Persistence in children is a super skill that can be taught and modelled by the significant adults in a child’s life.
This article was first published by Lourdes Hill College
If you want to see persistence, watch a small child climbing a tree. As they climb into the lower forks you can see the concentration: Tongue poking out, eyes squinting, looking upwards. They’re weighing up their options and making decisions like, ‘Which foothold will give me most leverage? Which branches will hold me?’
At some point, they realise their upper body doesn’t have the same strength as their lower body. They tire and falter… there’s a little slip…they reassess and shift their weight. From the ground, all you can do is encourage them, you can’t do it for them.
Children will go back to the same tree time and time again. Each time they will get a little higher. They persist. Unfortunately, as they grow older, some children stop persisting in challenging tasks, which is a problem with significant consequences.
What exactly is persistence?
Persistence is a highly desirable trait. It is one of the ‘Habits of Mind’ that empower humans to successfully face challenges. It is the ability to stay focused and determined in pursuit of a goal. Persistence requires resilience, discipline, self-belief, and a goal that is valued.
Great relationships, successful careers, and worthwhile personal improvement all require persistence. It could be argued that anything worth achieving requires that long-term commitment and ‘stickability’.
What can we do to grow persistence in children?
There are a number of ways parents can promote persistence:
1. Make sure the goal is valued
Key to persistence is the setting and valuing of a goal. A young person will rarely persist towards a goal they think has no value. We can train and push them to get there, but that is not persistence. Persistence comes from within.
Sometimes, in order to promote persistence, we need to talk through why a goal might be valuable to them. For example, good grades may not be valuable in and of themselves, but they can help get into that amazing art course and a creative future.
2. Teach a growth mindset
A growth mindset is a deeply held belief that a person can learn anything given enough time and effort. Carol Dweck is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and the world’s most recognised student of the mindset trait. In her 2014 Ted talk, she spoke about growth mindset in terms of, ‘The power of yet’. When your child says, “I can’t do this”, you need to add that one simple word…Yet. “I can’t do this, yet”.
Dweck’s research shows that even explaining the growth mindset concept to a child will affect the way they persist. She points to evidence that says, an understanding of growth mindset changes neural pathways that allow for greater growth in learning.
3. Connect and coach
The hardest part of climbing a tree is coming down. Sometimes children get stuck and maybe a bit frightened. In those situations, all we can do is calm them and ask them to trust us as we direct them.
It’s the same with helping kids to persist at school, in relationships, in sport or anything else. We have to create the connection that allows them to trust us, and then we have to coach them. We can’t persist for them, but we can coach them and positively reinforce their efforts.
4. Teach kids to notice, identify, and label their feelings while learning
It is vital to normalise frustration, anger, boredom, and annoyance as much as joy, pride, and satisfaction. This is difficult for many parents and teachers as it was never normalised for us as children. If that is the case for you, be deliberate in your own re-education in this area.
5. Model persistence and talk about it
As an adult, when did you last learn a new skill and have to practise, practise, practise? The best way to teach that kind of persistence is to model it. Talk to your kids about the frustrations you experience and explain the strategies you use to overcome blocks.
6. Respect failure
Even if a child falls out of a tree and breaks their arm, nobody perceives the fall as a failure. Yes, it may dent confidence, but it’s not a failure. We see the fall as part of growing up and learning. We need to maintain that attitude as our children grow older and ‘fall’ in their new ventures.
7. Value persistence
Your children care deeply about what you value, they internalise those values. So, value persistence. Encourage, acknowledge, and reward small improvements that reflect sustained effort.
Three key barriers to persistence in children
As children grow into adolescence, persistence competes with other drives, like the fear of looking uncool and the fear of failure. Adolescents tend to only want to do things they know they are good at. Let’s face it, adults are much the same. Just like adults, young people will only embrace their ‘beginner’ status if they are surrounded by supportive guides and peers. We need to build that culture in our schools and in our homes.
The nature of our now, now, now world, is a barrier to persistence. Credit card debt and binge-watching television series are both symptomatic of a society that doesn’t value delayed gratification. Many young people want to be at the top of the tree, but they don’t want to put in the hard work to climb it. This has been increasingly obvious in areas like music where mastery requires hours and hours of attention to foundation skills like scales. For this reason, school music programs are generally in decline.
At Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane, music is compulsory for students up to Year 10. This is a brilliant opportunity for students to learn that persistence with basic skills can eventually be rewarded with the beauty and enjoyment of making something wonderful…music.
Assistant Principal – Learning and Teaching, Kath Perrier says, “It is also important to give young people relatable role models. We talk about our current and past students and the things they’ve achieved with persistence. For example, a student who has practised clarinet for two hours a day for nine years and now performs flawlessly for large audiences. We could talk about celebrities, but students relate best to their peers.”
It is unfortunate that some parenting styles are getting in the way of persistence. When we consistently swoop in to rescue kids and make things easy for them, we discourage persistence. We all know parenting is hard work, especially with media that encourages us to feel so worried. However, we must find that balance between giving a child the opportunities to develop persistence, while also keeping them safe.
In life, persistence will help yield good relationships, rewarding careers, and continuous personal growth. If we want those outcomes for our children, we have to be persistent too. We have to commit to the goal of developing their persistence, believe it is achievable, and be disciplined in our efforts. It is definitely a worthwhile climb.
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