Perseverance: (noun) Steady persistence in a course of action, especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
It seems more than a little ironic to me that a school such as ours, located where we are, and attracting the clientele that we do would adopt perseverance as one of our core values. Rooted in the very things—adversity, difficulty, obstacles, and discouragement—that we seem desperate to protect this generation of children from, perseverance still stands the test of time, it would appear. Parents and teachers alike would tell you with great passion that it is a fundamental and foundational skill and that it is sorely lacking among our children.
If we’re honest, though, wouldn’t we say it’s pretty sorely lacking among ourselves as well?
October and November tend to be prime months for my own professional development, and early in October I attended the annual Elementary School Heads’ Association (ESHA) conference in Massachusetts. ESHA is an organization I have come to value because it focuses its programming squarely on issues related to students in schools like PS that end in the 8th grade. At this year’s meeting, we heard from Harvard psychologist Dr. Richard Weissbourd, who challenged us with his argument that our generation of parents is, to use his word, “imperiling” our children’s moral development. How, you might ask? According to Weissbourd (and others), our generation’s intense focus on our children’s happiness coupled with our desire to be “close” to them is at the expense of nurturing their morality in similarly sustained and intentional ways.
It seems that incessant praise for personal achievement in an effort to produce happiness in our children has supplanted the cultivation of work ethic, tenacity, and (yes) perseverance that may have helped characterize past generations. (See this clip from a recent movie for a painfully accurate—and hilarious—portrait of where we find ourselves today . . . how many similar “walls” are we building for our own children?)
As we contemplate our children’s moral development and the role that values like perseverance may play in it, we also need to look at the development of children’s brains under the influence of hard work, struggle, and even failure. Another meeting that I typically attend in the fall is the Learning and the Brain Conference co-sponsored by Harvard and MIT, which tends to coincide with the weekend before Thanksgiving.
In light of the focus on perseverance, it seemed fortuitous that one of this year’s keynote speakers was Dr. Daniel Ansari of the University of Western Ontario’s Human Psychology Department. In his talk on “The Numerate Brain,” Dr. Ansari spent a good deal of time discussing what he called “The Brain on Errors.” Among several physiological observations Dr. Ansari mentioned, these were the ones that stuck with me the most: (1) Errors are important for learning; (2) There is an observable phenomenon called “post-error slowing” that occurs in the brain when this learning is actually taking place; (3) Errors result in “adaptive responses” inside the brain, which are important for learning—but only if the brain is allowed to attend to the error; and most interestingly (4) The brain “really cares about errors,” which it finds “functionally important.”
Simply put, if we spend most of our time protecting our children from errors, from obstacles, from disappointments, and from hardship, we run the risk of stunting or, at the very least, hindering both their moral and brain development. There are several more studies that suggest these strong correlations between perseverance and achievement — not just very temporal academic success but improved quality of life beyond school. In other words, we just don’t have a choice about actively and intentionally cultivating the value of perseverance in our children . . . together.
With this in mind, here are some ideas from education blogger Kevin D. Washburn that we are mulling and hope will serve as models for our students as they grapple with perseverance. Perhaps there are some suggestions for parents here as well:
- Find more and more opportunities to make stories about struggle and eventual success the focus of class discussions. At the end of a science lab I led in 8th grade the other day, I shared this blog post about Abraham Lincoln; then the students and I talked about the similarities of Lincoln’s struggles and the work of scientists (and adolescents!).
- Direct students’ attention to the compelling connections between effort and results. I’ve talked and written a good bit about Carol Dweck’s well-documented research on Growth Mindsets. In this research Dweck found that teachers whose comments emphasized “effort-result relationships” (in other words, praising students for hard work rather than intelligence) saw their students learn up to 50% more than students of teachers who did not. How might we emulate this same approach in our parenting?
- Separate the strategy from the self. More and more research is telling us that our classrooms and our family rooms need to be places that welcome failure as learning's front door. We will succeed or fail at this depending on how we respond to the inevitable errors our children make. Shallow admonitions like, “Try harder” or “Put your thinking cap on,” need to shift to responses that will really re-focus students’ effort like this one from Dr. Robert Brooks, author of Raising Resilient Children, on my short list of excellent resources for today’s parents: “Your strategy doesn’t seem to be working. Let’s figure out why and how we can change it.”
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