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Teaching Grit: How to Help Students Overcome Inner Obstacles

Vicki Zakrzewski

Education Director at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center
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Teaching Grit Cultivates Resilience and Perseverance (Research Made Relevant Series)

Amy: Kenny is a student that participated in my grit program last year.

Kenny: This is my evaporator.

Amy: He's a perfect example of a ten year old with grit. In New Hampshire, we do a lot of sugaring, which is the term for making maple sugar and it's a whole ton of work.

Kenny: This one's actually kind of-- got some in it.

Amy: And he does it all on his own. He'll collect the sap with the steers, boil the sap and then get the end result of the syrup.

Kenny: Easy.

Amy: He will be able to accomplish anything that he sets his mind to. I'm Amy Lyon and my goal is to spread the good word about grit.

Angela: Grit is a disposition to pursue very long term goals with passion and perseverance. It shouldn't look the same in a four year old as it does in a forty year old, because developmentally, at the beginning of life, your job is to figure out what you're gonna do, the little place that you're gonna hold in the world and how you're going to add value and survive. And I think children are exploring lots of things.

My goal is to pitch more strikes.

To become a better short stop.

To lift a slap shot.

To get a ninety in math.

To hit the bull's eye.

To find diamonds in Minecraft.

My goal's to draw better dinosaurs.

My goal's working on division.

Amy: I was introduced to grit through an article called "The Secret to Success is Failure." Angela Duckworth was mentioned. She had been studying this topic of Grit and it made a whole lotta sense for me, because Angela had defined it and was able to measure it, but nobody had really talked about teaching it yet.

I want three examples of goals that you could think about for yourself that are years out from now.

Student: Making it on the A team for my first year in middle school, for the baseball team.

Amy: Okay.

Student: Getting into a really good college.

Amy: Yeah, you guys can be thinking about that now. Did you know that the United States has the most kids accepted in the college, but we also have the highest dropout rate. What does that tell you?

Student: That it can be--

Student: That we give up easily?

Amy: We give up too easily, don't we?

I think a lot of schools tend to incorporate the idea of Grit, but I don't know that there's actually direct instruction to lead kids to become grittier. So that's why I tried to do, was to create a curriculum that would get right to the heart of grit and have kids practice becoming grittier throughout the year.

Student: Steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles or discouragement.

Student: When you're discouraged or there's a bunch of things that are going on, it's hard to focus and say to yourself, "Well, I know it's a hard time right now, but I'll get through it." And not a lotta people can do that, and it's a really good thing to know how to do, because there's so many things people give up on that are just so easy.

Amy: If you're setting a far off goal, if you're setting a goal that's years and years and years out, it may not be an easy track. Things will get in the way, for sure and you have to figure out how to manage them, deal with them, move on and keep working towards your goal. And that's what resiliency is about.

Angela: It's never too early to start thinking about, you know, how do we teach kids how to set goals, how to stick with goals, how to stay persistent in the face of temptation and distraction and adversity? And the idea is that if you can put those skills in place early on, that's just as important as teaching a child how to, you know, read, how to write, how to count. We read lots and lots of articles. We think about research designs, but teachers have a different kind of knowledge and it's been really profitable, in particular with our partnership with, for example, the KIPP schools, where we've been doing research for five years. Many of our research ideas were truly a marriage of insights from KIPP staff, married with our scientific expertise together.

Beth: People who have self-control have a lot more power to change their future, to reach the goals that they want to reach.

When we decided to integrate Grit into our curriculum, one of the first concerns was, "Where am I gonna fit it in my otherwise very busy day?" But what it turns out is, you're doing it already. Every time you teach children the process of writing and generating ideas and sticking with writing over a long period of time and revising, that's teaching them the skills that they need to have Grit. It's probably all around you and the trick is to just highlight it and make your students more conscious of it. That will help them develop Grit themselves.

Angela: It's been said, the point of life is to love, to be loved and to be useful. I think Grit is very important, at least for that third thing, right? To be useful, to be useful to our fellow human beings, and kids have a natural instinct. When you give a six year old a task to do, "Can you please clear the table?" and they successfully do that and you praise them for doing that, it makes them feel terrific. And I think it makes them actually feel more terrific than an ice cream cone. And as we get older and older, I think the importance of being useful becomes more and more salient to us. So I think for kids, you know, the idea of being gritty enough to learn something, to master it, so that you can be good at it, that you can be useful, is very important, no matter what it is that in fact you choose to do.

