Developing Persistence, Effort, and Goal Directed Behavior in Children and Adolescents

  • girl getting stressed about studying

Parents often are concerned about their children’s motivation and ability to focus on and stay with a task to achieve a goal.  In fact, surveys show that most parents, among diverse ethnic groups and income levels, want their children to be hardworking. Clearly, parents have recognized the importance of characteristics such a persistence.  Scientific research has shown that the ability to persist on tasks toward a goal, sometimes referred to as “grit,” predicts all sorts of favorable outcomes years later. Whether measured by questionnaires in which parents are asked to characterize their children or by directly observing how children perform on difficult or challenging tasks, we have learned that persistence makes a difference in life.  Individuals who are higher in persistence are more likely to have successful outcomes such as:

  • Achieving higher levels of education;  
  • Performing better in high school and college;
  • Having lower rates of dropping out of college;
  • Performing better in sports (doing better, putting in more practice time);
  • Being more effective school teachers, as reflected in academic outcomes of their students;
  • Doing better in the military;
  • Getting a job and doing better in the work place; and
  • Remaining longer in their marriages.

In providing just a sample of the connections between persistence early in life and later outcomes, it is important not to overstate the case.  Persistence is one of many factors that relate to favorable outcomes in adulthood. For example, intelligence, which can be readily distinguished from persistence, also contributes to academic performance and success in many domains.  Also, many people are successful without necessarily being persistent. They may have innovative ideas that make a major advance in the arts, business, medicine, science, or technology, even without scoring high on some measure of persistence.  These are qualifiers and do not detract from the overall message: Persistence makes a difference and predicts many benefits over the course of one’s life.

Defining Persistence

Let us begin by a clear definition of persistence and its key characteristics.  Persistence includes such actions as:

  • Staying with a task until it is finished;
  • Continuing to work on something in the face of frustration, challenges, or obstacles;
  • Spending time on a task without being easily distracted;
  • Putting out effort (physical or time);
  • Not stopping or giving up quickly;
  • Verbalizing and thinking about new actions needed to complete the task and drawing on these to try another way, if needed.

Techniques to Develop These Characteristics

Parents often try to foster persistence.  As parents, we may make motivational comments and expressions of encouragement with the hope of promoting or inspiring hard work.  Statements such “Always do your best,” “Try harder,” “Don’t give up,” and “You can do it,” are familiar examples. Out of frustration with what the child is or is not doing, understandably we often revert to reprimands and general pleas to promote action, as reflected in, “Stop playing around and start your work,” “Why can’t you ever finish anything?” or “You are not trying very hard.”

Encouraging statements and reprimands might help in the moment to achieve the goal or complete a task that must be done right then (e.g., “Just do five more arithmetic problems and then your homework will be done!”).  Sometimes getting something done now is all that is needed and we do not have anything more enduring as our goal. Yet beyond that moment and to produce enduring habits, encouragement and reprimands are not likely to be effective for three reasons: 1) they do not teach the behaviors that are required to try harder and to stay with a task; 2) the effects of the moment will wear off and not carry over to another situation where we want the same kind of behaviors again, and 3) most parents do not want to be at their children’s side as their children traverse childhood, adolescence, and adulthood to encourage them to follow-through on some task.  For example, it is scary to imagine having to say to your now grown-up child, “Come on, just answer three more questions and your application to this assisted-living facility will be all done.” Lecturing and explaining are great at teaching concepts but less so in developing habits or a general characteristic that will be performed in a variety of situations and endure over time. If we want to develop the general characteristic, in this case persistence, there are some concrete things we can do. Here are four worth delineating.

1)  Modeling.  This is also called observational learning and refers to what one person can learn from another by merely observing.  Children often imitate parent behaviors and we recognize that in everyday child rearing. The child may mimic a gesture or phrase in a cute way and sometimes mimics one of these in an embarrassing not-so-cute way out in public.  Modeling as it casually occurs in the home is not quite what I mean. Modeling is very rarely used in a planned or strategic way but can be and can be more effective as a result. Modeling is more effective when it is planned and carried out with a specific goal (such as developing persistence, honesty, altruism) in mind.  The parents then provide examples in their own behavior that children are regularly exposed to. Modeling is more effective the more times instances of the behavior or characteristic are modeled.

