The Hidden Power of Character

I first heard about Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed” on this podcast. I distinctly remember listening to the interview about this book while on a long bus ride and scribbling Paul Tough on a piece of paper to remember for later. It was another book that made me feel energized and excited about the potential in this work.

One point that struck me was when he described how character traits, such as grit, social intelligence, and self-control, can function as a type of safety net for students who don’t have much support from their family or their community. For students who are growing up in chaotic homes and the challenges associated with living in poverty, they have had to develop character traits that help them succeed and that they can fall back on when times are difficult.

Young people in foster care who make it to college are part of a small group. When you look at how many continue on to earn their degree, the number gets even smaller. There is obviously something that these students develop that has allowed them to go through the traumatic experience that is foster care and continue to strive to reach their goals.

David Levin, one of the founders of the KIPP charter schools, talks about his experience when one of the early graduating classes started college. The students who continued on in college were not necessarily those with the best grades, but those who had certain character traits, like resilience, optimism, and social agility. They were able to persevere after a bad grade, had the discipline to study when others were having fun, and asked for help when they needed it.

This led me to think differently about how I respond to the college students that I work with. Rather than simply listen to the current situation that they are describing, I am thinking more about their character strengths. How have the overcome obstacles in the past? How can they use their past successes to overcome their current challenges?

As much as I would like to, I can’t have these young people under my watchful eye forever. Many of the experts in this book believe that you can teach these aspects of character. How can my brief time with these young adults encourage them to develop the skills that will help them throughout their life? Including these important lessons in my individual meetings with students is just as important to their academic and future success as making sure they can pass their math exams.

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