Grit: What Your Kids Learn Through Academic Failure

Allowing your children to make their own mistakes teaches them valuable lessons, such as perseverance and self-control.

When your child does poorly on a homework assignment or fails a test, did you know that the actual failure itself — and how she handles it — may provide her with a lesson more valuable than the one she gets from a textbook?

Researcher Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania recently looked at the science of failure in kids. She discovered that when students fail, it actually builds their character and helps them develop grit — a mental toughness or courage — that leads to perseverance.

Her studies show that the benefit in failure itself actually comes when people respond to the situation by becoming more determined and focused. In fact, Duckworth’s findings suggest that when people respond to failure with determination and passion, they may be more successful in attaining their goals, even compared to those with equal or higher intelligence but less grit.

Exploring the Research

Duckworth’s research includes studies that examine the connection among grit, self-control, and future accomplishments in different settings. For example, she looked at how these qualities correlated with the ability of new cadets to survive basic training at West Point, how they helped National Spelling Bee contestants make it to the final round, and how they helped students in Chicago graduate high school, regardless of their standardized test scores or their IQ results.

In these and other situations, Duckworth and her colleagues found that people with higher levels of grit and self-control were more likely to persevere under challenging conditions and to continue pursuing their goals. (The experiments quantified grit by using a special scale developed by Duckworth.) The participants took a series of tests, which are available in shorter and longer versions for children and adults, that pose questions about frustration levels, impatience, focus, goal-setting abilities, and follow-through in everyday situations. By analyzing the answers, Duckworth assessed the subjects’ grit.

The questions from the test cannot be reprinted, but you can see them by going to the “Scales and Measures” section of the Duckworth Lab.

Growing Through Failure

With this new understanding of grit in mind, more educators are beginning to see failure as an opportunity to help kids work harder. “There are times that failure can teach lessons, if approached appropriately,” agrees Barbara R. Blackburn, Ph.D., an educational consultant in the Tri-state area, who helps schools and teachers establish more academically rigorous settings.

“Too often, students see failure as a stop sign, rather than a learning experience. It's important for students to learn the latter, and to do so, they must experience failure,” Blackburn explains. “I don't recommend teachers purposely set up a failing experience for students, but it is important for students to work at an appropriately challenging level. In other words, students shouldn't be able to do something easily, or they won't learn new material.”

She gives an example of how this lesson might play out in a classroom. “The teacher provides an assignment that is challenging to the student. The student struggles, and may not be able to succeed on her own. Then, rather than allowing the student to give up or telling the answer to the student, the teacher provides guidance and encouragement to persist.

Thus, the student sees the value of pushing past initial failure in order to succeed,” Blackburn says. “This is part of teaching students ‘grit,’ as Angela Duckworth refers to [it], which is an important characteristic of resilient students/children.”

In some schools, Blackburn says that the benefit of moving beyond failure is so valued that the administration has put safeguards in place to encourage students to try and try again. “For major assessments, teachers allow students to rework an assignment until it is at an acceptable level. Therefore, if students ‘fail’ the assignment, they work with the teacher for appropriate recommendations, then redo the assignment up to a passing grade. Students learn that failure, or even ‘taking a zero’ is not an option — they are required to complete the work at a successful level,” she says. This means more work for everyone, but in turn, it offers important opportunities for growth and character development.

Taking Advantage of Opportunities

So, you may wonder what all this means for your child. Should you really just sit back and let her fail if you see her struggling, or if she doesn’t want to apply herself? Or are there steps you can take that will still allow her to benefit from the situation? Most experts agree that the latter is usually better.

The reality is that you can be an influential factor in motivating your child to confront a challenge. This is essential because, while there are benefits to failure, the lessons learned really emerge from how your child handles the situation — picking herself back up — and not from the experience of failing in the first place. So, be your child’s cheering squad and support her perseverance.

“The most important thing a parent can do is to encourage the child,” explains Debbie Pincus, MS, LMHC, a family therapist and creator of Calm Parent AM/PM, a program designed to help parents improve their parenting skills.

“First, focus on what he or she did right — for example, the child may have missed five questions, but she answered five correctly. Then, ask her what she did for those five — next, why do you think you missed these five? What could you have done differently?”

Pincus suggests working with the child to redo the missed answers, even if she won't get "credit" for them at school (although I would encourage her to show them to the teacher). Be careful not to do the work for a child, but help her do it herself. This teaches the value of revisiting mistakes, learning from them, and moving forward.

Teaching Life Skills

The key to having a positive impact on your child’s approach to learning is to keep a respectful relationship that focuses on the positive, rather than dwelling on shortfalls. As Pincus puts it, “Stay on your kids’ team, don’t play against them. This will allow you to be most influential with them, which is your most important parenting tool.”

In practical terms, Pincus emphasizes rewarding your child when she accomplishes her goals, rather than reprimanding or punishing her for not doing her best. “Incorporate the ‘when you’ rule. One of life’s lessons is that we get the goodies after we do the work. When you practice shooting hoops every day, you start making more baskets. You get paid after you work at your job. So, start saying things like, ‘When you finish studying, you are welcome to go to Gavin’s house,’” Pincus explains. This is a much more productive way to motivate your child to apply herself to tasks, even when they aren’t easy.

The best part of the research on grit is that, if Duckworth is correct, the skills your child develops by working hard in an academic setting, managing failure, and staying strong and focused are ones that will contribute to her future success.

Sources:

Barbara R. Blackburn, Excellence in Education, Ph.D, Email interview Jan. 3, 2015.

Debbie Pincus, MS, LMHC, family therapist and creator of Calm Parent AM/PM, Email interview, Nov. 5, 2014.

The Duckworth Lab, University of Pennsylvania. Research Statement. Accessed Jan. 25, 2015. Retrieved from Duckworth Labs.

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