By William T. Mulcahy, LPC, NCC, CEAP, author of the Zach Rules series
Perseverance, or the ability to hang in there and not give up in the face of adversity, is a skill that parents and educators highly value. It can be so disheartening to watch a young person give up on a task. Often it feels as if the child is not only giving up on a task but also giving up on himself or herself.
I’ve seen the power of perseverance these past three years as I’ve watched my ten-year-old daughter struggle with a disability in reading. Sometimes I don’t realize the enormous emotional struggle she goes through. I’ve caught myself thinking, “This shouldn’t be so hard” and “I can’t believe she doesn’t like to read.”
The truth is that reading is extremely hard for her, and that’s why she needs to rely on the skill of perseverance. If it were easy, well, it would be easy, and she wouldn’t have to dig deep inside for messages to tell herself—keep going and don’t give up. Of course, we as adults can set up the right conditions and offer praise and positive reinforcement, but the real work is done by my daughter when she sits down, book in hand.
Part of perseverance is having a goal and having good strategies or a plan to reach that goal. In my daughter’s case, sounding out letters, splitting up compound words, and relying on any pictures are a few strategies she has learned to help her read more effectively. But perhaps more important on the road of perseverance is the self-talk she practices:
“I can do this.”
“Keep on reading.”
It is important to remember that all children have had their own experiences with persistence leading up to the present learning situation. Depending on their experiences, some children handle perseverance with a fierce determination, becoming intensely focused on accomplishing their goals, while others are easily discouraged and display emotional outbursts, whine, complain, avoid the task at hand, or have other behavioral issues. Most children fall somewhere in between, having experienced both the benefits and woes of perseverance. In any case, children’s ability to persevere depends upon handling the behavioral and emotional fallout that comes with their individual experiences of the current learning situation.
Early on, my daughter resorted to a lot of complaining and tears. (By the way, my daughter gave me permission to write about her in this article.) Our responses as adults are vital in these moments. We should never punish, intimidate, shame, or lecture a child for struggling with a task or giving up. This is the perfect time to connect with your child through active listening: “It sounds like you’re really frustrated.”
It is also a perfect time to get children to review their strategies and perhaps make a new plan to deal with the task at hand. When my daughter really struggles at school, she asks for a break and walks the hallways for a little bit while doing some simple breathing exercises. Luckily she has had teachers who understood her need to take a break and leave the classroom. While walking, she tries to clear her head because she knows that her thoughts can get in her way. Then she will use positive self-talk: “I know I can do it; I’ve done it a hundred times before. Don’t give up.” She will eventually dig deeper into her bag of reading strategies, but she needs her time to find her own path.
It is important that adults use language that supports learning and growth and keeps the child’s dignity intact. For instance, instead of saying, “You did a good job,” use phrases such as “You really worked hard” or “I loved the way you played today.” These focus on effort instead of results, showing that the child’s effort is what is important. When introducing new or difficult tasks, avoid phrases such as “This is really easy.” Obviously reading is not easy for my daughter. Saying that it is would be a subtle but impactful message that she isn’t quite up to snuff. Instead, say, “Here’s the task. You can do it.” And be sure to add, “I’m here to help.”
A useful tool for helping kids persevere in the face of adversity is the Hang-In-There Rings. Help kids work their way through the four steps.
In the first ring, “Start with a goal,” kids identify what they are trying to accomplish. Make sure they state why it’s important to them. The second ring is “Make a plan.” Children should take an active role in putting together steps that will help them accomplish their goal. The third ring, “Make a new plan if you need it,” is an important step. Here, kids review and revise the strategies they have been using if things aren’t working.
Finally, “Keep trying to the end.” This last ring reminds children to finish what they started. Teach positive self-talk to help children encourage themselves during difficult times. In addition, train them to visualize themselves working through those challenges all the way to the end. Encourage children to examine how they accomplished what they set out to do, and appropriately celebrate their efforts and achievement.
While my daughter has struggled at times, we have also watched her achieve great things. She continues to progress in reading, knowing she must finish the book she has started. The gleam I see in her eyes when she advances to another reading level is spectacular. It is part of a larger self-confidence that we see growing in her as she learns over and over again: “Yes, I can do it. Yes, good things happen when I don’t give up.”
Perhaps most cool is that the habit of perseverance—and the benefits that come from it—has spread to other areas of my daughter’s life, including dance and public speaking. In the words of one of her teachers, when my daughter is speaking in front of other people, “she commands the room and exudes self-confidence.” This is a direct result of her learning to overcome the obstacles of her reading difficulties.
We must never underestimate the positive power of persisting and of accomplishing something that is extremely hard. I know that it has done wonders for my daughter.
Makenna, you’ve worked really hard. Congratulations!
William Mulcahy is a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist. He has served as a supervisor at Family Service of Waukesha and as a counselor at Stillwaters Cancer Support Center in Wisconsin, specializing in grief and cancer-related issues. He has also worked with children with special needs. Currently he works in private practice in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and is the owner of Kids Cope Now, a program for providing books and tools to help kids in the hospital. Bill lives with his wife and family near Summit, Wisconsin.
Free Spirit books by William Mulcahy:
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I respect everything that you have written in this blog. Please continue to provide wisdom to more people like me.
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I’m a High School Guidance Counselor and children’s author and I love this article! Self-talk is so important and shapes how we view ourselves and our world. I love the Hang-In-There Rings. I can picture a monkey hanging on and swinging from one to the next. I’ve written a children’s picture book about perseverance called Little Birdie Grows Up. A little birdie hatches out of his egg and yearns to fly. He’s not successful on his first try but he doesn’t give up. Be like Little Birdie and persevere to the end!