Good high school students usually go on to be good college students. But the relationship isn’t perfect. Just being academically prepared isn’t good enough. Research has shown that some kids who persist in college are not necessarily the ones who excelled in high school. Those who persist are resilient, socially agile and emotionally secure – they can pick up and move on after bad news, bad grades or other difficult moments, ask for help when needed, and resist negative peer pressures. Such traits by themselves won’t make kids successful in school but, when combined with sound academic preparation, they are indispensable.
Particularly for kids who don’t have the safety nets that come with the privileges of class and wealth.
What puts these kids over the top is grit.
At its most basic, grit is a character trait that gives kids the umph they need to get the job done, go the extra mile, or stick it out when all the odds are stacked against them. Embedded in it are socio-emotional skills, like motivation, perseverance, responsibility, self-awareness, all of which can be taught and learned, practiced, honed, and applied.
Grit equips people to pursue particularly challenging goals over years and decades. It is different than self-control, which operates at a lower timescale to battle hourly temptations and cravings which bring pleasure in the moment followed by immediate regret (see more: here). Measured on a straight forward, easy to score 12 point scale (see more: here), grit reliably predicts who prevails when the going gets tough, whether tough is surviving grueling cadet induction at West Point, making it to the final round of a spelling bee, or being the first in your family to graduate from college.
Grit is universal. It obeys no credence, ideology or moral or ethical barrier. In practice, however, attempts to teach and define it often collide with such constraints. Grit falls hostage to political and/or religious persuasions of character, values, virtues or any other myriad attribute that categorically defines your essence: good-bad, strong-weak, deserving-not, and so on.
In helping kids acquire the grit they need to be successful, it is important to be future-oriented but grounded in reality. Getting where you want to be down the line is never a straight and narrow path. Obstacles come in all shapes and sizes. Kids must be able to see them and create strategies for overcoming them.
Creating a set of personalized if-then rules to guide them when trouble lurks can help: if I do my homework, then I can watch TV. In doing this, we engage the prefrontal cortex of the brain – exactly that area that works against reflexive and appetite-driven parts of the brain. Seen in this light, the ideological baggage disappears. Virtues are nothing more than simple habits, and “good”– goal-enhancing – responses become the default option.