How does this apply to persistence?  First, previously I defined some of the behaviors that characterize persistence.  Let us start with those. Parents engaging in any of those in the presence of the child and doing that over time could readily foster persistence.  We know that children are sensitive to exposure to models and that this occurs very early in life. For example, in a recent study, some infants (13 – 18 months old) were exposed to adults who engaged in an effortful task (e.g., trying to get a toy out of a container) in front of the child (they modeled persistence) (see Leonard reference at the end). They were exposed to just a few instances of an adult engaging in an effortful task.  Other infants did not receive exposure to any model or were exposed to a model where no effort was required to succeed at the task. Infants who saw the model persist were much more persistent on a separate task they were given (that required button pressing). Those infants in the other conditions did not show this effect. The surprising result, exposure to an adult who modeled persistence and effortful behavior can have impact on infants.  In short, one technique in the home would be for parents to engage in effortful tasks and to narrate out loud what they are doing. That is, narrating or saying what one is doing to carry out the task or to overcome impasses or obstacles is an important component. This is equivalent to thinking out loud to describe the task, what one is trying to accomplish, and any new or different way one is trying to achieve the goal. This type of statement was included in the modeling of persistence in the experiment with infants.  

2) Systematically Praising Effort.  Children often are working on something, a game, a task, a chore at home when the parent is nearby.  If you see your child working on a task that may have a challenge and reflects a bit of effort, praise this right then.  This means that you are on the lookout and want to catch as many instances as you can in which the child is showing effort.  This might be simple moments when the child is concentrating closely, focusing on the task, and clearly showing effort. Look for just little signs of effort rather than something marathon like in which the child sacrifices play time, a meal, or childhood.  These efforts, however brief, ought to be praised. This will greatly increase effortful behavior.

You can modulate your praise so you are super enthusiastic for huge efforts, but it is much better to err on just providing consistent praise for your child showing effort and staying with a task for any task that is not just play, easy, or free of any challenge or obstacle.  You may believe that if the child is doing that already, why should you jump in, interrupt, and praise it? Well, we want to increase effortful behavior and increase it so it extends to many tasks. I will say more about extensions to many tasks shortly. But for now, “catch” the child showing effort, for trying hard or harder (than she or he usually does), and working through tasks.  

The praise must be the special praise to maximize change.  As discussed in the online course (see Resources), three ingredients are essential for that praise to work well.  For a young child, the praise should be:

  • Verbal statements that are very enthusiastic (GREAT!!);
  • Followed with a sentence or two that says exactly what you are praising (“You worked on that difficult arithmetic problem and stayed with it to get it done!”); and
  • Followed by a non-verbal approving gesture (an affectionate touch, pat on the back or the top of one’s head, high five, or something equivalent).

After you praise in this way, just go on to what you were doing.  No lecture or comments are needed or probably are even helpful at this time.  As a parent, we are apt to insert some moral or lengthy explanation of why these behaviors are so important in the grand scheme of the human condition.  This praise can increase effortful behavior and persistence; the explanations can come at another time.

3) Systematic Use of Antecedents, Behaviors, and Consequences.  The use of praise is a fine strategy when a parent sees effortful behaviors and pursuit of a goal on the part of the child.  The strategic use of praise is a great investment. The limit is that it has us as parents waiting for some effortful behavior to occur so we can jump in with the special praise.  There is a better way if one is not seeing persistent behaviors and that is to make sure opportunities for persistent behavior occur and then praising them. The key issue in developing any enduring habit is reinforced practice, that is getting the child to engage in effortful and persistent behaviors repeatedly.  That will establish the habit well.

For this technique we need to provide situations and activities where we can start to develop persistent behavior.  Here are some examples in which the child:

  • Works on homework for x amount of time;
  • Continues to work on a task after getting something wrong or not understanding a part of the task;
  • Works on a puzzle or building a toy (with many pieces) with you or someone else at home;
  • Engages in a chore or task with you and stays on this for a specified amount of time; or
  • Shows effort or really trying to succeed on a game or any task.

Select one or more of these tasks or something like them so you have opportunities to model effortful behavior and then to have the child work on the task in the same way.  At first, work with the child—that is do the task together (this might be working on a puzzle). Spend time taking turns if the task is one that allows that and set a goal (“Let us to a total of 10 puzzle pieces before we stop.”). Depending on progress, have the child do more and more of the task while you are there keeping the child company. But if you continue to take turns and to model the behavior that is fine too.  We can fade (remove) your presence and you judge when that might work. However you do the task, it should be fun or at the very least a time in which no reprimands or strong (harsh) corrections are made of the child.

