Teaching Students to Persevere

5 strategies for creating an environment of perseverance in your classroom

By Rachel Wilser

Greetings, intrepid teachers! I’m sharing today about something really important to me: perseverance. It’s incredibly important to teach our students how to persevere, but it’s unlikely to be taught in our curriculum. So how can teach our students to keep working when the work gets hard?

This is an essential question that we can’t avoid, and it can be hard to tackle if you don’t have a plan. Every year, I used these 5 strategies to create an environment of perseverance in my classroom.

  1. Start talking about perseverance on day 1. Don’t wait until students run into something challenging. If you start talking about perseverance BEFORE things are hard, students will be prepare to keep working (as opposed to giving up) when it does get hard. You also build perseverance into your classroom community as something that you all do when you start talking about it at the beginning of the year. If you start the year talking about how sometimes things are hard, then students aren’t surprised or caught off guard when they encounter a struggle. They’re prepared for it, because you’ve talked about it. They know that some things are hard, and that the expectation is you continue/work through when you have a struggle. You don’t give up.
  1. Acknowledge what’s hard for you. This is something that I’m particularly passionate about because relationships (with our students) should be at the forefront of everything we do. You’re a human, too, and your students should see that. Some things are hard for you, just like some things are hard for kids. Admitting that you also struggle connects you to your students. I usually share two things with my students: that I had a really hard time with math when I was a student, and that it’s really hard for me to be creative. I tell them that as an adult, I can use tools like a calculator to do math, but when I was a kid I felt pretty yucky in my math classes quite often. Sharing these things that I struggle with show my students that a) things are hard for everyone, and b) I personally still work on persevering. I didn’t quit math in first grade because it was hard, and I didn’t quit creating things after sixth grade art class.
  1. Acknowledge that the same things aren’t hard for everyone. And that parts of something can be easy, and parts can be hard. This is another essential piece for me. Because INEVITABLY someone is going to say “that’s so easy!” and whenever that happens you need to shut it down. Right away. Here’s why: because different things are hard for different people, and you label something as “easy,” you’re also making a statement (either implicitly or explicitly) about the people who DON’T find it easy.I like to make a list of things that are hard, as a class, because ultimately, almost everything will end up on it. Which is good. I want them to see and know that just because something is easy for them doesn’t mean it’s easy for everyone. (This is also a great time to point out how classmates can help each other in a struggle.) I also like to include non-academic skills on this list, such as being a good friend, waiting, being patient, handling conflict, and so on. An important nuance of this list is that you can find a broad skill easy, but a specific aspect difficult. Perhaps you’re overall pretty good at math, but adding decimals is really difficult for you. Or perhaps handwriting isn’t a struggle for you, but cursive writing is really hard. An essential part of building perseverance is acknowledging that different areas are a struggle for everyone, and just because it’s easy for you doesn’t make it “easy.”
  1. Give them tips and tricks for the struggle.
    All of these conversations are meaningless unless you give students actions to take when they encounter a struggle. For me, this meant that every year I taught (at least one) mini-lesson with an anchor chart that hangs up the majority of the year. It’s important for students to have tools that they can use when they’re facing a difficult task. In first grade, this looked like asking your partner/group for help, using classroom tools (charts, graphs, etc.) for help, and as a last resort, raising your hand and waiting for an adult to help you.
  1. Reward and praise perseverance when you see it.
    After you’ve put in all this work to motivate students to continue when they’re struggling, they need to hear that you value their work. This can look a lot of different ways. Perhaps you display a student’s work because they persevered in doing (rather than getting a certain grade or score); it could be having a student choose the class clean up song or cheer; it could be having your students clap or cheer for a student who’s persevering, etc. Do NOT skip this step! Students need you to close the loop of valuing their perseverance in order to feel truly vested and stay motivated to work through struggles.

Perseverance is so important at all levels of instruction — elementary all the way through secondary. How do you build perseverance in your classroom?

Image credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc, 2017. All rights reserved.

Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.

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