New York City is home to some of the country’s oldest and most prestigious private schools. Riverdale Country is one of these so-called top tier institutions, where parents shell out upwards of $38,500 a year to provide their children with an education that insures future success. Like any loving parents, they simply want the best for their kids, yet they seem to be falling victim to a paradox of contemporary parenting. There is a very real biological need to provide for and to protect one’s young and these parents have the means to insure their children’s comfort to a high degree. However, sometimes what a kid really needs is a little hardship to overcome.

Fortunately these parents have someone on their side that recognizes this fact and is thinking outside of the proverbial box to address this very issue. His name is Dominic Randolph and since 2007 he has reigned as head master of Riverdale Country School, taking his charge to lead kids toward happy, meaningful, and productive lives very seriously. Randolph at age 49, who in his typical trim black suite looks more like a saxophonist than an educator, questions the validity of what goes into high-stakes American education. Standardized testing, like at most schools, is required at Riverdale and Randolph believes that testing to be part of a “patently unfair system” in the sense that their emphasis leaves out other important educational elements to the detriment of the students. “This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human”, he says. Randolph stresses that students should be learning the importance of having good character in terms of being able to persist and succeed as an adult when you are no longer insulated from adversity. The latest research in behavioral psychology and character building programs of other schools are helping him to define and fill the void he senses at Riverdale.

Randolph is encouraged by tools being used in another Manhattan school to instill character. KIPP middle school uses report cards to indicate to parents where their children are in terms of qualities that show a likelihood of success in areas such as graduating from college and finding good employment. Areas that need improvement become readily apparent and are addressed with the child, with impressive success. The dean of this school oversees the implementation of this and sees it not as academic instruction, but as a very practical kind of cognitive behavioral therapy. They are teaching kids to succeed by using the conscious mind to overcome unconscious fears and self-destructive habits. Essentially, these kids are learning to put problems they have into the correct perspective and as a result rise above the adversity they experience in certain parts of their educational experience.

Randolph explains that, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” He looks to implement tools like character report cards in order to show students and parents focused issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve a better quality of life further down the road. Can such practices really substitute for actually falling and learning to pick your self back up to try again? That remains to be seen, as such programs are fairly new to the educational system. It is interesting however to see new applications to psychological theory being used to address and improve problems faced in an increasingly complex modern society. Perhaps such tools could be used more as supplementation to learning from actual failure in the area of athletics, to promote necessary qualities for success. Report cards that show athletes where they are lacking in areas like self-control, tenacity, competitiveness, or optimism; now that could be interesting.

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? by: Paul Tough, The New York Times, Sept. 14, 2011: