Doing the “too-hard” things: How to help build kids’ grit and growth mindset in the new year

What to say when kids say “it’s just too hard”? Megan Dean, a first grade teacher, offers ideas on praise, problem-solving, and the power of “yet.”  Mistakes are just another step in learning, and a little struggle can go a long way in discovering the joy of “I did it!”

SZ: It’s a new year with its promise of fresh starts and do-overs. What kind of messaging can parents offer to help kids move on from less-than-success, build confidence, and see possibilities?
MD: I think there are probably a couple of things. One is the power of the word ‘yet.’ We don’t know how to do this yet, but we can make a plan so that we can learn how to do it. Here are the steps, and here’s what we’re going to try, and if we don’t get it, we’re going to try it again. We don’t say, “I can’t do this,” but “I can’t do this yet.” I also think reiterating to kids, “It’s OK to make mistakes,” is so important. We learn from mistakes. We can’t just quit. We have to learn from them and grow.

SZ: How can we help kids feel comfortable talking about a mistake, whatever type of mistake it is?
MD: I think we just have to keep telling kids it’s OK to make a mistake. And our attitude after they’ve made a mistake or come to us―the way we react to their mistakes―is a big thing. If we make a huge deal out of their mistakes they’re not going to want to tell us that again. But if we comfort them and say that a mistake is a chance for us to grow, then that reassures them. I also think as parents we have to model when we make a mistake. They need to see us making mistakes and that it’s OK. “Oh, my mom or my dad or my teacher made a mistake, and I saw what they did. They just tried again. They didn’t give up. And it was OK when they made a mistake.” That’s a big thing too.

There are a lot of really good books that parents can read to kids that talk about that. You can notice when the character has made a mistake and really talk through it with kids. “Oh, look. They made this mistake, and look at how the character did something again and how it changed in the end.

SZ: What’s a productive way of approaching a child’s non-strengths?
MD: Start off by talking about something they’ve done really well. For example, “I noticed that you did all your math homework last night and you worked really hard on it. I’m really proud of the effort you put into that.” Praise them first and then say, “I’m noticing this [other thing] might be an area we need to work on a little bit more. Let’s make a plan. Let’s sit down and look at this together. What can we do to solve this? How can we figure out the right process to get the right answer?” Praising them gives them confidence. Then showing them you will put together a plan together gives them support. “We’re gonna do this.”

SZ: What is the most common reason you see kids give up―or want to give up―on mastering a new skill?
MD: Immediately what comes to mind is when kids say, “It’s too hard.” "It’s too hard. I don’t want to try. I don’t want to do it." For example, [in early December] we were folding paper to learn how to make snowflakes, and a couple of my students were like, “This is too hard. I’m not even going to try.” I said, “No, we’re making snowflakes, and we’re all going to learn how to do this fun skill.” I had to take a step back and break it down. We’re going to do it, but we’re going to break it down step by step, because we can all do this. You can do it. We can do it. And we’re all going to do it together. But ultimately, the thing I hear the most is “This is too hard.”

SZ: What is the reward of doing a too-hard thing?
MD: In the end, you see they’re like, “Oh, I got it!” and now I can do this. Now I’ve built that independence. I think it’s really hard when they’re on the middle and their brain is stuck on “I’m just not going to do this. It’s too hard. I can’t do it.” But once they keep seeing, and you celebrate the process, with “Oh my goodness, look! You didn’t want to do it, and look at this. You learned how to do it!”

young girl in a classroom holding up a paper snowflake she just made and smiling

SZ: How do we help encourage persistence and problem-solving?
MD: We can make it fun. Again, books are one way. There are tons out there, but Giraffes Can’t Dance is a great book. Snuggle up with a good book and celebrate the process. In the beginning the giraffe couldn’t dance, but at the end he tried.

Hands-on STEM-related toys and activities are another way. “Let’s try building this together.” And then process those activities. What went really well? What didn’t go so well? How could we do it differently?

The thing for parents is, don’t just do it for your child. See what they know. My favorite line in my classroom or at home is “Show me what you can do.” Because I think sometimes our kids bring us stuff, and we go “Oh, there you go,” and we do it for them, and they don’t try. We need to go, “Show me what you can do.”

Sometimes struggle is hard, but sometimes struggle is so good for kids. That’s where the growth comes from. Sometimes as a parent we want to step right in and solve it. [We have to say] “I’m not going to step right in. They’re going to learn how to do it.” And then you see that “Ah, I did it!” moment.

SZ: What are good questions to ask to help parents drill down into how school is going and their child’s feelings about it?
MD: Usually every day in the car, I ask my kids, “Tell me about the best part of your day” and “Tell me the worst part about your day or the hardest part about your day.” I don’t ask them “What did you do today?” because the common answer is “Oh, nothing. It was just school.” Sometimes I will ask, “Tell me about recess. Tell me about lunch. Who did you sit by?”

SZ:  These are all powerful, valuable suggestions, Megan, and easy to put into play. Thanks so much!mom holding hands with her two daughters walking home from school