Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Teaching Grit: How to Help Students Overcome Inner Obstacles

In the second of her two-part series about grit, guest blogger Vicki Zakrzewski looks at how to encourage self-perception and emotional management in an academic setting, with help from Edutopia’s video team.

May 20, 2014

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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