Giving Them Grit: How to Build Perseverance in Children

If I’ve heard the story once about Thomas Edison failing hundreds of times before finally perfecting his inventions, I’ve heard it a thousand times. The same goes for the legend of Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team in his sophomore year.

Helping kids l learn to develop grit and perseverenceThese two stories are small examples of our society’s admiration of those who showed perseverance or “grit” before finally breaking through to success. This is especially important to schools, where developing positive character traits is essential and perseverance is one of the most important among them, along with honesty, caring and hard work.

To learn more on building grit, I started with the work of both Angela Duckworth and Paul Tough, who have researched the topic extensively and have crossed over from academia to popular culture. I also tend to think that this topic gels nicely with our current struggles with the economy and recession.

Spending time exploring grit is a wonderful coping strategy as we persevere through tough times. As a side note, another example is the continuing popularity of the World War II era “Keep Calm and Carry On” signs and shirts.

But what can teachers do to strengthen children’s ability to persevere? Keep these ideas in mind:

Acknowledge nature and nurture

We have to accept that grit and perseverance are a mixture of nature (children are born with a certain amount) and nurture (environmental factors, primarily the home) as children develop into young adults.

Accepting children for where they are, establishing their capacity for growth and then working diligently to find that possibility is essential. As with all other traits, the two mixing factors need to be realized and considered when working with children. You may want to consider developing a ‘grit’ inventory in which children have the opportunity to share and reflect on their perception of their personal grit.

Have a talk about grit

To help your students develop toughness, I suggest that you verbalize how grit manifests itself in people’s lives and offer examples of where a person make a conscious decision to “hang in there” and triumph in the end.

This is best told through story, especially because children have a natural inclination to enjoy an exciting tale or two. For the older child, a teacher may want to look at the adventures of Ernest Shackleton or read excerpts from “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent book of heroism during World War II.

Note the comparison to athletics

Developing grit is akin to building athletic or physical strength. We develop more capacity when our systems are “stressed” because the body strengthens itself in anticipation of new demands. This physiological principle also applies to activities of the mind and will. As a result, you can help your children develop their own sense of grit and perseverance by putting them into situations that require them to push a little bit further each time. An exciting and interesting way to try this out is to purchase and share “tavern puzzles” with your class. These old-fashioned metallic contraptions require students to continue to work and work at a problem.

Eventually they, and you, will be amazed at the lengths they can go in tackling and solving a problem.

It’s a good time to be tough

Developing grit speaks to the needs of our times. Our society needs citizens who recognize the need for hard work and discomfort from time to time. We also need citizens who realize that persevering through tough times and difficult problems will make us stronger, more capable people.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.


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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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