The Promise of Positive Education

Is resilience the secret to academic success?

A 2011 University of Pennsylvania study followed 300 students through a year of middle school, measuring their good and bad feelings (depression, positive emotion, life satisfaction) and how teachers rated their classroom behavior. The study found negative emotions (depression and anxiety) did not predict academic achievement, but positive emotions actually did. Students in the positive group had higher grades that kept increasing the next year. In particular, researchers concluded, character strengths are the “most promising lever for increasing academic achievement.”

The most promising lever

Not your GPA. Not whether you can ace standardized tests. Not your IQ. Not whether you come from a two-parent home, listened to Baby Mozart as an infant and spent your Saturdays at museums. Not how many homes you built for Habitat for Humanity or hours you practiced basketball on an actual court instead of in front of an Xbox.

Now, let’s not ignore those typical measures, as some of them may be indicative of character strengths. If you are in the top 5 percent of your class, scored a 2100 on your SAT, or are the star player on your basketball team because you get up at 6 a.m. every day to practice, it’s likely you are resilient… or “gritty” as researchers say.

Grit is just one of many character strengths positive psychology researchers are focused on these days, but it seems to be the one gaining the most headlines. It owes much of its newfound fame to Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Penn State and a 2013 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her research on grit and self-control as traits that predict success.

Angela is co-developer of the “Grit Survey,” a 22-statement evaluation that is quite predictive of future success with questions like “I do not always finish what I begin” and “I am doggedly persistent.” The test measures perseverance for long-term goals and can predict grade success at selective universities, retention at elite military academies (better than the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s own tests) and ranking in a national spelling bee. 

Angela’s mentor is Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., who took psychology in a completely different direction as the founder of “positive psychology,” studying what makes people happy instead of what makes them need Prozac. 

“[Angela’s] notion of grit seems to encompass—to varying degrees—the character of perseverance, self-regulation, zest, curiosity and hope,” says Mark Linkins, consultant for educational practices at the Values in Action Institute on Character in Cincinnati. “It seems that grit is the nearest thing we have to a ‘secret sauce’ for success. When we look at the list of those who have achieved great success… in their respective fields, it is evidence that talent alone doesn’t explain much. “Grit is what sustains dedication to a task across time. Without that sustained dedication, we may have bursts of inspiration and creativity, but such short bursts only rarely create anything of lasting value.”

Grit research

Jane Gillham, Ph.D., co-director of the Penn Resiliency Project, contributed a chapter on resilience to the Oxford Handbook of Happiness released in January2013. She reports that Angela and Martin’s research in 2005 found that self-discipline was a stronger predictor of adolescents’ grades than their IQ. She also notes that research from 2009 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed programs that teach coping, problem-solving skills and social competence also improved specific academic cognitive skills, grades, standardized testing scores and graduation rates. In addition, she found that two-thirds of U.S. adults think schools should educate students on their social, emotional and behavioral needs.

“When people think about resilience,” Jane writes, “major adversities typically come to mind. For example, the child who performs well in school and who develops close connections to others, despite enduring years of abuse and neglect. The process of resilience is also reflected in positive adaptation in response to everyday stresses (conflicts with peers, low marks in school) and common life transitions (the birth of a sibling, the break-up of a relationship during adolescence).” Jane advocates integrating lessons on grit and resiliency in schools—not just as a by-the-way mention by a well intentioned teacher, but explicitly as part of the curriculum.

Gregory Park, a post-doctoral fellow studying positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently published a white paper on wellbeing and achievement that draws heavily from the research by Martin and Angela. Gregory discusses the perseverance piece of the predictive puzzle: “In particular, the strengths of self control and perseverance are powerful predictors of many of the desired outcomes from students, inside and outside of the classroom. These nonintellectual strengths are related to the capacity to delay gratification and sustain effort through difficult tasks.”

Martin and Angela’s research shows self-control and perseverance predict grades, absences, at-home study habits, classroom conduct and homework completion. So why isn’t resiliency a class just like geometry? Some schools are working on that.

Austin ISD

Last Halloween, a huge section of Austin, Texas, was flooded. Five people died; 8,500 homes lost power; more than 500 homes were damaged; and Perez Elementary School closed for two days. When the school reopened Monday morning, counselors were on-site to help the kids process what had happened. The district’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) coach was there, too. Sherrie Raven, director of the district’s SEL department, remembers the students telling stories about how they waited on top of their houses for boats to rescue them.

“The kids were able to say, ‘I was really scared but I used my deep breaths to calm down’ or ‘I used my self-talk to say I’m going to be OK, I can stay calm,’ ” Sherrie says. “It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of the resilience that we’ve helped build in these kids. They had the grit and self-awareness to say, ‘I’m going to be OK. I’m not going to panic.’ These are little guys, and they have that language.”

