Supporting perseverance

Perseverance is one of those concepts that parents love to hear us teach. Parents are often the people who get the fewest opportunities to see their children work hard, and it can be easy to feel like your kids just don’t try, or don’t try hard enough, or don’t keep trying long enough. And we worry; we know that we didn’t get to where we are today without effort, and it’s terrifying to think that our children may not be equipped to handle everything we know life is going to throw at them.

What we, as parents or teachers or adult members of a community, sometimes forget is that perseverance is a learned skill, and one that most kids need to be taught. That means the initial effort HAS to come from us. The people who need to persevere isn’t necessarily our kids — it’s us.

It goes like this:  I ask a student to do something for their martial arts training that has to be done outside of class. Maybe they need to complete and record five acts of kindness in order to be allowed to test. Maybe they need to bring back a form we sent home. Time passes, and I don’t see anything that lets me know that the student is working on that particular thing, so I check in with a parent or caregiver.

Shil Jahng Nim: Hi sir! Did So-and-So let you know he needs to complete that thing for us in order to be able to test?

Parent or caregiver: <eyeroll> Oh yes. But they aren’t doing a thing about it. I told them it’s their responsibility, not mine. But they aren’t following through at all. I’m just going to let them learn their lesson.

I get it. Parents spend a LOT of time following up with or on behalf of their children, and it’s exhausting. And, as I mentioned, it can be very scary to think that your child just doesn’t finish things, can’t follow through, or lacks the necessary perseverance to do what needs doing. But I encourage parents to consider another approach.

One of the reasons I get things done (usually) without reminders (mostly) and finish the things I start (often) is because I have systems that support my doing those things. Calendars, lists, the cognitive ability to break big projects down into small tasks, time management skills, social pressures, financial pressures, a full understanding of how what I do affects other things, the emotional maturity to CARE about how what I do affects other things (and people), etc. etc. etc. In other words, over 45 years, I have learned an enormous number of things that go into my getting things done, and I knew none of those things before I learned them.

The approach we take in our classes makes perseverance a shared concern. We give students many, many opportunities to do the work themselves, and 100% of our students do (though not 100% of the time). But we try to remember a few key things along the way:

  1. When children DON’T do something it is often because they CAN’T (or at least they can’t under the particular circumstances). It may be emotional, it may be cognitive, it may be environmental, but something is in their way that they can’t get around themselves. We approach a child’s “inability to persevere” as a problem to help them solve rather than a character flaw or deliberate naughtiness.
  2. We remember their brains aren’t done growing. As an adult, I understand HOW to do things that I need to do (or I at least have the means to find out how to do them). Take those acts of kindness — it may seem obvious to me HOW to be kind to other people, and it may be perplexing at first that a child I’ve seen behave kindly isn’t able to figure out how to be kind on demand. But it IS difficult for her. Kindness is an abstract, and translating an abstract idea into concrete behavior on demand is a high-level cognitive skill that may be impossible for her to do right now. If she can’t come up with her own kind acts, we give her some examples to choose from.
  3. We remember that scaffolding is essential to building. We use reminders, because reminding isn’t the same as “doing it for them.” Reminders aren’t doing the work, though they are work in themselves — reminders are reminders. If something needs to get done, we break it down into smaller pieces with clear directions that include HOW to get the thing done right now. Support that enables a child to do the essential job is needed and necessary support.
  4. We recognize when they’ve done it. We actively and assiduously watch for the times when a student is getting it done or is showing age-appropriate perseverance, and we ready to jump in with recognition and praise. We’re not creating praise-junkies, we’re giving children the help they need to recognize that they did the thing. Children put together information in useful and accurate ways, in part, because they are told that it is so. “Hey, that was awesome! That was an act of kindness you can use for your testing homework.” We look for and find the successes to recognize out loud to give children a chance to start to make connections between what they’ve done and what they’re supposed to do.
  5. We remember that time is on our side. You may not always be able to figure out what’s in the way for your child. You may not always have the patience to do the hard work of giving them the support this particular lesson needs. You may struggle to feel like all the effort will ever pay off. It’s okay. As a parent, as a teacher, we can always count on time being on our side. We just have to persevere.
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