The Nuts and Bolts of Persistence

Ann Rowe bio picAs Dr. Chobot, Kingsbury CEO and Head of School, indicated in a recent post, persistence is an important quality, or Habit of Mind, for effective individuals in academics and work life. In addition, it helps with parenting, pursuing a sport and other activities of daily life. She noted, not surprisingly, that individuals with learning challenges often struggle with persistence.

Before learning challenges, like dyslexia, are identified, children have the experience of facing an obstacle without the skills or supports to triumph over the challenge. The dyslexic child finds the symbols on the page bewildering and will cope with this impossibility in whatever way he or she can. The brighter the LD child, the more creative these strategies can become.  The classic example is the highly verbal child who provides an elaborate explanation of dog breeds verbally but writes “the bog is drown” on paper.

The effort to persist to write all the words, if handwriting is laborious; to spell complex words correctly, if a student has dyslexia; and, to organize ideas on pape,r if a student has weak executive skills, all conspire to encourage the student to take the easy way out.

So how can we, as parents or educators or support professionals, help students be more persistent?

Encourage Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck, a research psychologist at Stanford University, has done extensive research on factors that encourage children to persist on challenging tasks. She found two groups of students, those who believed intelligence is innate and unchangeable (Fixed Mindset) vs. those who believed they could increase their intelligence with practice (Growth Mindset). She found students with Growth Mindset were more willing to try new challenges while students with Fixed Mindset tended to avoid additional challenge and preferred to repeat past success. Students who were praised for effort were more interested in taking on more advanced cognitive tasks. Dweck has found that encouraging students to view failure as a learning opportunity and to praise effort rather than outcome leads students to engage in more advanced and challenging work. It is important to recognize the effort that students with learning challenges put into their work. Because of their processing challenges, these students often work much harder than their peers, often behind the scenes at home.

Manage Complexity

VygotskyLev Vygotsky, the Russian educational theorist, also provided important conceptualization for persistence in his Zone of Proximal Development. Vygotsky proposed that children learn best when the task falls within a particular level of challenge. When tasks are perceived by the student as too easy, the student is bored and unmotivated. When the task is perceived by the student to be too challenging, he or she is more likely to give up without trying.

Learning occurs at a level of moderate challenge. 

I have come to understand this concept firsthand. Recently, I have been taking singing lessons as an avocation and I have found that to be successful in focusing on developing basic vocal technique, I have to limit other aspects of the musical challenge. I become easily overwhelmed if the song is in a language that I don’t know well or if the rhythm is too complex. For students with learning challenges, it can be tricky to fully evaluate how challenging they will find a particular task. It is important to look at whether the format of the task is adding unnecessary challenge, perhaps making it more difficult for the student to grasp the task. Scaffolding, or providing support to moderate the challenge, is important for children with learning challenges.

Use Prior Success as a Model

When dealing with learning challenges our children face, it is easy to become preoccupied with deficits. When a child is struggling to read a simple picture book, it is upsetting and a warning of future difficulties. However, this same child is likely successful somewhere—in the arts, in a sport, in a video game. Parents often tell us about the hours their children spend mastering a level in a video game or building elaborate Lego structures. Success in non-academic areas likely requires persistence and provides important clues to the conditions under which your child is willing or able to stick to a complex task. For example, is your child good at video games because he or she has strong visual spatial skills? We often find that such children learn reading best with a multi-sensory reading method that pulls in their strengths to support a processing weakness.

Visualize Success

While we may be focused and concerned about student deficits, students with learning challenges often have a more intense reaction. They have known failure and are often acutely aware of suffering in comparison to their peers. These students can become overly focused on avoiding failure to the extent that they don’t believe they can be successful. It can help to remind students of their success elsewhere and try to help them identify skills that brought success that can be applied to the new challenge. Sports psychologists encourage athletes to visualize themselves successfully executing a task before making the attempt. However, for students who struggle with executive functions, the organization and planning skills for complex tasks, grasping the end product may be beyond them. They can’t envision success because they don’t know what is expected. Providing a model of an end product can often help these students put themselves into a vision of success.

Model persistence in your own life

Our children often watch us for guidance on handling life tasks. How you manage challenging tasks and how persistent you are in dealing with frustration are important road maps for your child. Sharing your feelings about these experiences can help your child feel understood and that you recognize the challenge to come. Together you can work together to develop a strategic approach and celebrate your child’s good effort whatever the outcome.

There is always another day and another way!

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