Perseverance – A Trait or a Learned Skill?


Have you ever wanted to paddle-board? How about learning a new language? If a desire or dream is there, it only takes practice and perseverance to achieve it! You have heard the saying, Practice makes perfect! But without perseverance, I find I will never practice what I want to learn. But how do I muster up this perseverance, especially when the going gets tough? And, is perseverance something we are born with or is it a skill we can strengthen?

Deborah Loewenberg Ball is a William H. Payne Collegiate Professor of Education, served as dean at the University of Michigan School of Education from 2005 to 2016, is Director of Teaching Works, and teaches math to elementary students every summer. She reminded me at a recent talk I attended, “Remember that perseverance is a context-specific set of skills, not a trait.” She says that when children are stuck and say they don’t know how to do something, instead of trying to show them, do the following:

1. Ask questions like:
a. What is the assignment or problem saying, or asking?
b. Is it like anything they have done before?

2. “Model” how you would try to puzzle about or approach it.

3. Show them ways to explain what is making them feel stuck.

So, think about something you HAVE persevered with in your life. Did you achieve your goal? Was there just one answer to the problem or situation? Or were there many ways you could have solved it? Even more interestingly to me, did you find out there was NO solution to the problem or issue? Realizing there is no solution is a solution! I wish schools would emphasize this possibility more and make it a known and okay answer. It took me many years to figure out no solution is a fine answer to many of life’s situations. If I had known this earlier, I could have moved on and said, “Next”, instead of becoming frustrated and often spending way too much time trying to “make it right”.

So how do we encourage perseverance so it can grow in us, AND in our children and grandchildren? For our children, we can practice using the above questions. For them and ourselves, we can collect tasks and problems for practicing perseverance, according to Deborah Ball. For example, find math problems to solve, do picture puzzles, or word games. Write on a chalkboard all the words you can think of that sound the same and have very different meanings, like reel and real. Keep adding to the list until you can come up with 50 as a family.

I challenge you to PRACTICE PERSEVERANCE. We can get better at it no matter how old we are! Try Deborah Ball’s suggestions:

1. Remember that perseverance is a crucial set of skills and mindset.
2. Continually provide opportunities to develop perseverance.
3. Identify AND comment on examples of it when you see it, in academic and other contexts.


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