do it? The know how to avoid escalation of student’s acting out; they build a supportive calm and engaging classroom; and their curriculum and instruction emphasizes deeper learning and active participation.
He then examines several programs which have been effective in developing the building blocks which support the growth of the non-cognitive traits which allow learning to progress— overall an important piece of work