Grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, optimism, and curiosity . . . What do these traits have in common? They are all components of “character strength,” which is gaining traction as a predictor of success in school—and in life.

Why focus on character? You may have heard about James Heckman, John Humphries, and Nicholas Mader’s 2010 GED study. Their research shows that traditional high school diploma earners are more successful than those who earn GEDs. GED earners attend college at lower rates, earn less, divorce more, and use illegal drugs at higher rates.

These differences have nothing to do with measurable aspects of intelligence, the researchers say. High school graduates also tend to possess certain “non-cognitive” skills or traits that many GED earners lack. And despite common misconceptions, these traits can be learned. In How Children Succeed author Paul Tough explains how.

Curiosity dimmed is a future denied . . . the less-curious child is harder to teach because he is harder to inspire, enthuse, and motivate. — Dr. Bruce D. Perry, expert on childhood trauma and brain development
Foundation for Character
We know that early childhood experiences can strongly impact who we become. It may be no surprise, then, that this is a critical time to lay the groundwork for building character. Tough emphasizes that children who form secure attachments with their caretakers are poised to succeed.

Securely attached children have healthier stress response systems that help them self-regulate their emotions; they are calmer, more independent, and better equipped to deal with challenges. They also tend to perceive the world as a safe place in which they are free to explore their surroundings. In the process they discover new things and learn concepts such as cause and effect, which can fuel curiosity.

As Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., points out, “Curiosity dimmed is a future denied. Our potential—emotional, social, and cognitive—is expressed through the quantity and quality of our experiences. And the less-curious child will make fewer new friends, join fewer social groups, read fewer books . . . the less-curious child is harder to teach because he is harder to inspire, enthuse, and motivate.”

Character in the Classroom

How can we “inspire, enthuse, and motivate” children—especially in the context of the classroom? By building optimism. If you’ve never considered the importance of optimism in the context of learning, here’s why you should.

Pessimists perceive negative events as being “permanent, personal, and pervasive,” says Martin Seligman, a leading researcher in positive psychology and the author of Learned Optimism. Optimists, on the other hand, understand negative events as having specific and finite causes. As Tough explains, pessimistic students may believe that they received a bad test score because they are “stupid,” while optimistic students may think it’s because they didn’t study enough. Not studying enough is an explanation with a clear cause and effect that can be easily acted on. If students believe they are capable of controlling outcomes, they may be motivated to put more effort into learning.

Seligman incorporated this theory into two evidence-based classroom curriculums:

  • The Penn Resiliency Project: This curriculum helps students develop the skills to think about their daily problems in a way that makes them possible to overcome. Teachers focus on the importance of slowing down the problem-solving process and considering the various ways that problems can be solved. Studies have shown this program to result in increased optimistic thinking patterns and decreased risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Positive Psychology Program: This program helps students identify their strengths, and encourages them to use these skills as much as possible in their daily lives and to help others. Exercises include writing down good things that happen every day for a week and discussing why and how these events happened. Outcomes showed student improvement in social skills, strengths related to learning, school engagement, and self-control.

Self-control, as described by Tough, is the ability to overcome immediate and reflexive “appetite driven” impulses. Self-control is driven by motivation. By drawing on various examples, including the famous marshmallow test and subsequent variations of that study, Tough demonstrates that self-control only works when children know what they want and—more often than not—that they are able to obtain it in the immediate future. Countless studies have shown that short-term rewards for students, such as candy, pizza, and even money, do not have lasting results. Some say that a focus on “celebration” rather than rewards helps to build intrinsic—not extrinsic—motivation.

While the character traits we’ve focused on so far may predict the likelihood of students doing their homework, there is one trait that may mean the difference between completing assignments to graduate from high school and going on to achieve even more remarkable accomplishments in life: grit.

High Achievement

What do National Spelling Bee finalists and West Point graduates have in common? They all scored highly on Angela Duckworth’s Grit Scale—a test that measures the ability to persevere to reach long-term goals. It is believed that grit is fueled by passion and zest for a particular subject, which—independent of IQ—drives one to focus day in and day out on a particular goal.

How do you build grit in students? We don’t have all the answers yet Duckworth admits during a recent TED Talk. However, she did mention a promising Stanford University study looking at growth mindset—the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed (which of course is related to optimism). When students learned about the brain—that it can change and grow in response to challenges—they were more likely to persevere when they failed because they no longer perceived failure to be a permanent condition.

Still, as Duckworth emphasizes, we have a long way to go before the link between psychology, learning, and practice is fully understood, and she urges us all to consider how we can continue to build on what we do know.

For more on character development in the classroom, check out KIPP Charter Schools’ approach. Tough explains throughout his book how infusing character development into academic instruction and school culture is leading to student success at KIPP and raising college graduation rates.

Your Turn

We’re curious to know what you think about building character. Would your school be receptive to focusing on the development of these skills? Have you implemented or do you know of any character-building initiatives that you’d like to share? Please add your comments below.*

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