High school sports support academics

Schools with strong athletic programs have higher test scores and lower drop-out rates, write Daniel H. Bowen & Collin Hitt in The Atlantic. Amanda Ripley’s cover story, The Case Against High-School Sports, is a lot of hooey, they argue.

Success in sports programs creates “social capital” — or reflects the fact that it’s already there, they theorize.

The success of schools is highly dependent on social capital, “the norms, the social networks, and the relationships between adults and children that are of value for the child’s growing up,” wrote sociologist James Coleman.

The need to build trust and social capital is even more essential when schools are serving disadvantaged and at-risk students. Perhaps the most promising empirical evidence on this point comes from a Chicago program called Becoming A Man–Sports Edition.

In this program, at-risk male students are assigned for a year to counselors and athletic coaches who double as male role models. In this partnership between Chicago Public Schools, Youth Guidance, and World Sport Chicago, sports are used to form bonds between the boys and their mentors and to teach self-control. The usual ball and basket sports are sometimes played, but participants are also trained in violent sports like boxing at school.

Applicants were chosen by lottery.  According to a 2013 evaluation, the sports program “creates lasting improvements in the boys’ study habits and grade point averages. During the first year of the program, students were found to be less likely to transfer schools or be engaged in violent crime. A year after the program, participants were less likely to have had an encounter with the juvenile justice system.”

If schools dropped sports teams, middle-class kids would have opportunities to play sports out of school, Bowen and Hitt conclude. Affordable access would be limited for low-income students.

The ‘grit lady’ wins a ‘genius’ grant

Angela Duckworth, known as “the grit lady,” has won a MacArthur “genius” grant worth $625,000. A Penn researcher, Duckworth says “grit” and self-control are strong predictors of success — and they can be taught.duckworth 

As a math teacher, she noticed that her best students weren’t always the brightest, she tells NPR. She wondered why some kids try harder than others.

The “character skills” of self-control and of grit are teachable, Duckworth believes. She plans to spend the $625,000 grant to bring middle-school teachers to Penn to discuss how best to develop students’ grit and self-control. (She also plans to buy boots.)

Grittier individuals tend to be “slightly less talented,” says Duckworth. “If things come very easily for you, if you learn things very quickly, you know, maybe you don’t develop the ability to overcome setbacks, to sustain effort, etc.”

ADHD or narcissism?

Many children diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may simply be slow to grow out of “normal childhood narcissism, writes psychologist Enrico Gnaulati in The Atlantic.

In the 1970s, a mere one percent of kids were considered ADHD. By the 1980s, three to five percent was the presumed rate, with steady increases into the 1990s. One eye-opening study showed that ADHD medications were being administered to as many as 17 percent of males in two school districts in southeastern Virginia in 1995.

ADHD symptoms — “problems listening, forgetfulness, distractibility, prematurely ending effortful tasks, excessive talking, fidgetiness, difficulties waiting one’s turn, and being action-oriented” — aren’t all that different from normal childhood challenges, he writes. In the past, a distractible, fidgety child would have been considered slower to mature and learn social skills. Now that child is quickly diagnosed with ADHD.

The core symptoms of ADHD resemble childhood narcissism, which is characterized by “overconfident self-appraisals, attention-craving, a sense of personal entitlement” and weak empathy for others, writes Gnaulati.

“Jonah” falls apart when he can’t master a task immediately. It could be a symptom of ADHD, writes Gnaulati. Perhaps he can’t retain the information needed. But it could be the “magical thinking” common for young children.

He believes mastering tasks should somehow be automatic—not the outcome of commitment, perseverance, and effort. Jonah’s self-esteem may also be so tenuous that it fluctuates greatly. For instance, when Jonah anticipates success, he productively cruises through work, eager to receive the recognition that he expects from parents and teachers. He is on a high. He definitely feels good about himself. But in the face of challenging work, he completely shuts down, expects failure, outside criticism, and wants to just give up.

“Parents who think their kid has ADHD often describe scenarios at home where the kid reacts to minor setbacks with bloodcurdling screams or to modest successes with over-the-top exuberance,” writes Gnaulati. For kids who really have ADHD, completing homework can be torture. But, for others, “dramatic displays of emotion are attempts to get out of tasks that warrant commitment, application, and effort.”

If parents give in, “these kids often do not acquire the emotional self-control necessary to buckle down and do academic work independently.”

I think the technical term is “spoiled brat.”

Gnaulati is the author of  Back to Normal, which is subtitled “why ordinary childhood behavior is mistaken for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism spectrum disorders.”

Brainy, introverted boys are over-diagnosed with autism, he writes in Salon. ”If we don’t have a firm grasp of gender differences in how young children communicate and socialize, we can mistake traditional masculine behavior for high-functioning autism.”

Schools try to teach ‘emotional intelligence’

Schools are trying to teach “emotional intelligence,” writes Jennifer Kahn in the New York Times Magazine.

