“We will be kindergarten readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, and learners!” was the rallying cry of my pre-kindergarten classroom, as we began our morning meeting each day. A growing body of knowledge shows us that grounding students in literacy, math, science, and social studies makes them more than just kindergarten-ready – it prepares them for long-term school and life success. So does another essential trait which doesn’t fit neatly into any one subject area: grit.
Grit is a measure of a person’s determination, persistence, and self-control. Grit is what will keep your students from accepting failure, big or small, and from letting it hold them back. Some might think it has no place in describing three, four, and five year-olds, but the reality is that early childhood classrooms provide the perfect context for building these skills in children, the foundation for which begins at birth.
Today, grit will help kids in your classroom finish that puzzle (determination and persistence), cooperate in imaginary play with their classmates, and play simple board games (self-control). This sets the groundwork for a lifelong ability to pursue challenging long-term goals. According to psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research, grit can also contribute to better grades and, in the long-term, contribute to higher earnings and a more positive view of their own life.
Teachers play a critical role in developing grit, and preschool/Pre-K teachers can do many things to help kids get “grittier.” Here are six things you can do:
- Get familiar with your state’s early learning standards. Many of the skills that underlie grit and self-control are right there in your state’s early learning standards/guidelines (each state calls theirs something unique!). Look for domain names like cognitive development, social & emotional development, general knowledge, or cognition. Becoming familiar with these standards will help you become a more intentional teacher.
- Keep the small promises you make to your students. Research shows that dependable adults help foster better self-control. Make sure that you’re keeping those small promises; when you say “I’ll be right back,” “I’m going to go grab the crayons for you,” “You can go back to finishing building that right after lunch,” do it to show that you follow through on your word. Have time in your daily schedule where you’re available to move around and work with students individually.
- Have children develop plans before heading to centers. Prior to letting students choose their centers (the independent learning stations you’ll see in early childhood classrooms) have students make a plan for what they’ll do in their center of choice. This might be having students choose their first center and “writing” down what they’ll do in that center prior to starting play. This will help children focus and sustain attention on the task they’ve planned and feel more autonomy over their own learning. A great model for planning for play is used in the High Scope curriculum.
- Get creative with sorting activities. Believe it or not, asking children to sort cards first by shape and then asking them to switch the sorting rule to sort the same cards by color is a sign of self-control. When children are asked to do something that might not be their natural instinct, their brain is forced to develop a certain level of self-control. Switching up the way you ask children to sort is just one way to develop flexibility and control within the brain.
- Point out when students persist. When you see students building something in the blocks center over and over or attempting to get their drawing just right, narrate what you saw: “I see your tower kept falling over, but you used smaller blocks on top and didn’t give up building” or “I saw you start your writing a few different times and you kept going to finish your drawing even though you looked frustrated!” Praise children’s effort instead of the outcome. Of course, young children might reach peak frustration and need to step away from a task for a bit and letting children know that taking a step back is OK is part of helping develop their persistence.
- Model these skills yourself! As you’ll soon see, your students notice your actions and hang on your every word. When you express frustration with a task, but persist in completing it and, if you do fail at a task, show your students how you can reflect on the problem and try again. I know when I planned a science experiment that didn’t work, I was embarrassed to fail in front of my students, but together we wrote down what went wrong and I brought new supplies to have a successful experiment the next day.
Though I wasn’t familiar with the word “grit” at the time, creating an environment in my classroom which fostered its various aspects helped ensure that the 20 children in my classroom, all in school for the first time, went from shyly entering through the door to becoming autonomous learners who were deeply engaged in the learning opportunities at hand. By implementing some of these tips, and identifying opportunities for expanding upon these ideas, you’ll see growth in all skill areas for students. Early childhood educators have long had a hand in proving that school-readiness goes beyond the typical academic subjects, and your kindergarten-ready readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, and learners will be on your way to showing this from day one!
Sara Mickelson is an education specialist focused on early learning at the Rhode Island Department of Education and a Houston ’09 alumnus