Giving Them Grit: How to Build Perseverance in Children

From the Principal's Office Updated October 8, 2015

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.

These 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 are 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. There are two components to developing perseverance:

Helping students get more grit

Helping kids l learn to develop grit and perseverenceWhat 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 makes 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.

Developing perseverance in teachers

Helping teachers develop more grit, determination and perseveranceWhat’s good for the young is good the grownups: All educators — teachers and managers alike — should be developing our own sense of perseverance, especially when dealing with academically and emotionally needy students. Here are a few tips to help make that happen:

Ask your new hires

If you’re an administrator, always try to establish the grit/perseverance capacity of your new hires. Ask applicants to give a detailed explanation of when they had to make it through a particularly challenging or rough school experience.

Can they list the strategies that they may have subconsciously used during this time? Did they have to work their way through school? How did they fill up their non-school time? While it’s nice if they were able to spend all summer on the beach, it’s clear that candidates who worked their way through college have a fair amount of grit.

Push the limits

Second, I suggest occasionally putting your staff to work on a project or activity that requires them to push past their normal boundaries. For example, you might want to set aside time for a grade level to develop a truly detailed and challenging unit of study. Perhaps they will begin work on a new type of learning style such as problem-based learning or the application of 21st century skills.

Encourage them to investigate and reframe their understanding of a specific school challenge, such as the reluctant or academically challenged student. The key is to make certain that you don’t push the teachers too far past their academic boundaries or unwittingly create a structure that puts them under too much pressure. Don’t develop grit at the expense of teacher spirit and enthusiasm.

Share stories

Third, at faculty meetings, encourage teachers to share personal examples of when they showed personal grit and the strategies they used to help students push through a particularly difficult or complex problem. This strategy is even stronger if the person delivering the message is a well-respected member of the faculty. It’s one thing if a message comes from an administrator, but it’s much more powerful if it comes from a colleague.

Build determination

Fourth, make it a point to explicitly teach your staff how to develop their own sense of perseverance. From the work of Angela Duckworth, we know a certain amount of this trait is “born into” a person, but we also know that it can be developed over time. The best strategies enable teachers to recognize their personal level of perseverance and provide realistic and commonsense ways to develop it.

Remember: 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.

Many educators believe there is a strong connection between the ability to “hang in there” and to succeed in the future. Success doesn’t always go to the smartest, best-looking or socially smooth. It often goes to the one with enough inner fortitude to keep chipping away at a problem until it’s been solved.

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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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