As the children formed a circle, (teacher James) Wade asked the 5-year-olds to think about “anything happening at home, or at school, that’s a problem, that you want to share.” He repeated his invitation twice, in a lulling voice, until a small, round-faced boy in a white shirt and blue cardigan raised his hand. Blinking back tears, he whispered, “My mom does not like me.” The problem, he said, was that he played too much on his mother’s iPhone. “She screams me out every day,” he added, sounding wretched.

Wade let that sink in, then turned to the class and asked, “Have any of your mommies or daddies ever yelled at you?” When half the children raised their hands, Wade nodded encouragingly. “Then maybe we can help.” Turning to a tiny girl in a pink T-shirt, he asked what she felt like when she was yelled at.

“Sad,” the girl said, looking down.

“And what did you do? What words did you use?”

“I said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like to hear you scream at me.’ ”

Does anyone see a problem with asking little kids to describe family problems in class?

Many “prosocial” programs promise to teach social and emotional learning, aka SEL, writes Kahn.

Some of them — including one of the most popular, Second Step — are heavily scripted: teachers receive grade-appropriate “kits” with detailed lesson plans, exercises and accompanying videos. Others, like Facing History and Ourselves — in which children debate personal ethics after reading the fictionalized letters of a Nazi colonel and a member of the French Resistance — are more free-form: closer to a college philosophy seminar than to a junior-high civics class. “

Leataata Floyd Elementary, a school in a low-income part of Sacramento, hopes SEL will raise low test scores. Students learn how to deal with sadness, anger and frustration. Techniques are simple: Count to five. Take a deep breath.

Kahn observed a fourth-grade class discussion.

Sitting in a circle on the carpet, Anthony, a small boy in a red shirt, began by recounting how he cried during a class exercise and was laughed at by some of the other students. Asked whether he thought the kids were giggling to be mean, or just giggling because they were uncomfortable, Anthony paused. “I think that some people didn’t know what to do, and so they giggled,” he admitted finally — though he was also adamant that a few of the kids were actually laughing at him. “I was really sad about that,” he added.

Though Anthony was still upset, his acknowledgment that not all the kids were snickering — that some may just have been laughing nervously — felt like a surprisingly nuanced insight for a 9-year-old. In the adult world, this kind of reappraisal is known as “reframing.”

SEL advocates say it “can establish neurological pathways that make a child less vulnerable to anxiety and quicker to recover from unhappy experiences,” writes Kahn. They also claim “social-emotional training develops the prefrontal cortex,” enhancing”academically important skills like impulse control, abstract reasoning, long-term planning and working memory.”

However, a U.S. Education Department analysis of seven SEL programs in 2010 “found no increase in academic achievement and no decline in behavioral problems.”

Teaching self-control makes sense to me. But I’d feel happier if they left the prefrontal cortex out of it.

The Gummy Worm test

Given a choice between eating a gummy worm now — or waiting and getting two gummy worms — a little girl finds a creative way to control her appetite.

Self-control gone wild?

Has teaching self-control gone wild? Daniel Willingham responds to Elizabeth Weil’s New Republic cover story, American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids: In Defense of the Wild Child.

Weil uses self-regulation, grit and social-emotional skills interchangeably, but “they are not the same thing,” writes Willingham.

Self-regulation (most simply put) is the ability to hold back an impulse when you think that that the impulse will not serve other interests. (The marshmallow study would fit here.) Grit refers to dedication to a long-term goal, one that might take years to achieve, like winning a spelling bee or learning to play the piano proficiently. Hence, you can have lots of self-regulation but not be very gritty. Social emotional skills might have self-regulation as a component, but it refers to a broader complex of skills in interacting with others.

. . . Weil is right that some research indicates a link between socioemotional skills and desirable outcomes, some doesn’t. But there is quite a lot of research showing associations between self-control and positive outcomes for kids including academic outcomes, getting along with peers, parents, and teachers, and the avoidance of bad teen outcomes (early unwanted pregnancy, problems with drugs and alcohol, et al.). I reviewed those studies here. There is another literature showing associations of grit with positive outcomes (e.g.,Duckworth et al, 2007).

It’s possible that better test scores (and fewer drug and alcohol problems) come at a cost, Willingham concedes. Weil suggests a trade-off between self-regulation and the wild child’s creativity and personality.

But self-regulation doesn’t have to crush exuberance, Willingham argues. It tells a child when she’s being adorably exuberant and when she’s being a pain.

If we’re overdoing self-regulation, children will “feel burdened, anxious, worried about their behavior,” he writes. “When I visit classrooms or wander the aisles of Target, I do not feel that American kids are over-burdened by self-regulation,” he writes.

Indeed.

Why so few French kids have ADHD

At least 9 percent of U.S. children are medicated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, compared to less than .5 percent of French children, writes Marilyn Wedge in Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD in Psychology Today. Wedge is the author of Pills are Not for Preschoolers: A Drug-Free Approach for Troubled Kids. 

While U.S. psychiatrists see ADHD as a biological disorder treatable with drugs, French doctors “look for the underlying issue that is causing the child distress—not in the child’s brain but in the child’s social context.” They try to treat the underlying problem with psychotherapy or family counseling.

