by Melissa Mullin Ph.D.

Executive functioning skills enable students to manage their workload and plan for the future. These skills allow students to break down a task and organize it as well as create a time lime for completion. Grit  is defined as a passion to achieve a long-term goal, along with a powerful motivation to achieve the goal. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. Research has demonstrated that grit may be a more accurate predictor of future success than IQ or talent.

Take a moment to think about how executive functioning and grit play an important role in learning. Executive functioning skills provide the path the student needs to tackle a task while grit provides the driving force to complete the task. Executive functioning skills are the map and grit is the motor that propels the car.

There has been a tremendous amount of information and conversation about executive functioning skills and success. Executive functioning skills are often discussed as the CEO or manager of your thought processes. Here is a quick overview of executive functioning components:

  • Initiate: start
  • Plan and Organize: stop, think and plan a strategy
  • Organize Material: materials available and organized
  • Inhibit: able to stay on task and avoid distractions
  • Emotional Control: resilient when frustrated and overwhelmed
  • Working Memory: able to hold and work on two mental concepts at once
  • Shift: can move from one activity to another easily
  • Monitor:  can check work and make changes as needed

While teaching executive functioning skills is important for any student that lacks them, a common complaint I hear from parents is that students aren’t using the skills they are taught. 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.

Angela Duckworth was a middle and high school math teacher before she became a psychology professor. She noticed that the students who tried the hardest did the best in her class. When she became an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania,  she focused her work on a personality trait she calls “grit.” She writes that “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.” The research results suggest that grit may be as essential as intelligence to achievement. Take Dr. Duckworth’s Grit quiz at the end of this article to discover your child’s grit level.

Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, believes the most valuable thing that parents can do to help their children develop their character, and therefore “grit”—may be to do nothing. He believes that we should let our children face some adversity on their own. Children will learn to persevere when they fall down and are not helped back up. Paul Tough writes: “Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.”

I have seen many students with learning difficulties who struggle, fail, work  hard to learn, develop a tremendous amount of grit and go on to do well very in school. I have also seen bright children with learning challenges give up and not develop grit. Building grit is not as simple as letting your child fail. Research on resilience and praise adds another dimension to this issue. Parents and educators can help build resilience, and therefore “grit” by making sure to praise effort towards a task rather than the results.

The American Psychological Association article, Using Praise to Enhance Student Resilience and Learning Outcomes , found that students whose teachers praise effort and work strategies rather than praising intelligence will:

  • Apply more, not less, effort when material is difficult for them
  • Seek challenges
  • Set higher goals for themselves
  • Look at failures as opportunities to learn
  • Increase their efforts rather than withdraw effort and attention

Learning is a complicated and individual process. Knowing what a child needs to develop to help him succeed can be difficult. The relationship between executive functioning skills, grit, resilience and praise is important when creating a holistic educational plan for students. Teachers, parents and children all need to work together to create the challenges, opportunities and supports necessary to encourage the development of a child’s potential to its maximum level.


8- Item Children’s Grit Scale

Directions for taking the Grit Scale: Please respond to the following 8 items. Be honest – there are no right or wrong answers.

  1. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.*
  • Very much like me
  • Mostly like me
  • Somewhat like me
  • Not much like me
  • Not like me at all
  1. Setbacks (delays and obstacles) don’t discourage me.
  • Very much like me
  • Mostly like me
  • Somewhat like me
  • Not much like me
  • Not like me at all
  1. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.*
  • Very much like me
  • Mostly like me
  • Somewhat like me
  • Not much like me
  • Not like me at all
  1. I am a hard worker.
  • Very much like me
  • Mostly like me
  • Somewhat like me
  • Not much like me
  • Not like me at all
  1. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue (follow) a different one. *
  • Very much like me
  • Mostly like me
  • Somewhat like me
  • Not much like me
  • Not like me at all
  1. I have difficulty maintaining (keeping) my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete. *
  • Very much like me
  • Mostly like me
  • Somewhat like me
  •             Not much like me
  • Not like me at all
  1. I finish whatever I begin.
  • Very much like me
  • Mostly like me
  • Somewhat like me
  • Not much like me
  • Not like me at all
  1. I am diligent (hard working and careful).
  • Very much like me
  • Mostly like me
  • Somewhat like me
  • Not much like me
  • Not like me at all

Scoring:

  • For questions 2, 4, 7 and 8 assign the following points:
    5 = Very much like me.
    4 = Mostly like me.
    3 = Somewhat like me.
    2 = Not much like me.
    1 = Not like me at all
  • For questions 1, 3, 5 and 6 assign the following points:
    1 = Very much like me
    2 = Mostly like me
    3 = Somewhat like me
    4 = Not much like me
    5 = Not like me at all
  • Add up all the points and divide by 8. The maximum score on this scale is 5 (extremely gritty), and the lowest scale on this scale is 1 (not at all gritty).

Duckworth, A.L, & Quinn, P.D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (GritS). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91, 166-174. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/Duckworth%20and%20Quinn.pdf

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/Grit%20JPSP.pdf

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