Teaching perseverance and grit

Published by Lori Pickert on September 16, 2012 at 02:03 PM

How will your child weather the storms of life?

We’ve talked before on the blog about the importance of character traits. This is something that was a hard sell when I had my private school. Parents wanted grades. They wanted to know how their child ranked against the others in the class. They wanted a measurement, a reassurance that their child was literally “making the grade.” 

We developed an authentic assessment that included a list of habits of mind — traits we wanted to help the children develop. They included things like “accepts consequences for their actions,” “is willing to change ideas in light of new evidence (flexibility),” “asks good, meaningful, worthwhile questions,” and “stands by beliefs against a crowd.”

But most parents weren’t interested. They wanted a number, a letter, something that said my child is here and the other children are here.

Cognitive skill and IQ make a big difference. Vocabulary matters. But the scientists, the economists, the neuroscientists and psychologists who’ve been studying this and writing about it are really challenging the idea that IQ and standardized test scores are the most important thing in a child’s success.

There’s lots of evidence out there now that says that these other strengths, these character strengths or non-cognitive skills, are at least as important to a child’s success and quite possibly more important. But right now we’ve got an education system that really doesn’t pay attention to those skills at all. We’re very good at trying to build those cognitive skills, but most kids need a whole lot more to succeed. …

Schools just aren’t set up right now to try to develop things like grit and perseverance and curiosity. I think especially in a world where we are more and more focused on standardized tests that measure a pretty narrow range of cognitive skills, teachers are less incentivized to think about how to develop those skills in kids. — Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Angela Duckworth did a TED talk entitled “True Grit: Can Perseverance Be Taught?” The talk is interesting and worth listening to, but the question posted in the title is never answered. It’s an open question. Can we teach perseverance? She ends by saying, whatever it is we need to do to help kids develop this quality, we need to figure it out and do it.

Can we teach perseverance and grit? Is that something that fits into a curriculum? I’m reminded of a teacher who worked for me who tried to teach the children, very gently, how to improve their character at school — how to share, not tell lies, be good friends, and so on. She did this by enacting, at the end of each preschool class, a little puppet show that would highlight an incident that had occurred earlier that day. One puppet stole a toy from another or said something mean that made his friend cry. The children loved this. They ate it up. They booed the bad puppet. Did they see themselves in the story? Not even when it repeated things they had said and done to the letter.

Can we create a lesson that will somehow magically impart these important character traits that children need to succeed? If we could, wouldn’t we have done it already?

I do believe we can create circumstances under which children can more easily acquire and strenghten those traits. We have to let them pursue work that is meaningful to them. We have to let them set their own goals, and we have to support them and help them work through setbacks as they strive to meet those goals. We have to make it okay to fail and make mistakes. The environment we create can either help or hinder them. Our choices are crucially important.

In an interview on NPR, Paul Tough says that when children are very bonded with their parents, especially early in life, they develop psychological strength, confidence, and character that makes a huge difference in their success in school and on into adulthood. But love and affection are only part of the equation. It’s equally important that when children get a little older — as young as two or three years old — their parents have to make sure they have the opportunity to be independent, to be challenged.

Of course, when I read that, I think of project-based homeschooling. We need to love and support our kids, but we also need to create the circumstances under which they can do their own meaningful work. We need to help them make that work challenging and rigorous. We need to facilitate, but we need to let them fail.

We don’t need to worry about teaching our kids perseverance and grit. We just need to make it possible for them to learn it on their own.


Comment by jacinda on September 17, 2012 at 04:38 PM

Exactly Lori. The last couple of sentences was where I was hoping you were going with the post ;) I'm still learning both, perhaps at different levels but still alive and working at it.
I find it bizarre that so many parents are so hooked on grades - I guess when you are in that system, that's your framework.
I see it as an attitude to life and learning and, as you have written about before, letting them lead their learning, make their mistakes and pick themselves back up and figure where to from there. I try to always keep an eye on the long term - this helps me celebrate their mistakes and their frustrations.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 17, 2012 at 08:10 PM


well, to be fair, everyone is talking about teaching it but no one seems to have the solution, so i just stole their bait-and-switch bit. ;o)

i’m happy that educators are thinking about prioritizing things like perseverance, grit, character .. i just wonder how they think these things can possibly be *taught* when we struggle with things that *can* be expressed as curriculum.

Comment by akari on September 18, 2012 at 12:58 PM

“accepts consequences for their actions,” “is willing to change ideas in light of new evidence (flexibility),” “asks good, meaningful, worthwhile questions,” and “stands by beliefs against a crowd.” Just these put into words was enlightening!

I wonder now about something my child voiced interest in learning, in mastering. My second born is easily distracted by the interest gravity of his older brother. What he is doing tend to look far more interesting. I am trying to support my younger one in his interest and not make it seem like I am just driving my interest. I am currently attempting to take more individual time and asking each to respect one on one time so they each get what they need. This is hard but seems essential especially for my younger son. I often envision baby birds in a nest and how they compete to be more dominant. I am trying for ways that my older son will feel less threatened by me giving attention to his younger brother. Seeking a different image, a different rhetoric. I wonder what it is I can still change...

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 19, 2012 at 08:16 AM


it is very powerful to put into words the traits that you are hoping to encourage. you begin to look for opportunities to bring them into play; you notice them more when they happen.

this *naming* of the things you value and want to prioritize is why i talk about family culture — naming it makes having it more possible. it’s the first step.

My second born is easily distracted by the interest gravity of his older brother. What he is doing tend to look far more interesting.

i really think this is okay, and i say that as the mother of two sons. :) my younger son always wanted to do what his older brother did, and it makes sense that it would interest him. but eventually he broke away and began pursuing his own interests — and some of his interests were then interesting to his older brother!

a younger child who is mostly with older children will often assume a follower role, and it’s great if they can be given the opportunity to sometimes be the older child in the group. but even if that doesn’t happen often, i think a child who is encouraged to follow his interests will break away from his siblings/classmates as he matures.

it would be quite a feat for them to resist their fascinating older friends/siblings when they are young.

I am trying for ways that my older son will feel less threatened by me giving attention to his younger brother.

maybe you can ask your older son to take on some responsibility for his younger brother. “could you show him...?” “could you help him with this while i do that?” etc.

as long as your younger son is amenable to being helped, that is. ;o) but it sounds like he would be!

you might also frame it in a way that stresses older brother’s independence, e.g., “i know you can handle working on this on your own, so i’m going to help your brother for a little while.”

let me know how it goes!

Comment by akari on September 21, 2012 at 01:51 PM

Thank you Lori, I see the way you are phrasing stressing the older brother's independence might tickle and motivate a different part than the usual, "you have the duty to take care of your younger brother!" type message. After all independence is what I seek...

I have also been noticing that my way of directly asking the older for sound and time space just with the younger gets received as a message of rejection. I will try to work to orchestrate a different sort of time with them by setting a growth inducing sort of expectation/challenge for my older son first and then to work along side my younger son.

I'll let you know how it all goes!

Comment by CathyT on September 18, 2012 at 01:57 PM

Great post as always. Did you hear the NPR "This American Life" about Back to School last week? It should still be available. It touches on what you wrote too. My husband told me about that podcast and I shared with him your post.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 19, 2012 at 08:08 AM

cathy, i have it bookmarked but i haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet!

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