Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. By Paul Tough. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Random House.

AFTER the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of infants in Russian orphanages swelled. They had food, and they were clean and safe. But the staff were impersonal and cold, until researchers coached them in new ways: smiling at the babies, cooing, talking and other behaviors natural to parents. The results were striking. Infants did better on developmental tests and grew physically stronger, too.

For Paul Tough, a journalist, this offers two lessons about why some children thrive and others struggle. The first is that the emotional contexts in which children grow up are crucial, especially in their early years—“a remarkable time of both opportunity and potential peril”. Infants who are neglected or under-stimulated develop in different ways from those reared in loving homes. Hormones triggered by stress stunt brain development, making it hard to control behavior and concentrate. The effects last: such children do worse in exams and earn less at work.

The second lesson, though, is that it is possible to mitigate the effects of adversity. In “Helping Children Succeed”, Mr. Tough describes Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC), a program in which coaches visit foster homes in poor parts of New York City. By helping foster parents become more attentive, ABC has helped children in care to reduce stress levels and improve their behavior.

It is most cost-effective to act early to prevent infants turning into troublesome teenagers, but Mr. Tough shows that policy can also help later on in childhood. He cites Turnaround for Children, a program run in schools in New York, New Jersey and Washington, DC, by Pamela Cantor, a child psychiatrist. Turnaround trains teachers to make their classrooms more supportive and their classwork more engaging. Teachers are told how to defuse aggressive pupils, and are encouraged to set tricky team projects rather than drone on at the whiteboard.

Mr. Tough’s book is one of many in recent years to argue that education policy in rich countries has emphasized academic skills while neglecting emotional and psychological development. His previous books, “Whatever It Takes”, about the Harlem Children’s Zone (a pioneering educational charity in New York), and “How Children Succeed”, pursue similar themes. Those books are better. “Helping Children Succeed” reads more like a succession of entries in a notebook than a new story worthy of a whole book.

Nevertheless, his message bears repeating. Too often, education policy zips from one fad to another, neglecting the deeper reasons why adversity leads to poor outcomes. Evidence-based early childhood projects are among the smartest ways to avert enduring poverty. Spending public money on infants can save taxpayers a lot of money later (on, say, job training and prison places). But such programs must be rooted in scientific evidence and led by empathetic professionals who know what they are doing.

Too often they do not. Around the world, countries are embracing early-childhood projects, opening snazzy centers and dispatching home visitors. But too many projects are of poor quality. Mr. Tough shows that it need not be this way. In doing so he points towards an entirely new meaning for the nanny state.

 This appeared in the Print edition of The Economist | Books and arts   Jul 9th 2016

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