Parenting expert: The No. 1 soft skill that predicts kids' success more than IQ—and how to teach it
Through my research as a child psychologist, I've found that perseverance is the No. 1 soft skill that sets kids who are highly motivated apart from those who give up easily. In fact, studies have supported that it is a stronger predictor of success than IQ.
Kids who have perseverance don't give up in the face of setbacks. They believe their efforts will pay off, so they stay motivated to work hard and finish what they start, despite any barriers that arise.
Here are nine ways parents can help kids build perseverance:
1. Fight the factors that discourage kids.
The first step is to fight the four factors that derail perseverance. I like to use the acronym "FAIL" as a helpful reminder:
- Fatigue: Safeguard your child's concentration abilities by sticking to regular sleep routines. Turn devices off one hour before bedtime and keep screens outside of the bedroom at night.
- Anxiety: The pressure to succeed can cause overwhelming feelings. Express to your child that your love is not contingent on their success.
- Identity solely based on fast achievements: Instill a growth mindset so your child understands that success is not fixed. Praise them for their efforts, not their results.
- Learning expectations that don't match abilities: Set expectations just slightly above your child's skill level. Expectations that are too high can cause anxiety, while ones that are too low can lead to boredom.
2. Teach that mistakes are growth opportunities.
Remind your kids that mistakes can be a positive thing, even if a situation doesn't turn out they way they expected. Accept their errors and tell them: "It's okay to mess up. What matters is that you tried."
Admit to your own missteps, too. This will help them recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and that success happens when you don't let setbacks define you.
3. "Chunk" tasks.
Teaching your kids to divide big tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks will help them feel more confident about completing things over time.
If they're feeling frustrated with a math worksheet, for example, have them take a separate sheet of paper and cover all the math problems except the top row. Then continue lowering the paper down to the next row as they finish each one.
Or, if they are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of homework they have, they can write down each assignment on a sticky note, stack them by difficulty, and do one task at a time.
4. Celebrate small wins.
Repeated failure can destroy perseverance, but the smallest success can encourage a child to keep going, so help them identify their little wins.
For example: "Last time, you spelled six words correctly. Today you got eight! That's a gain. You're improving because of your hard work!"
5. Stretch their focus.
If your child wants to give up on an assignment, put a timer on their desk and set it for an appropriate length of time, tailored to their attention span.
Explain that they just need to keep at it until the bell goes off. Then they can take a quick break and reset the timer.
Encourage them to see how many problems they can complete before the bell dings so that they see they are succeeding. Over time, focusing will get easier.
6. Correct "stumblers."
When kids give up, it might be because they can't see their way out of a challenge. Start by acknowledging their frustration and express that it's a normal feeling. Try doing a breathing exercise or taking a break.
Then when they return to the task, see if you can help them identify one small stumbler that's getting in their way.
For example: "It looks like you're getting the addition and multiplication symbols mixed up." Once the issue is clear, practice focusing on the stumbler until they slowly overcome it.
7. Praise effort.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discovered that when kids are praised for their intelligence (e.g., "You're so smart!"), they are less likely to persevere.
But when praised for their effort (e.g., "You worked so hard on that! Nice job."), they are more motivated and work harder.
To stretch perseverance, praise your child's effort, not their grades or scores. The goal is for them to be driven to succeed without extraneous motivators, which is why I'm not big on stickers and gold stars. Research finds that superficial reinforcers can actually reduce children's perseverance.
8. Come up with "stick-to-it" statements.
Negative self-talk like "I can't do it" or "I'm not smart enough" derails perseverance. Help your child choose a short, positive statement to say to themselves when things get tough.
Remind them to repeat that statement out loud several times for a few days until they can remember to use it on their own: "Things don't have to be perfect. I will get better and better if I keep trying."
9. Step back and let them figure it out.
One of my top parenting rules is: Never do something for your children that they can do on their own.
Each time you fix your child's errors or do something for them, they increasingly learn to depend on you. There goes the opportunity to develop perseverance.
Once you know that your child can complete a task alone, take a step back. Allow them to embrace that feeling of accomplishment.
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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