While walking home from downtown Burlington last night, I watched a guy on the sidewalk practicing a difficult skateboard stunt. Over and over again he stomped on the board’s tail as he jumped into the air. The board flipped around under his feet and came down wheels up as he landed on it–clearly not the result he was looking for. He didn’t seem frustrated or judgmental about his performance. He simply flipped the board back over and started the process again.
I don’t know enough about skateboarding to tell you what he was trying to do or how he should correctly execute the move, but the way he was practicing over and over again got me thinking about the importance of persistence when we are practicing to learn something new.
We all know that if you want to learn something new, you have to practice…a lot. Repeated practice takes persistence. Persisting involves sticking with something when it is hard to do and when practicing becomes tedious or boring. The skill of persistence is essential to all learning because a person who gives up when he or she encounters a challenge will not learn and acquire new skills.
Persistence pays off when we master what was once challenging. Learners who persist become confident in their own abilities to figure things out. They become learners who are not afraid to try. They understand that challenge and struggle leads to competence because they have evidence from their own experience.
Some people are naturally more persistent than others. The good news is that persistence is a skill that can be learned and we adults can encourage our children to develop into persistent learners who reap the benefits of this important quality. A child may say, “I can’t!” or “This is too hard” or “This is boring,” when encountering a difficulty. The way adults respond to this type of a comment can shape the child’s level of persistence for this and future problems.
One way to support the development of persistence is to give the child some space to solve the problem on their own. Encourage the child by saying, “Give it another try” or “Stick with it a little longer.” Add a positive reminder about a time the child demonstrated persistence–”I remember when you figured out how to _____ even when it was hard to do. I know you’re a good problem solver.” Step back and observe what the child does. Sometimes this is enough to help them break through the problem and figure out their own solution.
If the child is continuing to struggle or is asking for help, ask them what part they are stuck on. Children will frequently say, “Everything!” but most often the child is stuck on just one part of the problem. Ask questions, listen to their answers and offer enough guidance to get them through the misunderstanding before stepping back again to let them continue their work.
Probably the most important way to help children develop persistence is to celebrate the times they demonstrate this skill. Be specific - “Wow! Working on ____ took a lot of persistence. Now look what you have to show for it. I am really proud of the way you stuck with that even when it was really hard to do!” You can even add in a “How does it feel to know you can now do ____?” for good measure to help the child appreciate and celebrate their own accomplishment.
I will have to walk downtown again tonight to see if the skateboarder has made progress. Maybe an encouraging word about his persistence is just what he needs to keep working on his new skill, too!