What It Takes to Persevere
CONTRIBUTOR: Gabrielle Martin, AVLI Chief Academic Officer
I have an active mind: thoughts and ideas always bouncing around, waiting to be anchored down and put together in a constructive way. Many of them drift off into the ether before they can become something real, so it’s a real treat to be able to put thoughts down on paper, to have the opportunity to organize them with intentionality, and to follow them to a conclusion. Or to at least start down the road where a conclusion starts to take shape.
At AVLI, we began this past September, as we do every term, by inviting students to complete an inventory of their Learner Skills. Our goal with this questionnaire, and in how we engage those ideas throughout our coursework, is to help students better understand the skills associated with learning and where they can improve, not just in a specific course but as an overall learner. While individual data is kept confidential, we do analyze the results as a whole, looking for trends and patterns, if there are any to be found. This year’s results showed something interesting, particularly in the area of Academic Perseverance, which impacts how students react when obstacles arise, learning gets tough, or students experience a set-back or failure (Farrington et al, 2012). We’ve come to anticipate and expect learning loss in various forms in these last few years so a drop in scores for the category of Academic Behaviors or Academic Mindset wouldn’t have surprised us. But when we saw that those scores were relatively consistent but that some groups of students were scoring lower on Academic Perseverance, my mind, doing what it does, started to bounce around the idea of “Why?”
This gave me a great opportunity to take a deeper dive into some academic literature. There is a large body of research demonstrating that social isolation increases risk of depression and anxiety in both children and adults. And stressors in the home (like concern over job security, health, finances, etc) are often picked up by children, deepening the impact of other stress factors. So when you combine an extended period of isolation with a bunch of other high stress factors, like say a world-wide pandemic, it’s not a surprise that kids suffer. And these factors are also known to have a serious impact on a student’s learning, self esteem, ability to cope with stress, etc. All of which impact Academic Perseverance (Claypool & Moore de Peralta, 2021).
So ok, now it makes perfect sense why this particular skill would be suffering. The last three years can pretty much be summed up as a collection of lengthy periods of isolation and increased stress for kids and their families. But what can we DO about it? This led me to the next phase of my research, looking for strategies to better target perseverance in our teaching. But it turns out, learning theorists generally agree that while strategies for attention control and environment structuring can be coached and practiced, when it comes to “grit”, the ability to choose to power through a difficulty, you can’t actually teach that one (Tough, 2016). This left me in a bit of a temporary quandary. Does this mean there’s nothing concrete we can do to help? Thankfully, that’s not the case. The key, it turns out, can be found in the work of Camille Farrington (2012). One of the most significant contributing factors to students’ tendency to persevere in the classroom is their willingness and ability to embrace 4 key beliefs:
I belong in this academic community.
My ability and competence grow with my effort.
I can succeed at this.
This work has value for me.
So while we may not be able to teach perseverance directly, we can create and foster a classroom environment in which perseverance develops and flourishes naturally. And when you break these core beliefs down, of course they make perfect sense. As human beings, we have a deep need to belong, to feel capable, and to feel that our efforts have value. It also makes perfect sense that in the turbulence and isolation of the pandemic, these beliefs become harder to sustain. It’s hard to feel the presence and support of a community you can’t see. It’s hard to see the success and value of your efforts when we toil in isolation.
On the bright side, this understanding also provides a roadmap for how we can help students get back on track. The deepest and most resilient learning happens when students make an emotional connection. To teachers, to classmates, to content. This is the heart of perseverance. The ability not just to grasp the concept but to take it in, to assimilate it into self, to apply it and ultimately use it to make ourselves stronger. To bounce back when an attempt doesn’t yield immediate success because we feel secure enough to believe that we are capable and that success will eventually come. It’s easy to see that these all flourish when you feel safe, like you belong, that your work matters, and that there are people around you who believe you can succeed. If we want to help students learn to persevere, this is the environment we need to build. Or in this case perhaps, rebuild and/or reinforce. And as Catholic educators, we are uniquely positioned and equipped for this challenge. These things come naturally to us. The inclusion in a faith community that fosters true care for each person is an immensely powerful thing. We have always worked to make Catholic schools a place where students belong, believe in themselves, and succeed. The educational obstacles created by the pandemic don’t demand anything new of us, there is no required course correction. Instead, this reinforces just how vitally important our efforts are, not just to what students learn in our classrooms but to how they build and support their own (and each other’s) identity and dignity to carry them through a lifetime.
This is the time to double down on who we are. We specialize in truly seeing our students on a human level. Helping them to realize they are loved. Loved by God, loved by us. Worthy. Deserving. Helping them to realize the role they play in helping others to feel this way as well. We build our community one person at a time, each person feeling connected and empowered to make connections with others. This is who we are and this is how we will persevere together.
Claypool, N. & Moore de Peralta, A. (2021). The Influence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), Including the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Toxic Stress on Development and Health Outcomes of Latinx Children in the USA: a Review of the Literature. International Journal on Child Maltreatment, 4, 257–278.
Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Seneca Keys, T., Johnson, D.W., Beeechum, N.O. (2012). Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance--A Critical Literature Review. Consortium on Chicago School Research.
Tough, Paul. (2016). How Kids Learn Resilience. The Atlantic.
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