By Jennie Rose

In his new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, author Paul Tough makes the case that persistence and grit are the biggest indicators of student success. Being resilient against failure, he says, is the fundamental quality we should be teaching kids, and he gives examples of where that’s being done.

Dominic Randolph, the headmaster at the elite Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, New York, who believes students don’t know how to fail, is one of the sources in Tough’s book who has set out on a road to change an “impoverished view” of learning. Rather than producing students adept at “gaming” the system, “we have got to change the educational system to think about different outcomes and different capacities,” he says.

Another primary source in the book is David Levin, co-founder of the charter KIPP Academy, who developed a student character report card to cultivate this resilience and self control in his students. With Levin’s KIPP Academy as a case study, Tough tracks persistence among low-income kids who aim to go to college, taking special note of those who have the skill in

engaging with people who are different from them, or what educators refer to as “code switching.” Tough’s research indicates that students who possess this “code switching” ability, as well as self control, optimism, and curiosity, also show an ability to recover from setbacks.

At KIPP Academy, kids wear school spirit sweatshirts with pro self-control slogans like “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!”– a nod to Walter Mischel’s renowned cognitive psychology study on self control. But it’s hard to teach kids how to be grateful, how to demonstrate self control, so KIPP teachers use character language to show kids how to slow them down, to understand the mistakes they’re making.

Tough, who wrote Whatever It Takes in 2008, about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone, said in an interview that these intangible qualities — self-control, perseverance, and grit — are far more important than letter grades in accounting for student success.

“Until recently, most economists and psychologists believed that the most important factor in a child’s success was the IQ. This notion is behind our national obsession with test scores. From preschool-admission tests to the SAT and the ACT—even when we tell ourselves as individuals that these tests don’t matter, as a culture we put great faith in them. All because we believe, on some level, that they measure what matters,” he said. “But the scientists whose work I followed for How Children Succeed have identified a very different set of skills that they believe are crucial to success. They include qualities like persistence, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. Economists call these non-cognitive skills. Psychologists call them personality traits. Neuroscientists sometimes use the term executive functions. The rest of us often sum them up with the word character.”

Critics have argued that what Tough is really talking about are life skills that can’t be taught. But a report released recently by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science in Washington suggests that recognizing the intangible qualities is an important part of education. The report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century describes “important set of key skills that increase deeper learning, college and career readiness, student-centered learning, and higher order thinking. These labels include both cognitive and non-cognitive skills- such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, effective communication, motivation, persistence, and learning to learn.”

It’s that idea — whether kids can learn to learn — that concerns both parents and teachers.

“What I think is important on the road to success is learning to deal with failure, to manage adversity,” Tough said. “That’s a skill that parents can certainly help their children develop—but so can teachers and coaches and mentors and neighbors and lots of other people.”

Watch Paul Tough in an interview about his book at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Can Kids Be Taught Persistence? 17 March,2014MindShift

  • Johntripp

    Excellent ideas…there certainly is an intangible factor that test scores fail to measure. I’ve seen it hundreds of times in our Early College High School.

  • this is so true. all grad students know that there are many prospects out there with the same credentials that could also have gotten into grad school. And they know too that those credentials don’t matter – it’s how much “grit and character” you got that will determine how your grad school journey ends.

    same thing in all other levels of school. there are many lazy but smart kids, and also hardworking ones who get lower grades. “successful” people usually come from the second group.

    the point is, we need to do two things: 1) teach and 2) promote and encourage these kinds of things in school.

  • Enjoyed your article.  From a Montessori perspective the answer to the article’s lead in question is a resounding YES!

  • Enjoyed your article.  From a Montessori perspective the answer to the article’s lead in question is a resounding YES!

  • Anonymous

    Kids are being taught to be less persistant with the overstimulation and instant gratification in games and media. Frm Sesame St. to toys to video games, it’s bright colors, noise, fast stimulation and move on to the next theme/scene.

    Does anyone the remember “boring” TV programs of the 60’s and 70’s? They moved much slower, maintained a plot, and usually a moral message. They weren’t edited to chenge scenes every 30 seconds.

    Remember the “boring” toys of old? Erector sets, models, train sets and such taught persistance and rewarded the kid only after the “project” was done.