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Emotion researcher Richard Davidson says that cognition and emotion work together in a seamless, integrated way to help us persevere in a task. Thus, to teach grit effectively, educators need to help students cultivate both cognitive and emotional skills. Here are some research-based ideas for doing both.

Self-Perception Matters

Teach students about the impact of thoughts and beliefs on their ability to succeed. Students who have created a habit of negative self-talk will have a hard time exerting grit. But research has shown that thoughts and beliefs can be changed.

Carol Dweck's work on mindsets is a well-known example of how our beliefs about our own learning affect our success. So if you're already teaching these mindsets to your students, keep doing it! But teachers who want to go even deeper into how thoughts affect actions might consider teaching students about optimism.

Teaching Optimism

Amy Lyon, the teacher in the grit video above, created a yearlong grit curriculum based on Martin Seligman's book The Optimistic Child. Pointing to years of research, Seligman argues that optimism is a skill that can be taught by changing how we view the setbacks we encounter in life. He also notes that parents and teachers must model and teach these skills, because children learn either pessimism or optimism from the adults in their lives.

To teach optimism, Lyon instructs students to become aware of their thoughts through a tool called a "grit pie." The pie itself represents a student's obstacle, and each slice represents a realistic cause of the problem. Students analyze whether their thoughts about the problem are permanent ("I stink at math and will never get good at it") or temporary ("I was distracted by my friends"), and whether they blame themselves ("I didn't ask for help when I was confused by my math assignment") or others ("the teacher doesn't like me") for the problem. Ideally, students' thoughts are temporary, and they take at least some personal responsibility for the problem -- both of which make positive change much easier.

Working with Emotions

Teach students how to work with their emotions. Just changing their thoughts is sometimes not enough for students, particularly if they tend to get anxious, appear depressed, or come from a traumatic home environment. For example, when a student with a permanent belief of failure faces an obstacle, emotions such as fear, despair or anger may arise so quickly that there's no time for changing his or her thinking to fend off the emotion. Thus, the student has been emotionally hijacked and needs to calm the emotions first and foremost.

To help these students, educators should first teach them to recognize and label emotional responses so that they become aware when their emotions are spinning out of control, followed by methods for calming difficult emotions. Research has shown that deep breathing and mindfulness practice are both very effective methods for regulating emotions.

Once students have calmed down, educators can help them "cognitively reappraise" the situation -- as taught in Seligman's book -- in order to change the thoughts and beliefs that caused the negative emotion.

Regulating Difficult Emotions

Emotion researchers have found cognitive reappraisal to be the ideal method for regulating difficult emotions. The other way people regulate their emotions is through suppression -- and teachers need to be aware of students who might be doing this, gritty or not. Emotion suppression means just that: pushing away rather than dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions. Long-term suppression can lead to increased negative emotions, anxiety and depression, as well as fewer close relationships and social support. Researchers have also found that emotional suppression is higher among adolescents than adults.

People who appear to have high levels of grit may actually be using emotion suppression to get through the tough obstacles, particularly if attaining goals is seen as a way to survive ("I have to get into an Ivy League college, otherwise my parents will think I'm a bad person") rather than thrive.

Building Resilience

Helping students cultivate positive emotions will also increase their ability to bounce back from obstacles and the negative emotions that often ensue. For example, researchers have found that highly resilient children use humor as a way to deal with stressful situations. Humor not only fosters positive emotions, it also connects us to others, thereby helping us to maintain positive social support networks -- which we all need when going for those long-term goals.

Sharing positive events with each other can also give students a boost in positive emotions. If students dwell on or savor a positive event, then they are more likely to recall that event -- along with the associated positive emotions -- in difficult times. Savoring has been found to not only give us a boost in well-being, but also to broaden our thinking, making us better problem-solvers.

Deepening Self-Awareness

Perhaps one of the unseen benefits of teaching these "grit skills" is that students will also gain a better understanding of who they are as human beings. And hopefully along the way, they will develop more empathy and compassion for those around them who may be struggling to reach a goal -- making everyone a winner in the end.

More Resources for Teaching Grit

Get the embed code, links to downloadable video files, and more resources for Edutopia's grit overview video, "Teaching Grit Cultivates Resilience and Perseverance," embedded above, or read a one-sheet overview of Amy Lyon's grit curriculum.

Editor's Note: This is the second of two parts. The previous post is "Teaching Grit: Social and Emotional Truth."

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parenting's picture
Passionate about parenting

Great article. Thanks for the information. Very useful not only in teaching but also in parenting.

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