"Grit" and "resilience" are buzzwords for success from the boardroom to the classroom. According to Angela Duckworth, best-selling author, psychologist and professor, for anyone striving to succeed—be it parents, students, educators, athletes, or business people— the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.”
But what exactly is grit and how does it help students succeed? We talked to Kate Kotsko, Deputy Director at Reading Partners, about the importance of grit to students reaching their goals. In her role at Reading Partners she works with community volunteers to support students that are at least a month behind in reading master the fundamentals they need to reach grade level. Here is what she said about grit:
I would define it as an ability to work through something that is very challenging - whether that is completing a project, learning a new skill, or even just day-to-day difficulties. Resilience and grit are required to persevere in both academia and in life, in general.
There have been many studies conducted that students who graduate from college typically show signs of tenacity. When a challenging situation arises - a bad grade, trouble paying for books, etc. - students both need to believe that they can fix or work on the problem at hand and they need to have skills and resources to do so. For instance, if a student fails an exam at the collegiate level, his or her mindset should be “I know this is not my best work. I can do better. What are some things I can do to achieve a better score next time?” If the end goal is college and career readiness, we must have students practicing grit and resilience all throughout their childhood and adolescence. This mindset and problem-solving skill can be modeled and taught by adults (teachers, coaches, parents) and even by a student’s fellow peers.
When I began teaching in Charlotte, NC through the Teach For America program, many of my students were over a year behind in reading. We set a goal that they would grow 1.5 years in reading in one academic school year. I explained to my fourth graders that they had to make more growth in one school year because they were behind and needed to catch up. I also emphasized that they were very smart and totally capable of reaching their goals! Many of them were learning English as a Second Language. Although some may see this as a barrier to learning how to read, I always stressed how amazing it was that my students knew multiple languages. By the end of the year, my students did meet their growth goal. Sometimes they had to practice their reading with me before or after school or during lunch. Again, I emphasized that their additional work and practice time would pay off in the end, and it did.
In my current role as a Program Director, I am no longer the person “on the ground” working directly with students. We are heavily staffed by AmeriCorps members (typically folks right out of college or career changers). A lot of our training with our AmeriCorps members is technical - how do you actually teach reading. However, a lot of our training also emphasizes growth mindset. We teach our members to have a growth mindset about each of their students. When a student is really far behind, the messaging should be “we are going to do whatever it takes to catch this child up in reading.” We also message this to the students themselves. Students set goals for themselves - how many books they want to read, which reading skills they want to focus on, etc. We have a culture of remaining positive and tackling challenges head-on.
Modeling grit is so valuable. When I am with a student and I write or read a word incorrectly, I say something like, “It’s okay to make mistakes - as long as you continue to work toward your goals!”
Giving kids language around resilience is also important. I have seen classrooms where the words “I Can’t” are prohibited. Instead, you give kids phrases to use like “Who can help me?” or “Where can I look up the answer to this?” I also think goal setting and reflection are incredibly important. In the reflection, it is important to emphasize tenacity, especially if the goal is not met. If the goal is met, it is important to celebrate and to set a new, possibly more ambitious goal!
Each of my students are motivated by different things - some of them stay resilient because they have a dream or some sort of career goal, some of them stay resilient because they are motivated to make someone in their family proud. As educators and coaches, it is important to find out what makes each student tick. I will say that all kids need a cheerleader in this process. If you are an adult or an older student in a child’s life, keep them motivated and encouraged as they work to achieve success!
I think my main advice is to remember that we are all human and that, as humans, it is natural to struggle. It is also okay to be different. Someone in your class might be better at math than you or better at singing than you. That’s okay. We all have different strengths and weaknesses and things we are working toward. You are unique and special and as long as you work hard and try your best, you have done what you need to do!
At KOMA, we have seen first hand how building resilience helps students reach their goals and allows them to transform into confident, passionate, and capable leaders. Thanks to efforts of organizations like Reading Partners, we know that students in communities across the country are building the grit to succeed.
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