Book Review: Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

(I originally wrote this as part of my preparation for MOE interviews.)

A web version of the book is available at:


Teaching is generally regarded as the imparting of knowledge but I gather from Tough’s writing that students should pick up non-cognitive life skills such as these in their education years (including but not limited to): perseverance, conscientiousness, self-control and optimism. However, he quickly points out that students may not be well-positioned to receive and gain such skills in school. There can be various reasons but for Tough and his community of educators, it boils down to ‘environment’. ‘Unmotivated’ or poor-performing children may be so because of ill conditioning in their early years. His proposition is this: if educators desire to set their children up for success, they need to attempt to undo the effects of these harms and hurts of their upbringing, re-creating a warm optimal environment that favours learning and personal growth. The rest of Tough’s book goes on to showcase several possible strategies and ideas for creating such an environment. I am astounded by how much detailed work, thought and passion is required to create such an environment and specifically recall how some of my best learning years were in such environments where my teachers truly cared for us beyond the classroom. It may not have been a revolutionary discovery for me, but Tough presents this perspective in a refreshing way and introduces several approaches by other educators to make this happen for their children.


Among the various ideas Tough shares in the book, one stood out as particularly innovative. In an attempt to create a favourable environment for children, programs such as the ABC (Attachment and Biobehavioural Catch-up) from the University of Delaware prove to have a huge positive impact on the psychological and emotional development of children. Counselors visit homes and affirm parents on what they are doing right and offer advice on how to educate their children through playtime and simple affirmations. Moving appropriately with the times, FIND (Filming Interactions to Nurture Development) by the University of Oregon, aims to achieve the same impact through video-coaching for families who cannot afford the time for lengthy visits and observations. These methods zoom in on positive moments between child and parent, thus empowering parents to create a transformative environment in homes. I was really intrigued by this idea because in a technologically savvy society such as Singapore, this seems entirely achievable and serves to build a healthier community from its roots.


Of course, in every life sphere, there are numerous difficulties and limitations to overcome. In my opinion, the most relevant discovery is this: Before the school environment, the home environment is the child’s first. As for teachers who really wish to make a long-lasting impact, it is almost necessary to move beyond the classroom. Perhaps CCAs offer just the solution – a very good environment for out-of-classroom mentoring. With such realisations, another problem arises. For a country such as Singapore with increasing tension and sense of competition between schools, para-academia institutions (tuition and enrichment centres etc.), this can be very much a challenge. It would be challenging to achieve a balance and making the most of the time teachers have with their students, but I do believe in the power of movements. Through intensive research, and the power of traditional and social media, I believe the national school system always has that unique leverage above others to influence the direction of local education. It is my hope that the nation’s approach to education can be more unified and transformative (for students), and with national system leading the pack with enthusiasm and passion.