Grit: The Silver Bullet to Our Children’s Success

By Kindergarten Teacher and Guest Blogger Regan Russell

I had a boy in my Kindergarten classroom this year that was a math wiz. He loved all things numbers and could add and subtract fluently. He loved math challenges and asked for them often. But he really struggled with reading. When we would read from our book boxes during class, I watched as his eyes would wander to other kids pointing to words and then wander back to his book. His eyebrows would scrunch together and he would begin to frown. He was frustrated. And embarrassed.

As his teacher, I knew one thing for sure: He could do it. It just didn’t come easy for him, like math. He had the strategies he needed to read. However, weren’t the tools he needed.

As educators, it’s natural for us to want to jump in and immediately help problem solve when a student is struggling. It’s hard to see them frustrated and we innately want to help and feel like we have some control over their learning. But as educators and parents, we have to let the struggle happen. We’ve got to teach them grit. Grit simply means having the resilience to continue moving forward, even when things get hard. I grew up playing basketball, so when I think of grit, I think of sports. One of my favorite movies is A League of Their Own. A scene between Dottie and Jimmy (played by Geena Davis and Tom Hanks) always stood out to me and it’s my go-to clip when I hit a bump in the road. When Dottie thought about quitting the team right before the World Series, Jimmy said one of the simplest, most profound statements, “The hard is what makes it great.”

As adults we mess up, make mistakes, and yes, fail. Yet, we understand that when these things happen, we fail forward. We are educated enough to understand that we can learn from our past, make edits, and move forward a little stronger than before. We are encouraged by idols such as Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, and Dr. Seuss (whose first book was rejected 27 times by publishers).

So, how do we build grit in our kids? How do we teach them to be resilient when things get tough? Honestly, I wish I had the magical answer. Here’s the tough truth: Talent doesn’t make you gritty. Grit is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent. I’ve taught Kindergarten for 8 years and there’s really only two things I know for sure. One, each child in my classroom is uniquely designed and individually gifted. Two is our classroom mantra that started this year: We can do hard things. Key word: can. My kids know that saying the word ‘can’t’ just isn’t something we do. It somehow became one of those unsaid rules that stood the test of time.

The word ‘can’t’ would still inevitably slip out because, guess what, they are five! But we hit this magical point in the spring when a child did say it, there were immediate (and definitely a bit dramatic) gasps from my students. Those 10 seconds of frustration from a student, followed by gasps from half the class can make any teacher anxious. When I have the patience (which I admit I do not always have) to sit back and outlast the commotion instead of jumping in to immediately problem solve, the next 20 seconds can turn into complete teacher bliss. I hear one girl saying in a sweet, gentle voice, “Yes, you can!” while another little boy says, “Have you tried it a different way?” Yes, these comments happen. And yes, I teach 5 and 6 year olds. Does it always go this smooth? No. But when it does, the smile on my face has to resemble one of those smiling, mouth wide open, teeth showing emoji’s (But major friendly disclaimer: this was the end of April, so we’d been working on the concept of grit all year). And like all good things in life, it takes time.

You may be wondering why saying ‘can’t’ became such a big deal in my classroom. Well, because saying can’t is defeating. It’s stating that you’ve given up. When students say that word, it turns the word ‘can’t’ into more than just a word. It makes it an action.

I don’t want my students getting into the habit of saying can’t when something gets hard. If they habitually say ‘can’t,’ then words naturally turn into action. And the next action is physically giving up; walking away from the math problem, the word they are trying to decode, a problem they are trying to talk out with a friend, or even to bigger things like sports or future relationships.

So what about that little boy who was struggling to read? He got frustrated a few more times, but unlike before, he kept swinging. He didn’t let his learning pace affect his reading confidence. This took some coaching from me, some rapping (yes I taught them a grit rap), and learning from whole class ‘gritty’ lessons, but before I knew it, he was rounding the bases and heading for a home run. He went from reading a level 3 (DRA) in March to passing a level 12 in May. And what made this all SO good? Every time he passed a level, he beamed. And when he reached his personal goal of a level 12 (which is above grade level), he fist pumped. It was one of those moments as teacher you want to bottle up. So why was he so excited? He actually felt resilience. Whether he understood it or not, he learned at a young age what it feels like to show grit. The ‘hard’ made it great. And that made his victory that much sweeter.

They say that “The most important things in life you learn in Kindergarten.” Aside from giving my students the best possible education I can, one of my main goals was to always embed the value of kindness throughout our week. Now, I have two main goals: Kindness and Grit. Not because I taught them the word, but because they felt it. They put it into action. They learned how to replace ‘can’t’ with grit. And here’s to hoping that value stays with them and stands the test of time.

My name is Regan Russell and I just finished my 8th year teaching Kindergarten in the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District. I have my Masters in Literacy Education and am one of those lucky people who love their job! Outside of teaching I am a huge KU fan (as well as a fan of all sports) and love to travel and scuba dive! I blog on and tweet at: @ReganRussell_K.

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