Friday, September 28, 2012

Parenting for high potential and grit

The September 2012 edition of Parenting for High Potential includes an interesting article called "True Grit: Some New Perspectives on Motivation and Persistence" by Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius. The author discusses grit as the factor that separates star performers from others. She defines grit as the "determination and persistence it takes to reach long term goals" (p. 2). She goes on further, describing the separating characteristic as a level of both stamina and intensity to practice as well as being able to push through adversity.

While Dr. Olszewski-Kubilius is talking specifically about gifted and high ability children, this idea crosses to typical kids very easily. Malcom Gladwell has been frequently quoted about his 10 000 hours of practice to become an expert concept. While 10 000 hours of practice will not make everyone an expert, I for example will never be an expert football player, to become an expert in a field takes many hours of practice, in which failure and frustration will occur. This can be in any activity: video games, musial performance, neurobiology, hockey,... We can all achieve some level of expertise with sufficient focus and experience. The problem is that many people are not willing to devote the focus and time to an activity. Practice is indeed one element of grit.

That leads neatly to the next descriptor- having a growth mindset. Carol Dweck's research into successful people believing that their effort, not their innate ability, is responsible for their success and their higher achievement. To practice for 10000 hours requires effort. You cannot back down because you got to a hard part. Success must be seen as a direct result of work, not merely an aspect of raw talent. When we allow our brightest to achieve in school without effort, we reinforce the wrong mindset. Even though the things that will challenge them will not be on this year's state tests, we need to provide them with meaningful work that requires application of effort, not busy work that they will be tested on but have already mastered. If we do not, we encourage the slide to "I'm bright. I do not need to work."

That leads nicely to resilience. This is the characteristic of being able to bounce back from being down. It is my favorite definition of self-esteem. Self-esteem is more about how you handle doing things wrong than how you respond to success. A person with high and well-developed self-esteem is not killed by the struggle to achieve something difficult, they are invigorated by it. Therefore, it is not praise or success that leads to high self-esteem, it is the perception of being able to be successful with hard work and dedication even in the face of failure. Robert Brooks has done much research into the link between resilience and self-esteem (

In the 1960's Michael Mischel from Stanford performed the now famous marshmallow experiment. Children who were able to delay gratification were more successful decades down the road. This element of grit clearly plays a role in success as well. Delaying the gratification of success empowers them in other things they will encounter in life.

So how do we build grit in children? The author poses a series of suggestions:
  1. Help children acquire strategies to manage moods and anxiety
  2. Facilitate an understanding of learning and working style
  3. Help children be comfortable with the stress and anxiety of challenge and focus on a growth mindset
  4. Help teach how to identify and set both big goals and the small steps to get there 
  5. Model risk taking, goal setting, resiliency and coping skills in  your daily life
  6. Develop passion
  7. Emphasize and reward persistence
  8. Ensure access to challenging learning experiences
(Page 3)

The last one is of especial interest to teachers. We need to recognize that the standard curriculum, even the higher standards of the Common Core, will not be a challenge for some students and endeavor to find ways to offer challenging and enriching environments to our brightest students.

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