Grit: Self-Discipline and “Stick-to-it-iveness”

Now heard across education is that word: grit. What serves children and students best with long term benefits, is when we[parents, educators, adults] cultivate, encourage and promote the development of “grit”.  More important than intelligence or IQ, grit exists among the character traits necessary for achievement and all successes in life. Whether  success in academics, personal or career-related long-term goals, we must assume that grit will precede and accompany all other guiding forces.

So, what is grit? According to UPenn research Psychologist, Angela Lee Duckworth, it is the tendency to sustain interest and efforts toward very long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007). Self-control is the voluntary regulation of impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Duckworth & Steinberg, 2015).

The total educational challenge is to help students learn how to work hard and adapt in the face of temptation, distraction, and defeat. At the same time, they must be steered toward their passions, making sure they run around enough and enjoy childhood, and not to inflict psychological damage.

How do you increase grit and self-control in children AND teachers beyond just exhorting them to grin and bear it? In a recent study, randomly assigned students are asked to change their house or their bedroom in some way that would make studying easier. It could be as simple as having a better light in the room or putting their cell phones out of immediate reach. If you want to start eating a healthful breakfast—oatmeal instead of a doughnut —you might decide to put the oatmeal out where you can see it.  Children know these tricks, but adults sometimes forget them.

These ideas about hard work and persistence, are so plain and self-evident of what a profound difference they could make in expanding human potential.

It’s so simple, that it’s hard to explain!

Trying to measure character traits can be problematic, because of faking, lying, not knowing yourself,  human error and biases- conscious and unconscious. A questionnaire may be more susceptible to lying than a performance test, but performance tests have much more error, and they’re each situation sensitive. A child with a headache might do badly on a performance test but not as badly on a questionnaire.

Being a hardworking or self-controlled child is not the same as being a smart child. Girls are more self-controlled than boys, which helps explain why they tend to get better grades (though not always higher test scores). And the effects of stress, when kids experience negative life events beyond their control it impairs their self-discipline.

No matter the field or endeavor, no matter how smart and talented people may be, it will be tolerance for boredom that more reliably will see them through.

In our talent-obsessed culture, talent has been studied and is well understood. Perseverance? Not so much. Meanwhile, what college admissions officers and business leaders look for these days from applicants is people who stuck with something meaningful to them over time and demonstrated some level of mastery, and it doesn’t necessarily matter in what.

In other words, children need to be taught to appreciate that they’re supposed to suffer when working hard on a challenge that exceeds their skill. They’re supposed to feel confused. Frustration is probably a sign that they’re on the right track and need to gut it out through the natural human aversion to mental effort and feeling overwhelmed so they can evolve.

 There are profound insights related to clarifying the different roles of talent, intellect, passion, persistence, and self-discipline. To separate the traits of self-control and grit, and perceive them as really different qualities allows us to employ strategies and best practices to foster the development of both.  Self-control is the short-term ability to resist temptations and, say, get your schoolwork done; grit is what takes you through.

Therefore we must empower children with a sense of personal responsibility and free will. Having a great teacher, coming from a stable home in which you feel loved and are well fed, innate talent and intellect, a love of learning that drives you to go off to the natural history museum on a Saturday or read Tolstoy on your own—all these are very important,  but “they’re not sufficient.” In study after study, the research has shown that you can be smart and talented and curious but still not reach your potential if you don’t also develop a capacity to work hard and persist through setbacks.

Teach “passionate persistence”, and offer opportunities for children to practice, and master each. Educators are thus encouraged to be creative, differentiate instruction, make it relevant and help children to celebrate and appreciate the benefits of grit, enhanced by stick-to-it-iveness. Needless to say, the growth mindset is complementary to grit, and it’s up to the ‘adults in the room’ to encourage ALL children to overcome challenges and triumph to be their best selves at every stage of life.  We must have grit, too. Parents must have grit. Teaches must have grit. Never give up on the children-not now- not ever. That’s grit!

grit scale:


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