The key is you praising work on the task and staying with that task.  You are not specifically emphasizing the outcome (finishing the puzzle right then).  In your praise and comments, focus on process (staying with things, showing effort, working through challenges).  The famous Aesop Fable, The Tortoise and the Hare, has many lessons one might draw but among them is that that the slow, steady, and persistent process (of the Tortoise) does achieve the desired outcome (beating the Hare to the finish line).  Keep the focus on the process; if the child has a consistent pattern of persistence, working through little challenges, and showing effort, outcomes will follow. But if we focus mainly or exclusively on outcomes, that may not necessarily build the characteristics that constitute persistence.

The most important part of this procedure is practice opportunities.  Do some task regularly and it does not have to be the same task. As part of this procedure, modeling also is important.  Thus, as you work on the task model effortful behavior by talking out loud to narrate or describe what you are thinking and doing (“Now let me see if this puzzle piece might go here. No, but what if I turn it around?  No that will not work either. Maybe I have the wrong piece, I need another piece that has a lot of blue and green in it and let me see if I can find one and try again.”) This narration provides a model of your thought processes and your actions as you might go through trial and error, start anew when the first attempt did not work, and continue to stay with the task.  (I have mentioned in passing the use of antecedents, behaviors, and consequences to get the behavior. Details on the using of shaping and simulations to develop child behavior are lessons in the Everyday Parenting course in the Resources.)

4) Mental Contrasting.  This is a procedure provides a constructive way to increase the likelihood that a goal will be achieved and that a person will persist in the face of obstacles.  The procedure consists of four steps that greatly increase the likelihood of staying with and completing a goal.   

  1. Wish—select the goal or make a wish about something one wants (such as doing better at school or learning a new skill).  If your child is older (preadolescent, adolescent) perhaps you can identify a couple of goals and involve your child in decision making about which one to work on or to work on first.
  2. Outcome–consider the best possible outcome if the goal were obtained. Spell this out in clear detail if possible.  (I would like to practice enough to make the team, to be able to play this piece on the guitar, to make a new friend at school);
  3. Obstacle—identify potential obstacles.  What could interfere with obtaining those goals?  These obstacles could be characteristics within the person (your child, you) or any circumstances (fitting this into our schedules) or in the environment or setting (e.g., at school) that might come up and make the goal a little or even a lot more difficult to achieve.  What will hold your child back in achieving the outcome? Identify these as clearly as you can and maybe write them down; and finally
  4. Plan—develop a specific plan in concrete terms of what the child and you could and would do for each of the obstacles.  Be specific and select practical things that could surmount the obstacle. It is important to spell out the actions to overcome obstacles and maybe even what is needed to start over again or take a different path to reach the outcome.

Mental contrasting is worth pursuing as a technique to develop both persistence and goal attainment.  In carefully conducted research studies, mental contrasting has been effective in helping adults reduce cigarette smoking, eat more healthful foods, exercise, recover from pain, and improve relationships.  In children and adolescents, mental contrasting has improved academic performance and self-discipline. This is only a sample of the many findings that support the generality of mental contrasting as a way of helping individuals pursue and stay with a goal.

In summary, if you as a parent believe that some additional help is needed for your child to develop better persistence, there are options beyond the usual parenting procedures we fall back on.  One need not only rely on one of the techniques I mentioned. They can be combined as they suit your situation, style, preferences, and child. One guide to consider, we want the child to practice the persistence behaviors defined previously.  Consequently, whatever technique you might select, practicing, or showing many examples (through modeling) is important.

Frequently Expressed Concerns

1)  We might be able to get the child to stick with one task or do homework, but we want more than just individual behaviors, one or two at a time.  How does one build the general characteristic so it carries over to new situations and continues without a special program?

