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Parenting Pep Talk: Got Grit?

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Dr. Jaime Black
Dr. Jaime Black

Grit is the new buzzword in education thanks to the award-winning work done by psychologist and former 7th grade math teacher Angela Duckworth. Duckworth began studying grit — defined as persistence, determination, and resilience, or the quality of being able to sustain and work hard at passions – after an interesting trend emerged while teaching math. She noticed that IQ had very little to do with success in her class. Duckworth began to research who is successful and why in a variety of settings with a variety of age groups. She found that IQ, physical health, and emotional intelligence had less to do with success than grit. Being able to learn quickly and easily is not the most important ability. Living life like it’s a marathon and not a sprint will lead to success, she says.

More and more schools are working on increasing students’ grittiness. The Obama administration is also on board and stated in the 2013 Department of Education report that children are learning to “do school” at the expense of life skills. One school in Long Beach, California strives to create classroom environments where struggle and risk-taking are more important than getting the right answers. Jason Baehr, who runs the school, sees “kids learning to be grittier all the time.” Lenox Academy in Brooklyn, New York also aims to increase grit by sending the message that failure is a normal part of learning. They point out mistakes made by successful individuals like Steve Jobs who failed at some endeavors along the way. Tom Hoerr, leader of the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri says: “If our kids have graduated from here with nothing but success, then we have failed them, because they haven’t learned how to respond to frustration and failure.”

Little is known about how to build grit but work is being done to find out. Carol Dweck, psychologist and motivation researcher has long touted the benefits of focusing on improvements rather than on being “smart.” She talks about having a growth mindset – the belief that the ability to learn can change with effort. Growth mindset training enhances motivation and achievement and involves teaching children about the stages of memory, how the brain works, and strategies for applying growth mindset at school and at home. When children understand that the brain is a muscle that is capable of growth and change they are more likely to persevere.

Critics of grit as a goal fear that the concept will take attention away from other changes that need to be made in the schools, such as ensuring effective teaching. They also point out that students can be gritty in some things but not others. Duckworth agrees that passion is a necessary part of the equation and that schools, teachers, and parents all have to help kids cultivate their passions and sustain hard work. Talent alone does not make you gritty. Sadly many talented individuals will never see what they are truly capable of.  It’s challenging to figure out exactly how to make children passionate about topics that are not inherently stimulating or to even motivate a talented individual to practice, practice, practice. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. As Duckworth has said, “We need to be grittier about getting our kids grittier.”

Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in Westchester and New York City. Jaime works with high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating socialization groups including an improv social skills group. Visit www.spectrumservicesnyc.com, e-mail JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com or call (914)712-8208.

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