Who knew mathematicians attended conferences to discuss the complexities of their field? Graduate student, Lisa Piccirillo went to one two years ago where she learned about the Conway Knot, a seemingly impossible problem to solve. Knots in math are studied in the subspecialty of topology, which, in simple terms, considers spaces and shapes. Got that? Good, because even in simple terms, it’s tough to explain.
After fifty years of trying, no one had solved the Conway Knot, which Piccirillo found incredible. She did it in two weeks in 2018. (Sadly, John Horton Conway, who discovered the knot, died at 82 from complications from COVID-19.) Two weeks is a long time to solve one math problem, to say nothing of the fifty years of attempts made by others. It took perseverance, one of the 16 most powerful habits kids should develop to enable them to be successful at both academic and non-academic pursuits.
These 16 habits and 6 skills, collectively called the Habits and Skills of Success, are the building blocks for learning. Perseverance includes:
- Learning how to bounce back from setbacks
- Dealing with challenging situations
- Learning to make your own decisions and act on them.
- Overcoming distractions and working towards longer term goals.
We’re not born to persevere, but we can develop perseverance. Neuroscientists have determined that dopamine is the fuel within our brains that motivates us to persevere and achieve a goal. It functions as a neurotransmitter that floods our bodies and minds with a rush of satisfaction and reward anytime we succeed at achieving something biologically necessary for our survival. Dopamine can be harnessed and used as a prime motivating force to help us keep pushing to achieve goals. When its levels are boosted our confidence increases and we feel good, which ignites a virtuous cycle because we want to continue to feel good about what we accomplish.
In her 2012 report, Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners, researcher Camille A. Farrington said that a student’s attitudes and self-perceptions make them persevere in any given classroom on any given day. In other words, perseverance is situational. The kid who persists in solving a math problem, may show no interest in completing a history assignment.
Farrington points to four core beliefs that impact how willing a student is to push through challenges to learn:
- I belong in this academic community.
- My ability and competence grow with my effort.
- I can succeed at this.
- This work has value to me.
Influences outside of school have an impact on a kid’s ability to persevere academically. The SRI Education study, Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century states, “Sociocultural context plays an important role. It can be a significant determinant of what students value and want to accomplish, the types of challenges they face, and the resources they can access.”
Kids who persevere
- refuse to give up in the pursuit of a goal, even when it’s difficult.
- see failure as a positive learning experience they can use in future endeavors.
- choose to learn from their mistakes.
- don’t make excuses or blame others for failure.
- believe in themselves and are willing to keep trying.
Kids demonstrate perseverance when they feel like they are being treated fairly and with respect and when teachers, administrators, and others have high expectations for their success, holding them to high standards. Confirming their sense of belonging is crucial to enabling kids to persist. In fact, a recent study indicated that increasing belongingness helps students, particularly the underrepresented, to withstand challenges in the classroom. It leads them to think, “I like coming to school because my teachers care about me and I have good friends in my classes.”
This trust in their teachers and peers makes kids more likely to feel safe at school, so they can turn their attention to learning. It results in a virtuous learning cycle that leads to stronger motivation, improved performance and ultimately higher GPAs.
Five ways a kid can develop perseverance
- Give yourself a pep talk. Set an intention to be positive. Avoid put-downs and say, “you can do this.” Imagine how you’d encourage a friend and be a friend to yourself. Remind yourself of past accomplishments as encouragement and get excited about all you’re going to learn. You might even give yourself a pat on the back, a high five, or a self-hug.
- Tap into your confidence. Confident kids believe in their ability to learn or perform new skills and behaviors based on what they already know. So, believe it to achieve it!Banish fear. Don’t be afraid of the challenge ahead. It may be a parent’s natural instinct to come to the rescue and banish our kid’s fear, but teaching them to manage it themselves helps them learn self-regulation and stress management.
- Call in reinforcements. When you’ve tried to solve a problem using several different methods and you’re truly stuck, it’s okay to ask for help. That’s one of the five power behaviors a kid can use to overcome a hurdle. When you push through something hard because you want to learn it, you’re reaching what learning scientists call ‘desirable difficulty.’ Power through it to retain the information longer and in greater detail.
- Find a partner. Work collaboratively with other motivated students to problem-solve. Learning this skill elevates each team member’s contribution and improves a project’s outcome.
Five ways a parent can help a kid develop perseverance
- Recognize that the struggle is real. But the struggle is good. Resist the temptation to micro-manage. Research tells us the impact on kids of a parent who is too controlling and micromanages results in ineffective coping skills, stress, depression, and a lower level of satisfaction with life. Instead support your kid’s efforts with I do, we do, you do to get them into the zone of proximal development, the sweet spot of learning. In the school setting, teachers use scaffolding to help kids get into the Zone. Parents can do the same by adding support and systematically building on the student’s experience and knowledge as they’re gaining new skills. Scaffolding challenges the student just enough to learn new skills, but not enough to get frustrated or give up.
- Lead the cheer. Praise their effort and celebrate the small wins. Known as the Progress Principle, small wins are baby steps forward that eventually lead to big accomplishments. Embedded in the science of how kids connect with what they are learning is intrinsic motivation. The feeling of making progress keeps kids motivated because it’s personally rewarding and they like doing it.
- Marry perseverance to purpose. Diane Tavenner, author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life and co-founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools says, “People with a sense of purpose know who they are. They know what their values are. They know what motivates them. They understand what society has to offer them, and they take advantage of opportunities to make choices that are aligned with who they are.” Purpose is at the heart of human motivation. When your kid finds purpose in the school work they do, they’re more likely to find value in it.
- Accept failure. Angela Duckworth, founder and CEO of Character Lab says, “We want [kids] to discover the magic of repetition, of slowing things down to focus on an area of improvement, and of failing, failing, failing, in order to succeed.” Failure equals opportunity in disguise. It’s a chance to persevere and work through a challenge; to get back up and try again.
- Quit while you’re ahead. There may be times when it’s better to quit, than persevere. In fact one study determined that people who don’t quit often continue with worthless tasks that are both uninteresting and unrewarding and ultimately waste their time and talents. Assess the value of continuing with a task. If your plan isn’t working, it may be time to rethink the plan and go in a different direction.
The kid who develops perseverance is in it for the long run. They’ll gain stamina they can tap into for a lifetime.