The goal here is to have the child increase in effort and staying with a task beyond the one or two places where we work on this.  Here is how this works. We develop the general characteristic (being persistent in many situations) by first training persistence in concrete instances or on concrete tasks in just a couple of situations.  When this is done successfully on a few tasks and on a small scale, the behaviors are likely to extend to new areas and new situations that have not been trained. The key goal is to foster persistence on a small scale.  If we can choose a couple of tasks or tasks of different types, this can help develop the general characteristic. We know from research that training of behaviors in concrete instances can lead to development of the behaviors in a whole new set of situations that have not been trained.  Consequently, the path to get the general characteristic (persistence, honesty, altruism) is to develop instances of the characteristic in a few situations. After some of these are worked on (there is no clear magic number of how many and for how long), the desired characteristic extends to new situations.  In summary, we work on the specific and a few different instances to get the broad characteristic and performance in new situations.

2) Persistence means staying with something so if we focus on the child doing tasks for just short period of time, how will that help?

Depending on the child, we want to begin by having her work on a task and to stay with it.  If your child has difficulty with this maybe with homework or practicing some skill, we begin with short periods. We use shaping to develop the behavior in a situation.  We want to foster staying with a task for a short period of time in the beginning. The goal is to directly shape staying with a task which means slowly increasing demands over time.  Those demands might be in the amount of time but also in the difficulty of the task. For example, if the task is homework or completing a puzzle, start out with durations where you have opportunities to reward effort and help the child identify obstacles or difficulties and then decide how a given obstacle might be overcome.  You can take turns so you can model all of this. We want to always reward the process of working on a task; beginning slowly and moving forward to longer periods of time is a reasonable approach. It would not serve the goal well if these tasks became frustrating, onerous, and grounds for arguing. The tenor of the tasks has to be more towards fun rather than a chore.  So how you present the task and how you play or are involved with it can make a difference.

Closing Comments

People naturally differ on the extent to which they are persistent. Without training some people are excellent, others less so, and most of us probably in the middle somewhere.  That people begin in different places does not mean the characteristic is fixed. In fact, there are many things a parent can do to foster persistence and I have identified four: strategic use of modeling; praising effortful behavior systematically; using antecedents, behaviors, and consequences to develop the behavior; and mental contrasting.  This brief article cannot detail the procedures but resources at the end provide further information. Although I separated the techniques parents might use, they can be combined. If there is a key commonality among the procedures is the emphasis on the behaviors of the child and repeated practice of working on a task, managing obstacles, staying with it, and moving to the goal.  Repeated practice changes the brain and helps to develop a broad and enduring habit. Exposure to models who engage in these behavior “counts” as practice.

Just like any intervention (e.g., aspirin, chemotherapy, and healthful diet and exercise), the procedures do not work with everyone.  That said, they work well and with many people. Thus, the techniques are worth trying if there a concern or special interest in developing persistence as a general characteristic.  Perhaps the ironic part of the techniques is that they require a little bit of persistence on the part of the parent. The techniques are short-term ways of achieving long-term change.  Yet, they need to be implemented systematically to be sure the child is engaging in concrete behaviors and receiving praise and guidance for them.

Resources and Background

Amin, A. (no date). Mental contrasting: Effectiveness, uses, and precautions.  From http://happierhuman.com/mental-contrasting

Angela Duckworth, PhD, is a leading researcher on the topic of persistence (referred to as “grit”).  Her work is easily sampled by searching her name or grit in Google Scholar. She also has a Ted Talk very worthwhile to view https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance

Everyday Parenting: The ABCs of Child Rearing (ABCs stand for antecedents, behaviors, and consequences.). This is a free online course in which I provide several concrete techniques to help parents with the normal challenges of childrearing and provide several ways that can be used to develop a variety of behaviors including those related to persistence.  Course: https://www.coursera.org/learn/everyday-parenting

Gabrielle Oettingen, PhD has developed and researched mental contrasting.  Her work also is easily sampled by searching her name or mental contrasting in Google Scholar.

Leonard, J.A., Lee, Y., & Schulz, L.E. (2017). Infants make more attempts to achieve a goal when they see adults persist. Science, 357(6357), 1290-1294.

Pew Research Center (December 17, 2015). Parenting in America: Outlook, worries, aspirations are strongly linked to financial situation. Available at http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2015/12/2015-12-17_parenting-in-america_FINAL.pdf

Positive Psychology Program (December 5, 2016). How to use mental contrasting to fulfill your wishes. Available at https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/mental-contrasting/

By |2018-06-13T10:11:56+00:00June 13th, 2018|For Parents, For Professionals|