Top tips to teach tenacity 

June 19, 2020

People who show determination, persevere and try their best tend to get ahead in life. They get things done, they rise to the challenge, they seem strong, organised and high achieving.

Both in the present time and in the future, children will need to persist through life’s smaller mishaps and larger challenges. We want them to face any level of adversity, knowing they can find a way to overcome the difficulty and that they can try things independently before falling back on adults, if needed.

Despite challenges and setbacks, a tenacious individual will independently and single-mindedly pursue their goals whether those are immediate, short-term or long term. Being tenacious is a highly beneficial and valuable disposition that can be fostered in children from a young age. When parents, grandparents and teachers encourage and teach tenacity through deliberate and purposeful nurturing, we foster in the next generation a group of citizens who will be equipped to thrive, no matter what kind of world they will live in.

A Year 1 child using a checklist at home each morning to tend to simple chores, get dressed and organise themselves, is being tenacious. A Year 2 child seeking to solve a minor issue such as looking for something they can’t find without crumbling emotionally or giving up easily, is being tenacious. A Year 3 or Year 4 child approaching the teacher to seek clarification with a challenge they are half way into solving, is being tenacious. In older students, having a calendar on their bedroom wall with assignment due dates listed with the incremental steps to independently guide themselves towards completion of tasks or revision, is being tenacious. A young person in conference with a fellow student, a teacher or parent, discussing the finer details in a task description that could result in achieving their personal best, is being tenacious. 

As parents and as educators, how can we foster dispositions such as tenacity, determination and persistence in the young people that we are raising together? According to research, there are three facets to the development of these dispositions, each of them able to be taught explicitly and implicitly by parents, grandparents and teachers:

  • Academic view of self: This relates to the ways in which students see themselves as learners. If children are encouraged to have the view that their ability and achievement can grow with effort, compelling evidence suggests that in the face of an academic challenge, they will behave in a way that is likely to result in progress and eventually, achievement.
  • Effortful control: There are many tasks that young people face at home and at school that assist in their long term development but in general they may not find them inherently motivating or enjoyable. Learning times tables, building understanding and applying spelling rules or practising touch typing are tasks which may be viewed in this light. Tenacious children will cultivate these skills, mustering the willingness to persist and they will certainly benefit in the long term. Learning to persist with simple skill developing tasks and reaping the reward, makes children see the benefits for themselves. This brings them satisfaction and an ability to handle pressures that can be rectified with skills that have become automatic through practice.
  • Use of strategies and tactics: When children and young people possess a tool bag of strategies and tactics to handle setbacks or to help themselves with challenging tasks or circumstances, they tend to develop the confidence needed to take responsibility for situations they can manage. Research suggests that teaching children to define the task, plan the steps needed and recognise that the course of action may need altering when setbacks occur, equips them to be tenacious when setting and reaching their goals.

The academic, wellbeing, social and emotional benefits of being a tenacious individual are well known, which is why the literature around parenting and educating children to become tenacious is so pervasive these days. We want our children to be self-assured problem-solvers who can adapt and thrive in this ever changing world. So how do we deliberately and incrementally teach and foster tenacity?

Top tips for parents, grandparents and teachers

  • Encourage curiosity: All children go through the ‘why’ phase and this is the time to harness that natural tendency to find out why, when, who, how etc. As they get older, children still bring questions to us and expect that we have the answers. This is the time to bring out the key question that models tenacious action as the first tool in their toolbox – ‘How can we find out?’ Modelling that there are many places from which one can ‘find out’, will be key to helping children realise that natural curiosity can be satiated independently using a wide range of credible sources and that parents and/or teachers don’t always need to be the default source of all knowledge.
  • Don’t rescue, reframe: Whether the answers they seek are about a problem they are having with a friend, a mathematical concept or a lost sock, resisting the urge to save the child can be the next key to fostering tenacity. This does not mean dismissing their issue or concern, but reframing it to help them to see how to find solutions instead. Asking them, “What have you already tried?” sets an expectation that they should have already acted independently. Similarly, “Write me a list of possible next steps and then we can talk through them together” insinuates that you are there for assistance once they have started the thinking process. Literature suggests these statements are helpful too; “What is one thing you could try that you have not tried yet?” or “How might _______ (friend, teacher, grandparent) handle that?” or “If you had a magic wand, what would you do to change the situation?” or  “What information or skills don’t you have yet, that could help you in this case?”
  • Honour tenacity: When a child shows that elusive, ‘I will figure it out for myself’ attitude and action, that is the time to jump in and praise them, specifically naming that behaviour as being tenacious. Feeling that they can successfully work on a challenge independently, creates the confidence to do the same when next faced with feelings of struggle. Honouring tenacity sounds like parents, grandparents and teachers praising the effort that it takes to accomplish something or just to make progress. It would sound like, “Good for you! That must have taken you a long time to develop that skill” or “I watched you struggle with that and now look how well you can do it” or “Your attention to detail with that has brought such success. I am proud of how you persisted”.
  • Look for cues and clues: Children that are tenacious problem solvers have been taught to observe for very specific cues and clues. When we are assisting children and young people to be more tenacious we should encourage them to go back to check the finer details of instructions, take stock of what they already know or decide what they need to know to make progress. Asking them, “What do you already know?” or “What are the finer details here?” or “What seems to be missing” or “Where might you find more suggestions/ideas?” models the ‘taking stock of what you know’ and this is an important part of being tenacious. It spurs on the next steps for effective and independent action.

In essence, praising the incremental steps a child takes towards solving a challenge independently is the key to having them repeat this behaviour. When this form of affirmation comes from each of the adults in their lives and is part of the home and school culture, we are then fostering tenacity in the next generation.

By Katie Brodie, Director of Studies K-6

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