Why is GRIT important for developing executive functioning skills? Angela Duckworth defines GRIT as “passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in the pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades.” The executive functions are part of this. They help students to manage workload and plan for the future by employing these components:
- Initiate: start
- Plan/prioritize: create order and hierarchy of need
- Organize: thoughts and materials
- Inhibit: stop distracting behaviors
- Emotion control: resilient when frustrated/overwhelmed
- Working memory: the ability to hold information long enough to use it or offload it to a more permanent place
- Shift/flexibility: move from one activity to another without emotional overload
- Monitor: check one’s own behavior/ progress and make changes as needed
- Goal-directed persistence: Not losing sight of goal in the face of barriers (GRIT!)
One difficulty when expecting grit and the executive functions to match up is the pace at which the child’s executive functions develop. Parents often wonder why, if a child is being coached, they are not using the skills taught. Melissa Mullin, Ph.D., notes about this disconnect, “So, what is missing? There is the old saying, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.’ I have found that executive functioning skills can be taught successfully, but for some students, it takes more than teaching the skills to get the students to use them. This brings us to grit.”
No one likes the feel of failure. However, it is in these failures that grit is developed. The academic rigor that some students face can certainly present barriers and, thus, the feeling of failure. As a parent or educator, the best thing we can do is praise the effort (and the use of executive functions) rather than the result. For instance, a child sets a goal of studying for a test 3 different days before the exam. While the resulting grade may be great, praise the planning and effort put forth, not how smart he/she is. Praise has been shown to increase a child’s resilience and is well documented in the work of Carol Dweck and her work on Growth Mindset. When we praise a child’s effort and work ethic and not on their performance outcomes, we see the development of grit. The student starts to see themselves as able to succeed. Enter the executive functions. In order to succeed, the executive functions need to be modeled and taught while the young frontal lobe is still developing. Authentically praise the child for the application of the executive functions to the overall process. Model asking questions that help the child to monitor their behavior or progress. Helping the child to recognize what they did well is one way to increase resilience and grit. Point out the determination he/she used to work through a problem is another.
In the end, grit can start to be shaped at an early age. Author Paul Tough writes, “Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.” Praising children for their use of executive functions only strengthens the EF skills and helps to produce gritty children.