Smart Kids Are Tenacious

Being tenacious is basically self-regulation ? a continued effort to manage your emotions and behavior to achieve a goal, and to make the right decisions, regardless of the difficulties or opposition. Tenacity is developing the toughness and stamina to stick with it long-term.

Being tenacious means that a person sticks with a task or problem long enough to succeed in the face of setbacks or other challenges along the way. That?s why we?ve been talking about cultivating emotional and psychological strength in David, Jill and Jason.

While resilience has to do with emotional fortitude and strength, tenacity has to do with being disciplined enough to finish what you?ve started, even when it?s difficult. Some people call it ?grit? ? having the psychological and emotional determination to be persistent enough to reach a goal you?ve set for yourself.

Tenacity, or grit, is partly about being motivated to succeed, being optimistic that you will succeed, and having enough self-control and willpower to continue pursuing a goal ? being determined to succeed and do well. It means that you are passionate and conscientious enough to see beyond short-term adversity to long-term success. It?s having the determination to not give up even when you feel discouraged or tired.


Being tenacious requires self-regulation ? the ability to set aside temporary feelings of anxiety or fear, and act in your long-term interest. It means that you?re able to consistently work toward long-term goals that might seem elusive, rather than giving up when things look dismal in the short term. It?s about learning enough self-discipline to study hard to raise a grade, or practicing your violin until it?s perfect; and doing this long enough to develop the habit of persistence.

Over time, children learn to monitor and control their feelings of frustration, anger and fear ? it?s a lifelong process that begins with an intimate, caring connection to our parents. A child who fails to develop these skills will have difficulty developing and sustaining personal relationships, since their immature behavior, such as acting out verbally or physically when angry or afraid, tends to destroy social connections. Without this support, s/he may then be more easily overwhelmed in difficult or threatening situations.  

This hardiness, or ability to persist beyond adversity and failure, has very little to do with IQ per se. Some very intelligent people don?t perform well long-term because they are easily discouraged, or simply not motivated to stick with distant goals. 

Jill may have an IQ of 167, but if she has little faith in her abilities, and is afraid to try and possibly fail, then she will fail by not trying. And if she doesn?t learn commitment and patience to move beyond negative feelings and obstacles, then she will still fail.

Children cannot develop cognitive skills without learning how to control their emotions. This is why it?s so critical that Jason, David and Jill are positively nurtured and challenged ? when a child  is stressed out by their environment and unable to control their negative reactions, they are focused on their emotional state and thereby less able to follow directions or develop higher-level skills that allow them to analyze situations and plan ahead (executive functions).

Self-Regulation is related to Executive Function. Both have to do with reaching long-term goals through delaying short-term gratifications. Executive Function is our intellectual capability of planning and analysis, while Self-Regulation is controlling our emotional reactions to current realities. The bases for such intellectual and emotional capabilities are built through caring, consistent nurturing and age-appropriate challenges.

Executive function (cognitive) and self-regulation (emotions) can be viewed as two interactive sides of the same coin ? both are essential for being able to benefit from social interactions and academic learning situations.

These skills are not learned while sitting in front of a TV or playing video games?they are learned through playing and interacting with other children and adults, and even through make-believe play. Children who feel valued as individuals are much more likely to be persistent enough to work through their frustration and master new skills. Children also learn by seeing other children and adults fail, and try again, and finally succeed.

Essential elements of learning self regulation and tenacity include:

Worthy Goals. If a student sees a goal as worth pursuing, and/or they appreciate the challenge, then they will be motivated to not only try, but to persevere beyond failures. Children are unlikely to take on a challenge if it?s not interesting to them, or if they believe they don?t have the tools or resources to be successful.

Relevance. Establishing everyday relevance for learning reading and math and science, along with other ?school stuff? is essential. What they do at home and at school must have some kind of relevant payoff, or ?optimal challenge? that is meaningful to them, such as moving them closer to admission to a college of their choice.

Failure. Part of being tenacious has to do with how a child learns to deal with failure, and whether they feel challenged or overwhelmed by their learning environment. Children and adults with grit stay focused on their goal for long periods of time, persisting through emotional ups and down; and are motivated to overcome difficulties by developing patience and trying again, and again. The world is full of very bright, very gifted people who simply haven?t stuck with it long enough, or done enough of the hard work required, to be successful.

Education. We are much more likely to persevere when we have some strategies or tools to use ? such as knowing how to plan, evaluate success, and modify our tactics when necessary. Delayed gratification may be part of it ? for example, saving your money and making sacrifices to buy that laptop you?ve always wanted, so that you can travel with it and write articles to sell. Or, it could mean staying home from the movies with your best friend to prepare for an important interview the next day.

So, develop the habit of TENACITY by:

Use motivating games, sports, and other ?non-academic? pursuits to teach patience through drill-and-practice, and minimize the fear of failure.

Relate activities to their interests, using different approaches based on their personalities and specific needs, showing appreciation for their efforts.

Provide real-world problems that require planning and evaluation, and dealing with setbacks and failures.

Ask them about their thinking process and encourage them to develop new strategies. 

Provide safe opportunities for spontaneous, creative play where they can test out their capabilities and fantasies.

Provide specific and constructive feedback, pushing students as developmentally-appropriate to further their skills.

Teach them that failure is simply a step toward learning and success by consistently praising their efforts rather than perceived abilities.

As their abilities develop, give them more freedom and flexibility in physical, intellectual, and interpersonal situations.

Provide a place to do homework without distractions, which develops patience and on-task concentration toward completion.

Model patience and persistence in learning new skills, and completing a task.

Teach them to think about failure as just another challenge or problem to be solved ? and express confidence that they can do it.

Tenacity is a life habit, developed on a day-to-day basis, and is a must for success. We all must face challenges and setbacks in reaching our major goals, and how well we do this depends upon how well we?ve disciplined our fears, developed our confidence and competencies, and expanded our skills and abilities for addressing complex situations. Some have said that perseverance and grit are the key ingredients to any high-level goals, whether it?s finishing a graduate degree, or building a new business. They are probably right!