Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines grit as “firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”
Now that’s a character trait that can take you places. But how many of us can say that our kids possess the grit to muscle through a tough challenge without looking to us for help?
And yet it’s traits like grit, curiosity, perseverance and determination that we know our kids need to succeed in today’s world. These are the same characteristics that employers are looking when hiring, maybe more so than who got the highest GPA in college.
Many children lack a firm grasp of these traits because our generation of parents has been too focused on protecting them from failure. We’ve sheltered them from adversity, and the sometimes painful growth that comes from learning to do things the hard way.
So how can parents and schools work on better developing these traits in our kids?
That was the focus of Tuesday night’s book club discussion with Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr and his guests: Jennifer Webster, principal of Bethesda’s Thomas W. Pyle Middle School; Erika Buffington, a first-grade teacher at Flora M. Singer Elementary in Silver Spring; Diego Uriburu, executive director of Identity, a Gaithersburg nonprofit serving at-risk Latino youth; and Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, a psychology grad student at the University of Pennsylvania who’s researching these issues and participated by Skype during the session at MCPS headquarters in Rockville.
The book for Starr’s latest session was Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, which tackles the idea that children’s success has less to do with intelligence than with skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.
It’s an idea that Starr and MCPS staff have been exploring, starting with his first book club back in November 2012 that discussed Stanford University professor Carol Dweck’s theories about fixed and growth mindsets.
We all know that succeeding in today’s work environment demands the ability to solve problems and work collaboratively. But how many of us thwart the development of those skills by making sure that our children don’t have to deal with adversity that would expose them to failure?
That’s no way to develop grit, the experts say. So both parents and schools need to change our focus.
“We’re always teaching content. In fact, it’s about skills,” Starr said during the book discussion. “Are we teaching skills that kids need to be successful?”
“Nobody really has a good answer” on how to kindle motivation or build grit, Eskreis-Winkler said. But some MCPS educators have ideas on how to go about it, and recognize that character development doesn’t happen through afternoons spent in school assemblies.
“There’s no packaged program to teach character traits that you can just implement,” said Pyle’s Webster. “There’s no one way to do it.”
Instead, we all need to focus on building relationships at home and school that will give our kids the confidence to persevere and take risks—and teach us when to step in and when to stand back.
To that end, Webster said that Pyle counselors work proactively with parents to establish communication and talk about how to handle issues that may arise during the middle school years, acknowledging ahead of time that “things are going to go wrong.”
And teachers are working on strategies to reach adolescent learners, who are reluctant to admit making mistakes— especially in the face of parents’ high expectations. “We know they love to talk to each other,” Webster said. So teachers focus on “how do we play off of that?”
Buffington said teachers at Singer Elementary try to build grit by providing students with opportunities to face adversity within the classroom. For example, a recent project to build a bridge involved collaboration and problem solving.
“With that came persistence,” she said. “It showed grit because we worked on it day after day” to come up with workable solutions.
And lots of time is spent talking about mistakes and how students can correct them and move forward.
Relationships and building trust are key, said Uriburu, especially with the kids he sees who are dealing with stress and trauma often resulting from family situations and past experiences.
All agreed that raising consciousness about the need for kids to develop these non-cognitive traits should be a top priority for our schools.
“In the end, the kids with these skills, it’s going to pay off for them,” Webster said.