    • cmac

       What you say about instant gratification and overstimulation seems true to me. One of the interesting things about current media and “educational” tv, is that many of these shows actually portray violence, and have a “moral resolution” at the end of the show for a brief moment. These shows are actually providing examples for kids of how to be impulsive, bullying, and rotten to siblings. To read more, check out Bronson & Merryman’s book on Nuture Shock.

    • Uclapt

      I agree! I definitely think the ADD epidemic started with Sesame Street combined with the decline in a sleep-eat-wake routine as more moms returned to the work force and televisions and babysitters did the easy thing and allowed anything that pacified the child. Feeding the kid the minute he cried, or distracting him with a new, bright object (real or video) means he never has to sit and deal with his discontent and suddenly every one is ‘depressed’ when thwarted for a millisecond.

  • Trenalg

    Resist solving your kids’ problems.  Let them struggle with their problems, and stand by to listen and sympathize.  Step in only when you’re absolutely certain that they’ve done all they’re capable of doing to solve the problem, not when they start complaining about how hard it is.  This applies at their youngest age, from struggling to turn from one side to the other, to learning to tie their shoes, to trying to remember their letters and numbers, doing math problems, cleaning their rooms, picking up after themselves, feeding the dog, learning to budget their allowance, everything, for as long as they’re under your roof.  Drives me nuts to see well-meaning parents automatically doing everything for their children, being their indentured slaves, enabling their children and teaching them to be helpless.

    • Maxi_ale

      I wish you could speak with my husband’s ex-wife

      • bsrk7

        @Maxi_ale, that sort of attitude is the last thing step parents should be bringing to the household.

    • Bex360

      So true and well-said.  I’m one of those struggling parents of an only child and that makes it even harder.  I have to constantly remind myself to let him struggle, as you say.  Thanks for the reminder.

  • Machiosabre

    As someone who can’t be bothered to do any schoolwork I agree with this sentiment. I didn’t read anything but the title but I imagine I would agree with the basic idea.

    A stranger

  • David Allyn

    I agree and believe that our society is painting ourselves into a corner by coddling our children. Sure, safety is important — but to what extent?  Kids heal fast and are generally resilient for a reason — nature expects that the learning process will be a bumpy one. 

    I implore parents to set out to make your kids “hard” kids that are able to take on the world.  Push your kids.  Allow them to fail.  Teach them how to work themselves out of situations rather than keeping them from getting into them in the first place.

    As a business executive in a prominent company, I see kids coming into the work force that don’t really want to work.  They want to be handed their paycheck for showing up.  They expect to be given things  — for simply being hired.

    Business can’t thrive on that mentality — it can’t even be sustained.  The reason?  The business world doesn’t “give” anything to anyone.  Business competition — the pursuit of a limited resource — is about pushing your way through the “crowd”. It’s hard and unforgiving — and it doesn’t care how much education you have.  

    We NEED a workforce that can do that “hard” pursuit. And, those lessons start when kids are young.  Simple things like teaching them how to do their own laundry, for example, then making them have clean clothes every day teaches them perseverance, consistency, self-reliance, and responsibility.

    • Anonymous

      “…our society is painting ourselves into a corner by coddling our children.”

      I know what you mean, of course, but — not to put too fine of a point on it — that is stated much too generally in my experience. i.e., we all don’t coddle them.

      The ‘old’ lessons are still learned in a lot of the country, although maybe not as much in the coastal metropolitan areas.

  • pg

    But everything that is being propounded by the corporatists in our society is about success. They are now in control of our politicians. And our politicians are focused on “test scores.” These tests are written by the corporations that pay our politicians. These corporations, I know all of you will find this funny, also have the solutions as to how kids can do better on those tests. All we have to do is hand over our public school funds to those corporations. Give them our children and test scores will go up. That’s what the thrust of the school “debate” is about.

    Approaches like this, that focus on behavior are sidelined. Because behavior is not quantifiable. A politician cannot point to a graph and say, “20% of our children are now more persistent than they were a year ago.” 

    The corporatists are winning the day and ending our democracy in the process.

  • really? Kids and “learn to learn”? Kids can be taught persistence? I thought we had to entertain kids in the classroom, not expect them to pay attention and do work. I thought it was all about making the kids feel special and catering to their short attention spans.

  • Katy H.

    I’m a parent of a 7th grader and I will tell you that
    character is far more important to me and my fellow parents than my child’s
    score on a standardized test. I’m sure this book by Tough is useful and
    interesting, with a great topic, and am grateful for the work others are doing,
    but these ideas are not exactly new.


