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Inspiring Perseverance & Grit in Young Learners

In a culture of instant gratification, one of the best gifts that we can share with young children is to teach them the ability to persevere when faced with challenges. For children to develop these skills, they must have opportunities to take on challenges, problem-solve, and pick themselves up to try again. Perseverance is also sometimes called grit, referring to a person’s ability to push forward towards his or her goals regardless of any potential obstacles.

An Indicator of Later Success

While there are many qualities that influence children’s learning and academic potential, grit is especially important for young learners, because research has found that it can be a key indicator of later success. A study conducted by Angela Lee Duckworth, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and her team, measured how grit relates to measures of success. The team studied public school students in Chicago using a self-reported questionnaire called The Grit Scale and found that students who self-reported the most grit were more likely to graduate high school when compared to students who rated themselves lower on the Grit Scale.

While the children studied in Duckworth’s research were older, the building blocks for grit emerge in infancy. An article from Tinkergarten reminds us that young children are constantly taking on new challenges, and “without persistence and true tolerance for setbacks, they would never walk, talk, climb, run, or even learn to nurture close relationships. Small humans are designed to try, fail, revise, repeat—all in order to learn…So, the early years are a perfect time to hold back our reactions, let them push themselves, and promote grit in our kids.”

See Angela Duckworth’s TED talk below.



Tips for Educators and Caregivers

Every day, early childhood professionals watch children take on new challenges, often failing during their first few attempts. Psychologist, author, and parent coach, Dr. Laura Markham, notes that, while failing is part of the process,  the ability to persevere comes from the experience of learning that you can pick yourself up, try again, and ultimately be successful. This learning comes from experiences of success along with a lot of emotional support and reinforcement from adult care providers.

To help support children in their learning, Dr. Markham recommends the following:

  • Coach, rather than control: “Coaches help kids develop skills, but kids play the game.” Doing things for children, rather than allowing them to try on their own takes away their opportunity to become competent and independent. But, doing things with children helps them to be confident in their own ability to ultimately achieve success. Coaching young children could mean standing close by and supporting toddlers as they climb up a large step or preschoolers as they practice riding a scooter. As you coach, offer tips such as “I wonder what would happen if you tried to put your foot here” to give children an idea of how to succeed, that still allows them to try independently.

  • Encourage and teach self-encouragement: Everyone wants and needs to be encouraged. When children are encouraged, it helps them to feel motivated, with the ability to develop their own inner voice to power them through challenges later in life. Give children mantras to repeat when they are frustrated, such as “If you don’t succeed, try, try again!” and “I think I can, I think I can!”

  • Describe and empathize, rather than evaluating outcomes: Using quick comments such as “Good job!” or “Nice picture!” evaluates the child’s outcome or end product, rather than talking about the child’s effort. To give the child more information, refine your praise to describe what he or she did and empathize with how that must have felt: “You just kept trying and didn’t give up….You must feel so good that you finished!” This will help encourage children not to rely on external sources of evaluation as they get older, and to find a sense of pride in their effort and ability.

Books to Inspire Conversation

Reading books with themes of grit and perseverance is a great way to help children get excited about taking on new challenges and thinking about how to overcome failure. These stories can inspire conversations with preschoolers about believing in themselves and how to try again and again when we fail. The following books, all developmentally appropriate for children in preschool and pre-k, are wonderful options:

  • Whistle for Willie: Written by award-winning author, Ezra Jack Keats, this story follows a young boy named Peter who wants to be able to call his dog by whistling. Peter stays focused on his goal, overcomes trials, and doesn’t give up.

  • The Curious Garden: A New York Times bestseller, written and illustrated by Peter Brown, this is the story of a young boy’s quest for environmentalism in an urban setting. Though he does not know much about gardening, the boy plants trees and small gardens to make his community a greener place.

  • Flight School: This book, written and illustrated by Lisa Judge, tells the story of a penguin who is determined to fly. While his wings were not built to fly like other birds, he is determined, spirited, and he follows his dreams to soar.

  •  She Persisted: Written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger, this book shares the stories of 13 inspirational women who fought for notable causes changed the world.

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