What determines academic and professional success? —A question that most parents yearn to know the answer to. Is it intelligence? Is it how quickly a child can learn something? What if IQ is not everything? Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist and professor at University of Pennsylvania, studied a personal quality that is shared by the most prominent leaders in every field: grit. What it means to be gritty is to have stamina and to be resilient in the face of failure or adversity. Resilience refers to the general concept related to positive adaptation in the context of challenge.
Duckworth and colleagues (2007) conducted a series of studies examining the relationship between grit and high achievement. One of the most celebrated studies was completed at West Point Military Academy.
Admission to West Point is extremely competitive, as candidates are required to be nominated by a member of Congress or from the Department of the Army. Specifically, admission depends heavily on a Whole Candidate Score, a weighted average of SAT scores, class rank, demonstrated leadership ability, and physical aptitude. Even with such a rigorous admissions process, about 1 in 20 cadets drops out during the first summer of training. The first summer of training is a seven-week process also known as Beast Barracks. Most cadets consider Beast Barracks to be their most difficult time at the academy because of the transition from civilian to military life. Why do some individuals give up and why do some individuals outperform others of equal intelligence?
Duckworth and colleagues (2007) examined 1,218 freshman cadets who entered the United States Military Academy, West Point, in July 2004. In order to measure the individual effects of grit, self-control, and other predictors on retention, Duckworth (2007) collected participant data on whole candidate score, academic GPA, military performance score, and grit score. The results suggested that statistically, cadets who were a standard deviation higher than average in grit were over 60% more likely to complete summer training. In other words, grit predicted completion of the rigorous summer training program better than any other predictor (i.e., whole candidate score, GPA, and military performance score). Similar research findings emerged from different groups such as National Spelling Bee contestants and first-year teachers in academically challenging schools. Duckworth found that “grit predicts success over and beyond talent; when you consider individuals of equal talent, the grittier ones do better.”
It seems that grit, resilience, the ability to overcome serious hardship, and positive adaptation in the context of challenge, are keys to be successful in the academic and professional world. As parents and educators, it is necessary to keep in mind the ways in which we develop resilience in our children. The Education Resources Information Center and the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard University both suggested several ways to help parents foster their children’s resiliency: healthy relationships, adequate support, and opportunities to practice.
Healthy Relationships It has been shown that having someone who conveys an attitude of compassion, who understands that no matter how awful a child’s behavior, the child is doing the best he or she can given his or her experience—provides support for healthy development and learning (Werner and Smith, 1989). Children tend to work harder and do things for people they love and trust; thus, having a caring and understanding relationship with respect and trust is not simply a “strategy” or a “program,” but a way of relating to youths.
Adequate Support It is extremely important to communicate the message that your child has everything he or she needs to be successful. Children learn to believe in themselves through relationships that convey high expectations with supportive resources. Instead of shutting down an unrealistic dream of a child, think of ways that facilitates them to pursue a similar goal. For example, when a child dreams about making it to the NBA, but he does not have the physical capacities of a basketball player, we can provide him with adequate resources and knowledge of what it takes to be a professional basketball player. Perhaps, encourage him to pursue other career goals such as becoming a sports psychologist or athletic trainer who work closely with professional athletes.
Opportunities to practice The aforementioned example can be elaborated with meaningful involvement and responsibility. Providing children the opportunities to learn to cope with manageable threats, is crucial for the development of resilience. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University suggests that with the help of supportive adults, stress can be growth-promoting and that not all stress is harmful. We encourage parents to practice asking questions that require critical thinking. When a child is unable to achieve a certain goal, we can ask open-ended questions such as “Why do you think that you were unable to perform the task?” “What can you do better next time?” “Is there anything I can do to help you achieve your goal?”
Although the brain and other biological systems are most adaptable during early childhood, it is never too late to build resilience. Adults and parents who provide healthy relationships, adequate support, and opportunities to practice can foster and improve the resilience of children. Fundamentally, grit and resilience are essential to academic and professional success.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
Werner, E., and R. Smith. (1989). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York: Adams, Bannister, and Cox.
Cindy H. Lee is a graduate student at UCLA, concentrating on Human Development and Psychology. She is currently working on her master’s thesis and looking at English language learners (ELLs) and their oral language anxiety by using LEGO® as an educational tool to aid ELL students orally narrate stories. Cindy also had 3+ years of experience working with children with autism, down syndrome, and intellectual disabilities.