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Teaching elementary schoolers persistence

How to help your children stick with it (no matter what).

By Leslie Crawford

Banging the piano lid shut in a crescendo of rage 10 minutes after practicing new scales. Crumpling up the math worksheet into a small ball of frustration. These are the times that try parents' souls — those tearful and tempestuous moments when kids simply give up.

If these episodes are hard for parents to witness, consider how our children feel. They are trying something new and difficult and — in their minds — failing. In truth, this is an ideal teachable moment, when we can help our children understand that, no matter how new or difficult, challenges are achieved through patience, practice, and effort.

“Perseverance, or work ethic, is one of the most highly correlated traits of success,” says child educational consultant Michele Borba, the author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Persistence is something children need to succeed in school and life. A 2007 paper from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found the ability to persevere may be as essential as talent or IQ to succeed. The good news? Persistence is a trait that can be taught and learned. It’s just a matter of knowing how to help your children — and not giving up on them when they give up on themselves.

Talk about it

Elementary school-age kids benefit from regularly hearing about persistence. So teach them different ways to talk about problem-solving: “I won’t quit,” “I can do it,” and “It’s always hardest the first time, but it will get easier.” Borba also suggests coming up with a household “stick with it” mantra, explaining that families that maintain an overall attitude of “We can do it” tend to face obstacles and mistakes with grace and ingenuity. Some favorites: “Mistakes don’t get us down” and “The family that doesn’t quit!” Finally, tell stories either from your own life or ask your school librarian to recommend books about characters who manage to succeed despite the obstacles. Classics for this age include William Steig’s Abel’s Island and Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Resist rescuing

When we see our kids having a hard time because they aren’t succeeding, it’s tempting to jump in to make it all better. But remember: We learn by trial and error. By giving kids a chance to fail, we also give them the pleasure of succeeding on their own. The next time your children have a problem and ask you to solve it, don’t. Instead, sit down and ask them to think of a solution. This gives your kids time to cool down and teaches valuable problem-solving skills. And while it’s tempting, when playing games — be it Monopoly Jr. or old maid — refrain from letting children win just because they’ll be unhappy if they don’t. Playing fair and square teaches the important life lesson that, in games as in life, sometimes you’re going to fail before you win.

Nurture a hobby

Children who have a passion learn the pleasure of practicing and improving at something they love, says Borba. Support your children’s interests. Help them check out books at the library on subjects they love. Not only are they learning firsthand the value of mastering something through effort, they may also be preparing for their adult vocation.

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.

Comments from readers

"Oh my goodness.....if this is not a good, relevant article. My daughter started cross country for her high school the summer after 8th grade. It was very hard to get her to complete a 1/2 mile run; now she is running both track and cross country and is one their leading runners in distance and relays....what a little persistance can do for a child's self esteem and their health! So glad I pushed a little......signed her up .....very scary sometimes because she wanted to quit so often, but luckily the kids on the team are some of nicest and sweetest and best students scholastically in the school....very good for the social skills development department, mood swings of teenagerhood, and of course her runner's physique is her signature look. Endorphins are a good thing!"