Now, language isn’t better grades. But this is evidence to Sherrie that her program is on the right track. And research looking at 213 SEL programs (250,000 students) agrees.

Gregory writes that when resilience is taught in the classroom, grades and standardized test scores increased by 11 percent. Positive social behaviors and attitudes about school, self and others increased 9 percent. And adolescent depression, anxiety and conduct problems decreased by 9 percent. Research from SEL and the Penn Resiliency Program (a school-based intervention that is an offshoot of the university’s resiliency research) has shown that “school-based interventions can have real, lasting effects on student wellbeing,” Gregory writes. SEL centers on five guiding principles: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

From elementary through high school

Austin ISD, the academic home to 87,000 students, is among the first public school districts in the nation to bring SEL into the school day. The department opened in July 2011 and began introducing SEL into its vertical team structures (elementary schools that feed into middle schools, which feed into high schools). The five vertical teams left will be included within the next two school years.

The first two high schools to integrate the SEL curriculum in Austin had a very clear reason why: One had 11 deaths on its campus within a year—some natural, some accidental, some
suicides. The other had seen promising students drop out of college after graduation because they didn’t have the grit to continue, “the ability to say, ‘That really sucked but I can move on,’ ” as Sherrie describes it.

Rudolph “Keeth” Matheny is an SEL instructional coach at one of those schools, Austin High School. Here’s one of his grit lessons: Take a piece of paper and draw a big square. Divide that into quarters. Divide those into quarters. How many squares to you have? “The non-gritty say 16 and put their heads down,” Keeth says. “Kids who are gritty see the whole thing is a square, so 17. And I guess each of the boxes is a square, so 21. Then there’s a square in the middle, so 22. Then each side has four more, so 26. There are three-by-three squares, four of those, so there
are 30. “I give a prize to the kid who finds the 30 squares.

Was it intelligence that enabled this student to see how many squares there were? Was it that he knew the answer? No. What caused him to accomplish this task differently than everybody else in the room? The answer is he persevered. He was willing to challenge himself to push through to­ find more squares. That’s what grit is.” More than 200 teachers have visited Austin ISD’s SEL program in the past year, observing what teachers like Keeth are doing. SELs don’t call such lessons “character,” as Martin, Angela and other researchers do. But the life lessons are quite similar.​

“We have a lesson in kindergarten on how we feel feelings in our bodies. Anger feels different than embarrassed,” Sherrie says. “In middle school, we have lessons about whether bullying can ever be an accident. In high school, we talk about setting goals and making plans. All along the way, you have lessons in managing your own emotions. How do you handle anger, disappointment? How do you keep going? How do you join a group on the playground? How do you use self-talk to keep going on something that’s hard?”

That’s where the grit comes in. “Your classroom teacher can say in math class, ‘When I get to a problem that makes me really want to give up, I really have to use some self-talk to say: ‘I know how to do this. I can do this,’ ” Sherrie says. “Having the classroom teachers introduce the curriculum really lets us work on that integration of learning throughout the school.” 

Austin’s goal is to eventually have “self-talk” on the day’s agenda, just like fractions. For now, though, the skills are woven into traditional academic lessons as they are written by the SEL team. For example, while working on a science experiment, students are instructed to work on making sure everybody gets a turn to talk. At the end of the lesson, students are asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 on how they did with letting everyone talk and are asked to rate their groups. “We make it visible,” Sherrie says. 

Resilience at KIPP

Trinity Mann is in her second year at the KIPP In­finity Middle School in New York City. The sixth-grade student struggled at her previous magnet school, so much so that her confidence was shaken, says her mom, Nicole. “If she would take a test and felt she got one wrong, she was defeated,” Nicole says. “And for the rest of the test, even if she knew the material, she’d already given up.” Nicole called it Trinity’s need to “snap back.” The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) calls it her grit.

Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg founded KIPP in a Houston public school classroom of 47 kids in 1994. Today, KIPP is a public charter school with 141 campuses nationwide, serving 50,000 students in 20 states and Washington, D.C. KIPP rolled out a more structured character strength program in New York City in 2009.

KIPP focuses on the seven character strengths Dave developed with Angela and Chris Peterson, Ph.D.: grit, zest, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. Trinity has lessons in grit on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But she uses those lessons every day, according to her mother, who says she’s seen an 80 to 90 percent improvement in Trinity’s ability to snap back since she started attending KIPP In­finity. She shows grit in everything from math to dance. When Trinity was in the ­fifth grade, she told her non­fiction teacher at KIPP she didn’t feel con­fident about her classwork. “He pushed me to do better, and I actually made a good grade,” she says. “And that was my goal.”