    I’m also a teacher and I have a large circle of teaching
    colleagues who all teach in traditional public schools. We have always put a
    priority on ‘character’ and so-called 21st Century skills (even in the 20th
    Century!) and have long known persistence and ‘grit’ can and should be
    cultivated in all subject areas. 


    We also know they are achieved in a dramatic way through
    consistent practice in the Arts, which are, unfortunately, nearly always treated
    as an ‘extra’ or as ‘enrichment.’ 
    Showing up for rehearsal with the work of your part learned, or your
    stage-managing script prepared, and communicating, collaborating, imagining,
    experimenting with different acting, set, lighting choices, etc. toward the
    greater good of putting on a show, requires ‘grit’ practice in an exponential
    way. The same applies to all arts disciplines. In addition to specific
    discipline skills being taught, the character skills that are developed, with
    the guidance and support of teachers, are transferable to all areas of
    learning. The student who is drilled to fill in the correct bubble to get the
    correct result will be the employee who gets a job and expects a paycheck. The
    student who is practiced in the Arts will be the employee – or entrepreneur –
    who offers new ideas, leads teams, works because they love it – and who may
    even have a good sense of humor. Rather than a diversion, the Arts act as an
    accelerator of both content and the development of persistence and ‘grit’ in


    To the point of this blog, this is also work that must
    primarily be done by humans rather than machines. Just as humans with robust
    21st C. Skills must be good stewards for the earth, so must these same humans
    be good stewards for technology.


    We teachers now face extreme pressure to spend our time on
    the acquisition of better test results. When I hear, ‘We don’t have time for
    arts,’ I gently push back and say, ‘oh but remember, our goal is whole,
    persistent, contributing citizens! Arts accelerate learning, not detract from
    it.’ We do what all good entrepreneurs, artists, and scientists do: we
    challenge assumptions and find better ways to achieve the goal of graduating
    students who are not only knowledgeable, but also hardworking, curious, compassionate,
    persistent and creative problem-solvers.


    More persistence and ‘grit’? More Arts!

    • Colleen M.

       Hi Katy,

      Have you looked at Richhart’s model of Intellectual Character? A really good resource to support some of the claims you are making about the importance of student character and grit. I myself am a pre-service teacher looking forward to seeing how this will play out in my student teaching this fall, and next fall when I (hopefully) secure a full time position.

      I like your arts message. I too am of that persuasion. As a circus artist and physical educator, I truly believe in harnessing our natural tendency for creativity and expression, through movement and play.

  • Profstar

    Ask any early childhood professional and we will tell you… to start kids on this path, to a superbly develop the child’s Executive Function, starting from birth, let them play and explore!  I strongly encourage anyone interested in this topic to check out the research of Dr. Adele Diamond and the Tools of the Mind program.  The sad  thing is that we know how to help children develop these skills and instead our school system chooses to ignore this research.  One of the reasons nations like Finland, Norway, Australia, and others have students who persist and rank far about our national outcomes.

    • Colleen M.

       I read a review of the Tools of the Mind Program in Bronson & Merryman’s Nurture Shock. What a cool concept. Extended organized play for learning? Who would have thought… of course though, this is our natural tendency towards creativity and discovery learning. The fact that the experiment was given up after a few years because results were so positive and students in the “control” classroom were being deprived of this great experience, was resounding evidence to support the benefits of the Tools of the Mind program. Thanks for sharing this!

      • Celina Ortega

        Thanks Colleen! Interesting add on.

  • Lysistrata

    I teach reading to children identified as dyslexic. For the most part, I’ve never seen such determined students–determined to learn, determined to overcome and be successful, despite a difficult barrier to learning. The very few students I’ve had over the years who don’t have the motivation to improve are the kids whose parents hover and make excuses for their lack of progress and try to find someone to blame so as to avoid any accountability. Even students who are neglected outperform the children of enabling parents.

  • Brimstone

    ” Critics have argued that what Tough is really talking about are life skills that can’t be taught.”Maybe. Maybe not. But whatever is there to start with can be uncovered, developed, and built upon.Not everyone makes it through basic training.But nearly everyone does.

