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Teaching Tenaciousness

Every teacher has some students who seem eager to lean into challenges or take on new things – and other students who do the opposite. They seem pull away from taking risks and struggle to manage the frustrating feelings that naturally arise when learning new ideas or tasks. Growing the internal capacity to “lean into learning” helps students thrive in school. Here are some ideas:

  • Teach some brain science. Explain that the process of learning is hard brain work – and some people are more sensitive to the physical sensations of that kind of work. You are actually growing new neurons!
  • Use encouragement instead of praise. Researcher Carol Dweck showed that when students were acknowledged for their effort instead of judged for their accomplishments it invited them to take on bigger challenges. In one experiment she gave 4th graders a math test. She told each child in one group that they were “good at math.” She told the students in the other group that she could tell “they liked challenges.” Three weeks later on a harder math test, the students in the group that were told they liked challenges did significantly better than the group praised for their ability –even though their scores on the first test were comparable.
  • Cultivate trust. Students will push themselves to persist when they know that the adult in charge will not humiliate or shame them.
  • Help your students notice their strengths. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive notes that human beings will take on more challenging tasks when they perceive they have the tools to accomplish them. Work with students to ensure they are aware of their strengths. Use specific language. For example, “I noticed you ______, and as a result you were able to ________.”
  • Invite reflection. Have students regularly tell you or each other 2 or 3 decisions they made that helped their learning during a project or task.
  • Use examples from characters in books. Most books have characters that face adversity. That is what makes the story interesting. Discuss or write about what the characters did, or how they accomplished their goals.