In addition, French parents are  more likely than Americans to teach their children to control their behavior.

Pamela Druckerman highlights the divergent parenting styles in her recent book, Bringing up Bébé

. . . From the time their children are born, French parents provide them with a firm cadre—the word means “frame” or “structure.” Children are not allowed, for example, to snack whenever they want. Mealtimes are at four specific times of the day. French children learn to wait patiently for meals, rather than eating snack foods whenever they feel like it. French babies, too, are expected to conform to limits set by parents and not by their crying selves. French parents let their babies “cry it out” if they are not sleeping through the night at the age of four months.

. . . Consistently enforced limits, in the French view, make children feel safe and secure.

Raised in families where the adults are in charge, French children learn to control their behavior without the need for medications, concludes Wedge.

What’s the most loving thing you can say to your child? According to my husband, the father of three successful adult children, the answer is: “No.”

Lessons in virtue from Macbeth and a duck

Jessica Lahey is a convert to character education after teaching at Crossroads Academy, a private K-8 school in New Hampshire, that uses Core Knowledge and Core Virtues curricula.

Schools that teach character education report higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer disciplinary issues, reduction in substance abuse, and less vandalism. . . . students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work.

And it’s “easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence,” she writes in The Atlantic.

The core virtues — prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice — make it into nearly every lesson we teach at our school and every facet of our daily lives on campus.

. . . In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles’ impulsive rages, King Ozymandias’ petulant demand that we “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” Macbeth’s bloody, “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.”

Literature isn’t the only teacher. When a mother duck built her nest near the main school pathway, students had to learn to control their curiosity. Mom Mallard could handle students walking by, but left her nest if they paused for a look.

 In Stanford’s famous experiment on self-control, children were faced with the immediate reality of one marshmallow versus the promise of two marshmallows if they can just wait for fifteen minutes. The children who were able to resist temptation and wait fifteen minutes for that second marshmallow had better life outcomes in the form of lower obesity rates, higher SAT scores, and higher levels of education. Self-control itself does not make a kid smarter, or fitter, or more proficient at test-taking, but it’s the essential skill hidden within all of these positive outcomes.

. . . Here on our campus, our marshmallow is a duck. Our students must weigh their desire for a quick peek at Mom Mallard with the promise of ten ducklings waddling around our playground in 28 days.

“Character education teaches children how to make wise decisions and act on them,” writes Lahey. It’s not a bit of “fluff” tacked on to the real curriculum. It must be woven into lessons on Achilles, Ozymandias, Macbeth and a mother duck.

Black male collegians need grit, grades

Black men’s college success on white campuses depends on “grit” as well as academic preparation, according to a study by Ohio State Professor Terrell L. Strayhorn.

Strayhorn tracked 140 mostly first-generation college students at a large public university. He found that those who scored higher on an eight-item measure of grit earned higher course grades after taking into account prior achievement, age, transfer status and school engagement, among other factors.

. . . “The ability to persevere in the face of obstacles is a key to college success for black men. You can’t change where a student grows up, or the quality of the high school he attended. But grit is something that can be taught and instilled in young men and it will have a real effect on their success.”

Grit is usually defined as “a mix of resilience, perseverance, self-control, focus, and positive mindset,” notes Ed Week. People disagree on whether grit is a character trait, or a skill that can be taught.

Strayhorn envisions pre-semester “boot camps” with “learning activities and experiences that (a) nurture students’ capacity to persevere despite setbacks or failure, (b) clarify their personal and professional goals, and (c) provide them strategies for overcoming obstacles to achieving such goals.”

Teaching the ABCs of self-control

Schools are teaching the ABCs of self-control to help disadvantaged students succeed, reports the Washington Post.  The story starts at D.C. Prep Public Charter School, a “no excuses” school for students in grades four through eight.

The children do not speak in the hallways or classroom unless spoken to by a teacher. They navigate the hallways single file. Throughout their eight-hour school day, they bring to each class charts on which they record, as the teachers decree, behaviors, both good and bad, listed on a key. This key lists 26 behaviors, A through Z. Failure to meet any of them results in detention.

Students serving in-school suspension wear green mesh pinnies over their navy-blue polo shirts and leave the classroom last. They are not allowed to speak for the day and nobody speaks to them.

Ibby Jeppson, DCP’s director of resource development, said students need to understand the “expectations of the broader culture” they hope to enter.

In an e-mail, Jeppson says that the message needs to be clear to students and parents alike: “The small-stuff expectations are linked to important life skills: being on time, being dependable and being there every day, dressing appropriately.”

. . . “Research shows that willpower and self-discipline are stronger predictors of success than pure intellectual talent,” Jeppson says.

Others schools have turned to character-based education, “mindfulness meditation” and “social emotional learning” to teach self-control, reports the Post.  It’s all part of the campaign to build persistence, resilience and “grit.”

A 2012 documentary, Room to Breathe, describes an attempt to calm a troubled San Francisco school by teaching meditative breathing and body and mind awareness.