Another Look at Grit


Lucky for me, a friend of mine had a granddaughter entering public school kindergarten this past September. She asked a number of people she knew if they would be interested in volunteering at the child’s school. I signed up, got my background checked and attended a volunteer orientation. Since the end of September it has been my sincere pleasure to visit this elementary school once a week and spend time with the delightful children and staff in attendance.

The time I’ve been spending there made a short article (reprinted in the Atlantic from the Education Writers Association [EWA]) “When Grit Isn’t Enough” particularly moving. I’ve written about research on “grit” (of course, I can’t find the blog post now; God help me for my name in these pre-election times) and on the effects of child abuse and trauma, but this EWA/Atlantic article and my present volunteer assignment have altered my point of view to some degree.

At school last week I sat down with two children to write some stories only to have a scenario play out that was remarkably like this one in the article:

The first time I heard a preschooler explaining a classmate’s disruptive behavior, I was surprised at how adult her four-year-old voice sounded.

Her classmate “doesn’t know how to sit still and listen,” she said to me, while I sat at the snack table with them. He couldn’t learn because he couldn’t follow directions, she explained, as if she had recently completed a behavioral assessment on him.

Differences: the kids I had this experience with are kindergarteners and both are girls. Both, for what it’s worth, are children of color. One is an excellent reader, clearly on top of the kindergarten curriculum; the other is in a more typical kindergartener-on-the-learning-curve-to-reading place. The reader is the one who offered a somewhat more judgmental view than the above of the other child: “She’s bad,” she told me, quite matter-of-factly. We discussed that no one’s all good or all bad, that different children are good at different things.

I have observed that the other little girl has difficulty paying attention, listening and following directions in a group. As is often the case, in a one-on-one or one-on-two situation, she does much better. But I have to say the notion of “grit” in the face of these two, small, beautiful and vulnerable children is kind of odd. “Courage and resolve, strength of character” are a lot to ask of a five year-old, particularly when (from the EWA article):

If a hypothetical classroom were based on current demographics in the United States, this is how the students in that classroom would live:

7 out of 30 live in poverty;

11 out of 30 are non-white;

6 out of 30 do not speak English as a first language;

6 out of 30 are not reared by their biological parents;

1 out of 30 are homeless;

6 out of 30 are victims of abuse.

What makes more sense to me than “grit” or lack thereof is a notion I came across in researching a magazine article, that of the “trauma-sensitive school,” the most significant aspect of which is that “Helping traumatized children learn should be a major focus of education reform.”

You can certainly go on your way and call “trauma-sensitive schools” just another example of pandering to today’s children. You could claim that a five year-old can show grit as well as any other child. But I’d ask you to look at that list above, particularly the last entry: 6 of 30 kids in a classroom are victims of abuse.

I really like this from the EWA article:

Howard said that exposure to trauma has a profound impact on cognitive development and academic outcomes, and schools and teachers are woefully unprepared to contend with these realities. Children dealing with traumatic situations should not been seen as pathological, he argued. Instead, educators need to recognize the resilience they are showing already. The instruments and surveys that have been used to measure social-emotional skills such as persistence and grit have not taken into account these factors, Howard said.

And I also think that we have to remember all abuse doesn’t look alike. A kid may be free of black-and-blue marks but still have suffered trauma. My guess is that much of the trauma that 6 out of 30 kids has suffered looks a lot like neglect, chaos, inconsistency, a lack of adult supervision.

In October there was a Star Tribune editorial about research showing that what kids need most is their parents’ positive involvement in their lives:

The study identifies five elements of parent-child relationships that influence the social and emotional development of young people: expressing care, challenging growth (helping kids continuously improve and stretch), providing support (helping them complete tasks and achieve goals), sharing power (listening and allowing them to share in decisions), and expanding possibilities (broadening horizons by exposing children to new people and opportunities).

Parenting is hard work, and parents come from all sorts of history themselves. What can I do to help? When I go back to school this week, I’m going to think more about my grit than that of a five-year-old. What kind of person am I to these children? Will I show up every week, listen and pay attention to them with love and acceptance? Will I ask them to do their best, and more? What I’d really like to specialize in is expanding their little brains to all the possibilities that exist for them. I want to ask them what their dreams are, help them see their unique talents, give examples of how people come from hard places and do great things in the world.

First, love and acceptance and encouragement. Next, admiration of their already-displayed resilience. Grit’s more my task than theirs right now.









  1. Those statistics break my heart! But it also makes me thankful for people like you and all the other teachers and volunteers out there. Thank you for sharing!

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