Why is grit important to her? Because she wants to get into a top college, not just a college. That’s just what Dave had in mind back when he created the character program. “We always said our mission was character and academic skills for college and life,” Dave says. “Anyone who spends any time teaching or with kids knows that issues like self-control and grit and gratitude are important things to talk to kids about. Yet, we really didn’t know the science behind it.”

That was until Dave met Martin and Angela. “We’re working on going beyond the language of grit and looking at the actual behaviors associated with it….I think that really clari­fies for people what grit really means,” Dave says. KIPP focuses on ­five grit-speci­fic behaviors: finish what you begin, stick with an activity for more than a few weeks, try hard after failure, stay committed to goals and keep working hard, even when you feel like quitting.

“What you’re really trying to get kids to do is understand that there are repeatable behaviors that they can do to be gritty,” he says. “You’re also trying to work with teachers on how to structure your classroom and your schools to create situations where kids get to do these repeatable behaviors. For example, do students have enough structure to sustain rigorous, independent practice in class—time by themselves or with another student, working independent of a teacher—to keep going?”

Speci­fic to Angela’s research, KIPP schools are asking teachers to increase the amount of independent practice within their lessons and to work on building stamina for reading. “That requires working independently with focus, not giving up when you get frustrated,” Dave explains. “We’re intentionally teaching kids strategies to build their stamina, while, as the kids get older, we’re teaching them short- and long-term goal-setting. When kids receive their tests back in, say, math class, some of our teachers are having kids create goals for the next week: ‘How am I going to study for next week’s test? What am I going to do differently?’" 

VIA Institute on Character

Martin’s work with VIA resulted in the classi­fication of 24 character strengths. KIPP narrowed the 24 down to the ones with the strongest correlation to academic achievement. VIA’s approach is similar, but focuses on the concept of “signature strengths.” “Each of us has a unique constellation of strengths,” VIA consultant Mark explains. “How can we help each student and teacher understand their own strengths pro­file? How do they use that pro­file to learn, achieve, connect with others? Our approach is respecting the individual content of each person’s character and shining a light on that.”

The Newark Boys Chorus School, Shanghai American School and Bella Vista Elementary School have used VIA’s character strength approach. Jennifer Fisher, who taught ­first grade at Shanghai’s American School when the school introduced VIA character strengths into the curriculum, started the conversation during reading time, highlighting strengths in the picture book’s characters: “A word like ‘perseverance,’ it’s a very big word. But if you explain it to them and that it means you keep trying and you don’t give up, they’ll remember the word—‘perseverance.’ ”

Mark doesn’t necessarily think grit is more important for academic achievement today than it was 50 years ago. Students today face different challenges. “While I think the ‘grit formula’ has always been in play, it may have greater relevance for students today simply because the opportunities to make one’s mark seem to be somewhat more limited than they were at one time, due to technology, a shrinking workforce, etc.,” he says. “When competition increases, perhaps grit becomes a more valuable commodity. From an evolutionary standpoint, this certainly makes sense.”

Can You Make Kids More—or Less—Gritty?

Resilience education, as taught through the Penn Resiliency Program, focuses on six strengths: emotional competence, self-control, problem-solving and decision-making, social awareness, social competence, self-ef­ficacy and realistic optimism.

Gregory’s research indicates resiliency is at least malleable, “making it a prime target for interventions.” “The breadth of places where grit has proved impactful is really incredible,” Dave says. “There are different challenges faced at different ages in people of different backgrounds, but some of these character skills remain the same. The frustrations and challenges affluent kids or low-income kids face may look different from time to time, yet both sets of kids need to be able to get over their frustrations, to work independently and focus. I think that’s why Angela’s research is so powerful and why so many people are so into it right now.”

Are overly involved “helicopter parents” parenting in a way that’s counterproductive to the importance of developing grit in their kids? Maybe. “One way to think about it that I share with parents and teachers is that it is always safe to fail around the work kids are doing,” Dave says. “It is always safe for kids to make mistakes in the essay they’re writing or the math project they’re doing or when learning to play the piano or violin. Mistakes are actually there for learning.” Sherrie agrees: “It is critical we teach the kids, ‘You can do this yourself.’ ” 

In April, Austin ISD’s Keeth spoke at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Committee for Children on the topic of teaching character strengths like grit in school. His goal was not for parents to wish their kids were in his classroom, but that his lessons were in every student’s classroom. “Everybody is all about the common core, math scores, biology scores,” he says. “They don’t realize that it’s lessons like this—like grit and mindset—that make all of those things better. When you teach a kid to persevere, that you’re not born with math skills, that kid achieves way more. And that’s when scores go up.”

From the June 2014 issue of Live Happy magazine.