‘Grit’ in Kids is Good, But Here’s What Else They Need

Researchers describe key factors in what constitutes success and how to foster it.

July 10, 2015, noon

As fed­er­al and state edu­ca­tion­al policies have shif­ted to re­ly­ing on stand­ard­ized test­ing and oth­er meas­ure­ments to as­sess young people’s suc­cess, many par­ents, edu­cat­ors, and poli­cy­makers are push­ing back, find­ing that what’s be­ing meas­ured can­not fully ac­count for what young people need to suc­ceed.

For some re­search­ers, this has trans­lated in­to look­ing at the in­flu­ence of non­aca­dem­ic skills—vari­ously de­scribed as emo­tion­al in­tel­li­gence, self-con­trol, or the catchy “grit.” But one big chal­lenge has been agree­ing on what is be­ing de­scribed, as well as what in­ter­ven­tions can best help make a child well-roun­ded, re­si­li­ent, and cap­able in­to adult­hood.

A study by re­search­ers from the Uni­versity of Chica­go tries to set the found­a­tion for al­tern­at­ive ways to meas­ure and foster the skills and aptitudes kids need as they grow.

“It is so com­mon, es­pe­cially in the edu­ca­tion sphere, to define suc­cess in terms of edu­ca­tion­al out­comes like col­lege and ca­reer read­i­ness or col­lege com­ple­tion,” said Stacy Ehr­lich, one of the prin­cip­al in­vest­ig­at­ors. “But the an­swer is much broad­er than just at­tain­ing a col­lege de­gree. We hope for our youth to be happy, en­gaged cit­izens, be healthy, have pos­it­ive re­la­tion­ships with oth­ers, feel like they can make their own de­cisions about how to dir­ect their lives, and have the know-how to do it.”

Re­view­ing re­search from the past two dec­ades on child, ad­oles­cent, and young adult de­vel­op­ment, the re­search­ers con­cluded that in ad­di­tion to de­vel­op­ing cog­nit­ive skills such as crit­ic­al think­ing and the abil­ity to work with oth­ers, young adults need to de­vel­op a sense of agency—the abil­ity to make act­ive choices about their lives, rather than just al­low­ing cir­cum­stances to act on them—and an “in­teg­rated iden­tity”—a stable sense of self from which to make de­cisions.

And much of the re­search the study looks at in­dic­ates that build­ing these parts of char­ac­ter be­gins in the earli­est stages of life, but can be af­fected throughout a young per­son’s de­vel­op­ment.

Preschool chil­dren, for ex­ample, are already de­vel­op­ing the be­gin­nings of agency, want­ing to set goals and make choices about what to do. And per­haps just as im­port­ant for long-term de­vel­op­ment, they are just learn­ing how to con­trol their own im­pulses.

For Bar­bara Abel, a cur­riculum man­ager for a Chica­go early-edu­ca­tion pro­gram in­ter­viewed for the study, this is key. “I’ve been work­ing on chil­dren’s ca­pa­cit­ies to self-reg­u­late in terms of emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion, be­ha­vi­or­al reg­u­la­tion, and at­ten­tion reg­u­la­tion,” she said.

Once kids reach school age, self-con­trol de­vel­ops in­to an abil­ity to re­flect on their be­ha­vi­ors more crit­ic­ally, which in middle school and high school in­flu­ence their abil­ity to de­vel­op a sense of their own cap­ab­il­ity and their re­la­tion­ships to their peers, and to de­vel­op the mind­set and val­ues that will guide their de­cisions go­ing for­ward.

For Hil­lary Rhodes of the Wal­lace Found­a­tion, the primary fun­der for the study, put­ting names to the prin­ciples be­hind needed in­ter­ven­tions was an im­port­ant step.

“It wasn’t just think­ing about what to do, but the em­phas­is on re­flec­tion,” Rhodes said. “Even if a child has a neg­at­ive ex­per­i­ence, adults, and peers can help re­flect on that ex­per­i­ence, and we have op­por­tun­it­ies all the time to make a dif­fer­ence in a child’s life.”

Child de­vel­op­ment spe­cial­ists such as An­gela Duck­worth, who pop­ular­ized the im­port­ance of “grit,” and Dav­id Yeager, who has stud­ied how young people can learn from fail­ure, warned in a re­cent es­say that fig­ur­ing out how to meas­ure these less-tan­gible as­pects of a young per­son’s abil­it­ies risks fall­ing in­to the trap of mis­quan­ti­fic­a­tion.

But they agree that de­vel­op­ing ways to ac­count for these qual­it­ies is key to de­vel­op­ing more-pro­duct­ive ways to help young people reach their fullest po­ten­tial.

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