  • Brimstone

    Once long ago I bought a small house. The rain water from my neighbor’s roof was washing a gulley in  my yard. So I decided to plant a half dozen Poplar trees along the property line. Now, I didn’t know anything about growing trees, so I read up on it. What I read was…don’t pamper the saplings. Don’t feed and water them every day, don’t til the earth past the root ball when you put them in the ground. Apparently making it too easy for the saplings prevents the kind of good stress that allows them to grow strong, deep roots.  I sold that house many years ago but a while back I drove past it and you know what? Every one of those trees was standing tall, straight and proud.

  • Brimstone

     “Until recently, most economists and
    psychologists believed that the most important factor in a child’s
    success was the IQ….But the scientists
    whose work I followed for How Children Succeed have identified a
    very different set of skills that they believe are crucial to success.” //////  Know what they call the gal who graduates at the very bottom of her med school class?

  • Bex360

    I like the emphasis on words, language.  Teaching kids slogans to counter some of the very negative self-talk that leads to giving up.  My10 y.o. son has been watching the Olympics and he heard one particular quote from Ryan Lochte – It was a comercial and  I’m paraphrasing, but something like “I didn’t hope my way to the Olympics, I swam there”.  That really grabbed his attention.  He has been repeating it since.  Exposing kids to healthy heros like Ryan Lochte, etc. is a wonderful contrast to the ridiculous holllywood stuff.  (Don’t let us down Ryan.) 

  • tft

    In short, we can’t teach them this stuff. They can learn it if we model it. We don’t. So they don’t learn it.

    We have only ourselves to blame.

  • Mark

    Common correct math standard #1: make sense of problems and persist in solving them…

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  • Dad of two students

    ” the road to success is learning to deal with failure” – I totally agree. I had my son read the children’s book: for children how to become rich successful & do well in school .
    One of the things the book teaches in simple terms children can understand is that you can learn from failure, that failure is not the end but a stepping stone forward. It also offered up chess as a learning tool.
    I am glad to say that my son came home with wonderful FCAT scores: 5 in reading and 4 in math. I am not a FCAT fan trust me – but I was glad my son has improved so much over this short time. Part of that is because he understand that a mistake does not mean that it is the end of the world and that he shouldn’t automatically give up just because he doesn’t understand one question on a test.

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  • I think we need to redefine ‘failure.’ To me, you only reach failure once you give up on something you really wanted to achieve. Giving up is a choice. And therefore failure is a choice. Mistakes, ‘failed’ experiments, work that’s not great – they’re not failures, they are stepping stones, opportunities to learn. If kids see them as failures, it’s because we’ve taught them to see it that way. We didn’t treat falling over when learning to walk a failure because we didn’t know any better then. We hadn’t been taught to treat it as a failure. We all start out with grit and persistence, otherwise no-one would be able to walk. But all of us in good health are able to walk. I think education un-learns those behaviours in us. And now we’re looking for ways to teach it when it’s our society’s education that took it from us in the first place. It’s fabulous that there’s a shift coming that is bringing it back into education and awareness is the first major step.

  • IamBullyproofMusic

    Teach kids how to track their thinking. Once they realize it isn’t logical to think down a road that leads to frustration, they re-organize their thoughts and voile’! I did this with two boys as a mom and do it now through BP Music and lessons. Works like a charm. It’s how we think/word things.

  • Susan

    Executive function is not a synonym for character or vice versa. That’s an inaccuracy that should be corrected. The Harvard Centre on the Developing Child describes it this way:

    “Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter
    distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control
    system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens
    of planes on multiple runways. In the brain, this air traffic control
    mechanism is called executive functioning, a group of skills that helps
    us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, and
    revise plans as necessary. This edition of the InBrief series
    explains how these lifelong skills develop, what can disrupt their
    development, and how supporting them pays off in school and life.
    Acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is one of the most
    important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years, and having
    the right support and experiences through middle childhood,
    adolescence, and into early adult life is essential for the successful
    development of these capacities.”

    This is not character, nor is the marshmallow test about character of grit. Jennie, Its important to get the facts straight when you have so many followers who trust you to do so.

    Harvard site for more info and a video on EF:

  • Celina Ortega

    I´ve started the book twice… and the first chapters are too detailed in US data… so boring.
    With this new intro, I´ll try again… sounds interesting and it´s being in my library for more than 4 months now, so deserve a new chance =)
    THanks tons!

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