When I began my career teaching at-risk children, most of my students lived in poverty, suffered abuse, or were challenged by learning, emotional or physical disabilities. I wanted to find ways to help them succeed.
As an educational psychologist, I learned a very important lesson: Thrivers are made, not born. Children need safe, loving and structured childhoods, but they also need autonomy, competence and agency to flourish.
After combing through piles of research on traits most highly correlated to optimizing kids' thriving abilities, I identified seven skills kids need to boost mental toughness, resilience, social competence, self-awareness and moral strength — and they are what separates successful kids who shine from those who struggle:
Most parents equate self-esteem with self-confidence. They tell their kids "You're special" or "You can be anything you want."
But there's little evidence that boosting self-esteem increases academic success or even authentic happiness. Studies do show, however, that children who attribute their grades to their own efforts and strengths are more successful than kids who believe they have no control over academic outcomes.
Real self-confidence is an outcome of doing well, facing obstacles, creating solutions and snapping back on your own. Fixing your kid's problems or doing their tasks for them only makes them think: "They don't believe I can."
Kids who have self-assuredness know they can fail but also rebound, and that's why we must unleash ourselves from hovering, snowplowing and rescuing.
This character strength has three distinct types: affective empathy, when we share another's feelings and feel their emotions; behavioral empathy, when empathic concern rallies us to act with compassion; and cognitive empathy, when we understand another's thoughts or step into their shoes.
Kids need an emotional vocabulary to develop empathy. Here are ways parents can teach that:
- Label emotions: Intentionally name emotions in context to help them build an emotion vocabulary: "You're happy!" "You seem upset."
- Ask questions: "How did that make you feel?" "You seem scared. Am I right?" Help your child recognize that all feelings are normal. How we choose to express them is what can get us in trouble.
- Share feelings: Kids need opportunities to express their feelings in a safe way. Create that space by sharing your own emotions: "I didn't sleep much so I'm irritable." "I'm frustrated with this book."
- Notice others: Point out people's faces and body language at the library or park: "How do you think that man feels?" "Have you ever felt like that?"
The ability to control your attention, emotions, thoughts, actions and desires is one of the most highly correlated strengths to success — and a surprising untapped secret to helping kids bounce back and thrive.
One way to teach self-control is to give signals. Some kids have a hard time changing focus between activities. That's why teachers use "attention signals" like ringing a bell or verbal cues: "Pencils down, eyes up."
Develop a signal, practice together, and then expect attention! A few: "I need your attention in one minute." "Ready to listen?"
Another technique is to use stress pauses. Slowing down gives them time to think. Teach a "pausing prompt" your child can use to remind them to stop and think before acting:
- "If you're mad, count to 10 before you answer."
- "When in doubt: Stop, think, cool off."
- "Don't say anything you wouldn't want said about you."
Integrity is a set of learned beliefs, capacities, attitudes and skills that create a moral compass children can use to help them know — and do — what's right.
Laying out our own expectations is a huge part of the puzzle. But equally important is giving them space to develop their own moral identity alongside and separate from our own.
It also helps to acknowledge and praise ethical behavior when your child displays it so they recognize that you value it. Call out integrity, then describe the action so your child knows what they did to deserve recognition.
Using the word "because" makes your praise more specific: "That showed integrity because you refused to pass on that gossip." "You showed integrity because you kept your promise to go with your friend even though you had to give up the slumber party!"
Curiosity is the recognition, pursuit and desire to explore novel, challenging and uncertain events.
To help kids build curiosity, I like to use open-ended toys, gadgets and games. Give them paint, yarn and popsicle sticks to create constructions. Or offer paper clips and pipe cleaners and challenge your kids to see how many unusual ways they can use them.
Another method is to model inquisitiveness. Instead of saying "That won't work," try "Let's see what happens!" Instead of giving answers, ask: "What do you think?" "How do you know?" "How can you find out?"
Lastly, you read a book, watch a film or just walk by someone, use "I wonder" questions: "I wonder where she's going." "I wonder why they're doing that." "I wonder what happens next."
Perseverance helps kids keep on when everything else makes it easier to give up.
Mistakes can derail kids from getting to the end and succeeding. So don't let your kid catastrophize their problem. Instead, help them zero in and identify their stumble.
Some kids give up because they feel overwhelmed with "all the problems" or "all their assignments." Chunking tasks into smaller parts helps kids who have difficulties focusing or getting started.
You can teach your daughter to "chunk it," for example, by covering all her math problems with a piece of paper, except the top row. Lower the covered paper down the next row and the next as each row is completed.
Older kids can write each assignment on one sticky note, in order of difficulty, and do one task at a time. Encourage them to do the hardest thing first so they won't stress about it all night. Confidence and perseverance build as kids complete larger chunks alone.
Optimistic kids view challenges and obstacles as temporary and able to be overcome, so they are more likely to succeed.
But there is a dramatically opposing view: pessimism. Children who are pessimistic see challenges as permanent, like cement blocks that are impossible to move, and so they are more likely to quit.
Teaching children optimism begins with us. Kids adopt our words as their inner voices, so over the next few days, tune in to your typical messages and assess the outlook you offer your kids.
On average, would you say you're generally more pessimist or optimistic? Do you usually describe things as positive or negative; half full or empty; good or bad; through rose- or blue-tinted glasses? Would your friends and family say the same about you?
If you see that you're tilting to the half-empty side, remember that change starts by looking in the mirror. If you see pessimism, write about why becoming more optimistic would help.
Change is hard, but it's important to be the example of what you want your child to learn.
Michele Borba, EdD, is an educational psychologist, parenting expert, and author of "Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine" and "UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World." She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband, and is the mother of three sons. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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This is an adapted excerpt from "Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine," published by Putnam, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Michele Borba, Ed. D.