Cultivating Grit in Students

Grit. What is it and why do we want it in the classroom?

The word grit brings to mind dirt or something you do with your teeth when you are nervous, but this type of grit is part of who you are as a person. Lately, grit has become a sort of educational buzz-word thanks to the work of Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Along with new research and information about the importance of a growth mindset, grit is the power not just to believe you can, but to get down to work and do it. Duckworth observed her 7th grade students and found that those with grit were often successful.

Finding a starting point

So we know that grit is necessary for student success, but how do we develop it in the classroom? First, it is important that no one is motivated and ready to work 100% of the time. Heather Wolpert-Gawron, middle school teacher, and author tells us that when examining this character trait in herself, she found that sometimes she has grit and other times she doesn’t. This is true for most people. When we are passionate about something, it is much easier to stick with it and follow through. When we have tasks that are mundane or of little interest to us, we tend to feel less passionate and therefore less likely to persist. This tendency for people to naturally stick with things they like explains how a student can be failing a class but simultaneously have created architectural masterpieces in Minecraft.

Grit does, and doesn’t, come naturally to kids

Their interests are what generally motivate children. They might spend hours on something they are interested in but struggle to maintain focus in another area. Children typically don’t have the maturity and life experience to realize that persisting through hours of boring homework will pay off in the long run. It is important to have realistic expectations with kids when it comes to grit. Don’t expect them to have much to start with.

Since kids do what they like, teachers have to discover a student’s passion in order to find their natural grit.  If a kid hates writing, don’t start there. Instead, start with something they love, no matter what it is. Once you find a child’s passion, you can discover the grit they already have. Wolpert-Gawron points out that elective courses are the ones where students often find their passions, but sadly this is where funding cuts happen most. That places the burden more squarely on the shoulders of teachers of more traditional to incorporate interest-based learning into their courses to help spark their student’s passion for learning.

Grit begets grit

The good news for teachers is that once we find a student’s passion, we can begin to cultivate grit. Wolpert-Gawron suggests that when a student completes a complicated project, they can reflect back and therein discover the positive byproducts of their persistence. A teacher’s role isn’t so much to ‘teach’ them grit but to ask questions to help them reflect on their experience. Wolpert-Gawron suggests questions such as:

• “Remember what it felt like to follow through with the assignment?

• What was your journey through the lessons?

• What thoughts in your head got in the way of completion?

• What voices cheered you on from start to finish?

• Can you visualize those voices?

• How might you control or change those thoughts that get in the way?”

As teachers, we can take those experiences where students persevere and encourage them to reflect on the ‘payoff’ of those experiences. Students can then transfer those skills to other areas. When they encounter a subject that is less naturally motivating, they may find their motivation increased when they think of the payoff.

Strategies to develop grit in kids

Wolpert-Gawron suggests three strategies to incorporate into the classroom for helping kids develop grit:
Utilize project-based learning. PBL as a learning strategy focuses on meaningful learning punctuated by student choice. Projects are grounded on driving questions based on student inquiry. Students can decide on the artifacts that can best show their learning. Allow student input whenever possible.
Bring in a variety of experts. Don’t put everything on your shoulders. Bring in experts from outside the classroom to introduce students to new concepts. This includes face-to-face speakers, guests via video chats, and virtual field trips.
Find allies in other stakeholders. Remind families that they have a role to play in helping students find their passions beyond the school day. Some families could use some help understanding how their free time as a family may have a direct impact on their student’s persistence in the classroom. Send out emails to families about upcoming local events. Encourage families to play a part in their student’s passion-based learning.”

Girt doesn’t happen overnight

The race to develop grit in kids is a marathon and not a sprint. Grit can’t be explicitly taught and can’t be cultivated overnight. Children need several teachers to model grit for them. They need to see it modeled over and over again throughout their educational career. They need teachers to share stories of their own challenges. Kids benefit when teachers share experiences of times when they wanted to give up on something but they didn’t, and how persevering paid off in the long-run. With positive role models, some direction, and positive experiences children just might develop a little grit of their own.

Amy Curletto has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.

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