Taking a ho-hum attitude toward the millions of kids from impoverished backgrounds streaming into our public school systems is not only foolish, it’s dangerous. The biggest social ills we face, from unemployment statistics, homelessness, incarceration and crime rates, to teen pregnancy rates; all are impacted by the staggering number of youth living in poverty who attend but, fail to graduate from our public high schools.
While the achievement gap for low-income Hispanic students in New York City has narrowed slightly, there are still thousands performing below grade level. Conversation and strategies usually revolve around academic support, especially in English literacy. However, some educators are arguing that we are focusing on the wrong thing. They believe that helping kids feel more hopeful, and teaching them how to persevere, is what will make the difference. As it turns out what you believe is more important than what you know.
Paul Tough is a Canadian author known for his well-researched work on education and youth development, including “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” According to Tough, it is these “intangible skills,” that lead to success, even more so than intelligence.
Tough’s book was inspired by the research of James Heckman, an esteemed Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. Heckman’s most recent research highlights human development and lifecycle skills formation, and how it impacts economics and early childhood development. Based on that research, Tough writes, “There is no anti-poverty tool that we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than character strengths”.
Kids from challenging backgrounds especially, need to build up traits such as resilience, optimism, and self-control. Tough states that these intangible skills, especially if taught early in a child’s life, are what will ultimately lead to higher incomes, less criminality, and other benefits later on in life. He proposes that “nurturing and supportive relationships with caring adults in an educational setting are what will help kids develop these important attributes”. But, are educators equipped to teach these skills in the midst of all the educational goals they are mandated to reach?
In poor urban populations, a lot of kids arrive at school one or more grade levels behind in literacy. They simply lack opportunities other kids have had to delve into literacy at home, or experience things that would expand their knowledge base, like travel, field trips or special classes. For these students, progress tends to disappear over extended school breaks. Their behavior, triggered by anxiety, can disrupt classrooms, taking away valuable teaching time. Sadly, it is the teachers with the least amount of training and experience that end up with our most vulnerable kids.
All teachers have their hands full working to get their 28+ students to reach the educational goals for the year. The out-of-school-hours are a perfect time to help address character development issues and model for kids what they need most—resilience, self-control, caring for others, and optimism.
Mentors that come from a faith-based background are especially suited for the task, as these are traits that align perfectly with the “fruits of the spirit.” More importantly, if we can help kids understand that in God’s view, they have incredible value and potential, they will learn the most intangible skill of all; hope. Becoming a mentor for a student from a challenging background is a great way to give back. Hope has a name—perhaps it’s yours?