Opinion

Successful students have ‘grit’ | Rich Elfers

Parents, would you like to know if your high school-age child will graduate from college? Would you like to know what you should instill into your children (or teachers, into your students) that will be the most effective means of ensuring lifelong success?

Paul Tough deals with these questions and others in a new book called, “How Children Succeed.”

The answer does not lie in what are called “cognitive skills” – IQ, or subjects like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), or, for that matter, history and English. Instead, according to Tough, the answer to this dilemma of student success lies in the development of noncognitive skills like character and outlook, especially self-control and resilience.

The author did a lot of study into these questions by examining recent brain research, psychology and even economics. Basic to his thesis is that both IQ and character are fluid and can be improved. This is especially important to low-income children who are living in very stressful environments who tend to believe they are too dumb to make it into college and who also believe they lack the ability to develop their character.

Tough’s focus was on finding ways to help students living in poverty and strife to become successful lifelong learners and to break the seeming never-ending cycle of poverty that wastes the talents of millions of Americans.

As I read through the book, I found this issue to be very complex. For example, private charter schools, like KIPP Infinity Middle School in New York, took students from poverty areas where 95 percent received free and reduced lunches and reshaped their environments, giving their students structure, support, discipline and goals, to raise their academic testing scores far beyond their peers in other schools.

Problems arose for those students who then went on to regular high schools where many saw their higher grades dropping because the support and structure were diminished. Later, in college, many of these students dropped out, even though in our culture, graduating from a four-year college is a strong indicator of financial security and success.

Tough also discussed two extreme types of parents: “helicopter parents” who hovered above their children, waiting to dive in to rescue them at the first sign of failure, and the opposite extreme, those parents who had no time and expended little effort to support and encourage their children. As a teacher myself, I’ve seen and had to deal with both types of parents and their students. Both frustrated me.

Tough quoted the work of Angela Lee Duckworth, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth’s goal was to find how to develop what she calls the key to success for students: “grit.”

Grit is living life like it is a marathon, not a sprint. It means having both passion and perseverance over the long term. It is the most accurate determinant of success in college and in life.

Duckworth asked, how do you instill grit in students?

Her answer, “I don’t know.” But one way is to allow students the opportunity to fail and then to figure out ways to cope with failure. That’s grit. It’s not protecting our children from every crisis; it’s allowing them to stretch themselves in areas where failure is a real possibility and then coaching them in the skills to cope with the mess if it happens. (You can watch her findings explained by going to “Angela Lee Duckworth: The Key to Success: Grit” on the Internet.)

In summary, to help children become lifelong successes requires two qualities: first, the belief that both IQ and character are malleable and, second, the understanding that grit is necessary to find the passion and the perseverance to stay the course.

How do you know if your high school child should graduate from college? The answer is: a student’s grade-point average. If a student graduates from high school, any high school, and if that student’s GPA is 3.5 or higher, that student has a high likelihood of finishing four years of college – any college. The GPA, not IQ, demonstrates that the student has developed enough grit to stay the course.

How do we get our students to that level of grit? I don’t know either, but as Duckworth said, we have to try to find the way and to be willing to fail until we find it.

We have to be gritty about getting our kids grittier.

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