Encourage Persistence in Children

Outliers cover

I just finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a fascinating read that made me stop and think about how we achieve success. Gladwell is a great storyteller and pulls together some interesting conclusions about why some people succeed and others don’t.

In his chapter on success in math, Gladwell says we sometimes think that being good at math is an innate ability. But he shows that it’s not so much ability as attitude. You master math if you are willing to try. And that’s a good lesson for all of us parents and grandparents to remember: Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard on a problem that most people would give up on after 30 seconds.

7 Ways to Encourage Persistence in Children

So how can we encourage persistence in children? I found some advice from Ann Barbour, professor of early childhood education at California State University Los Angeles.

  1. Emphasize effort rather than result. Effort is something under your control—highly valuing effort teaches you that there are rewards for consistently trying and there are always reasons to continue. Results, however, are often out of your control—highly valuing results often teaches the lesson that no matter how hard you try you may still fail, and that often the best answer is to quit trying.
  2. Let kids learn to solve problems for themselves. They’ll gain confidence in their own abilities and develop the kinds of attitudes and skills that will serve them well in school and in life—like being able to think flexibly (to generate more than one possible way of doing something, which is what creativity is based on), patience, persistence, and a can-do attitude. When kids solve problems by themselves, they take pride in their accomplishments that deepens their sense of their own capabilities.
  3. Don’t rush to the rescue when kids experience everyday difficulties. Give them time to try to work things out for themselves. It’s often easier and a lot quicker for adults to do things for kids, but that can deny them the chance to learn to figure things out for themselves. Obviously, you want to observe their efforts and help them out a bit if they become overly frustrated.
  4. Give kids time to explore, experiment and play with interesting materials. Materials that kids can play with and use in different ways encourage problem-solving. In the process of exploring and playing with these kinds of open-ended materials, children will do and make things of their own design that you probably never expected.
  5. Be enthusiastic about a child’s efforts and help him take pride in his own abilities. Saying “Wow! You figured that out all by yourself!” reinforces his sense of accomplishment. And if you describe what he actually did to solve a problem (for example, “It was a good idea to use that long block to make a bridge over that river.”) rather than simply saying “good job,” you’re not only telling him you value what he did, you’re encouraging him to think about the specific steps he took to work things out.
  6. Offer just enough help and encouragement so a child will continue to try. How you offer help depends on their stage of development. Sometimes giving them different materials (like child-size scissors) can make things easier for them. Other times, asking questions to encourage them to think about problems in different ways (What do you think you could try next? What would happen if . . . ?) can guide them in discovering solutions and encourage their persistence. You’ll also be able to see when kids are tired or distracted and you’ll realize that it’s better for them to leave things and come back to them later.
  7. Don’t expect perfection when kids are trying to do things by themselves. They don’t learn how to run before they walk and most kids don’t walk without a few tumbles in the process. They’re going to spill juice, put their pants on backwards, and write letters upside down. But without having opportunities to try by themselves and figure out what works and doesn’t work, they’ll have a harder time developing problem solving skills. Show them you recognize and appreciate their efforts and give them lots of encouragement.


  1. says

    I really enjoy the Gladwell books. They are always thought-provoking.

    I remember one time that my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher gave her the assignment of figuring out how many inches from the earth to the moon–without a calculator. My daughter fussed and complained and struggled, but she never gave up and she refused to take any help. In the end, she didn’t get the exact right answer because she made an error, but she got very close and was very proud of herself.

  2. Nona Nita says

    Great article with great advice. I find #3 to be the hardest. I tend to want to make life easier for those I love, but I have to remind myself that making it easier sometimes takes away the opportunity for growth.

    • Donne Davis says

      I totally agree with you that #3 can be a challenge. It takes great patience and conscious restraint on our part not to step in when children are trying to do things their own way. We have to let go of the notion that they’re doing it “wrong” because otherwise, they’ll always be looking to us to show them the “right” way.