What If Schools Graded on Character?

Working on character development in childhood can mean the difference between adult success and failure.


This won't be the first time you’ve heard that our conventional wisdom around child development and education needs a makeover. It might, however, be the first time you’ve considered the idea of a "character report card" being rolled out in schools.

Author and New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough recently visited Los Angeles, and in this series of short talks, he explains some pretty profound findings by psychologists, economists, and neuroscientists—all of them related to the link between childhood stress and adult success.

Some schools Tough studies—one is a charter school serving mostly low-income students and another is a private school where one year of tuition is roughly $42,000 a year—are working to change this with character report cards. They’re basing this on the idea that the sum of seven qualities are a better indicator of success than any other measurement tool we’ve used in the past. 

What neuroscientists call "executive function"—or what educators and the rest of us call "character"—is said to be just as important as a child’s IQ (maybe even more important).

In his reporting, Tough reveals a formula for predicting the extent to which a child will be successful later in life: 

Optimism + Zest + Curiosity + Social Intelligence + Gratitude + Self-Control + Grit = Adult Success.

 Too much childhood stress has a lifetime impact on later-in-life outcomes (check out what one pediatrician Tough interviews in Bayview Hunters Point has to say about this). 

Some stress is good for kids, but too much wreaks havoc. While a little stress gives us an opportunity to practice failing, significant amounts of trauma in childhood amount to cancer, heart disease, and emphysema rates twice as high as normal, and suicide rates 12 times as high.

If we want to intervene and manage any existing trauma that will inhibit a child’s adult success, there are two key periods in which we must act. One is in early childhood, when a child’s brain is plastic. The other is in adolescence, when metacognition (or "thinking about thinking") kicks in and adolescents are able to reflect deeply on their own thought processes. 

During adolescence, character report cards make success attainable for all kids—not just the super-smart ones.

The reports send a signal that through developing kids' resilience, they aren’t stuck being any way they don’t want to be (“You don’t have to remain the slow kid,” for instance). They create a sense of personal agency, and moreover, transplant focus from tweens needing to improve intelligence to their working harder on character development (and that true smartness can be a byproduct of their character). 

Even the things we typically consider innate can be worked on and changed.

At the end of the day, working on character development in childhood, along with helping manage instances of extreme adverse experiences, can mean the difference between adult success and failure. Now, just consider the implications for you, your current life, and what it could mean for the community in which you live.


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