What’s the greatest predictor of student success?


Rosie Byrnes


Find out the one quality that can help your child succeed in school and beyond. Then learn ten ways to teach them that secret ingredient.

What’s the secret ingredient to success? Find out the one quality that can help your child succeed in school and beyond. Then learn ten ways to teach them that secret ingredient.

The secret ingredient to success (in school and beyond)

Success. It’s the one thing we’re all aiming for, the big goal we all want our kids to achieve. It may look different for each of us. Its definition may even change for us over time—but it’s always there ahead of us, and it always starts with the same question: How do I get there?

When it comes to kids and success, most conversations revolve around a successful school experience—studying hard, getting good grades, and graduating in good standing.

What these conversations sometimes fail to recognize, though, is that our aim of helping kids achieve success in school is directly related to our hopes of seeing them become successful outside of school—after graduation and out in the “real world.” And those two modes of success aren’t always as connected as we might think.

Consider the famous stories of people like Bill Gates, who dropped out of college, or Steve Jobs, who graduated high school with a GPA of just 2.65. Hardly the most successful students in their class, but you’d have a hard time arguing that they weren’t ultimately more successful in life!

So if good grades and high achievement in school aren’t the greatest predictors of future success, what is?

Could it be intelligence? Natural talent and ability? What about a supportive home environment, or positive student-teacher relationships? Could privilege and socioeconomic status play a role? How about things like charisma, good looks, or social skills?

In truth, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what makes a person achieve their goals—but it’s more likely to be a combination of qualities and circumstances than it is to be one specific catalyst.

A “recipe for success” would likely include many ingredients: a dash of intelligence, two cups of creativity, a gallon of positive support.

Yet still, for some students, even all of these won’t be enough. Many of the most talented, intelligent, and creative individuals still struggle to overcome challenges and reach their goals. Some of the most successful people have hardly any natural talent at all.

So what’s the secret missing ingredient for success?

Angela Duckworth, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, may have found the answer.

By studying kids and adults in a wide variety of contexts—at school, in the workforce, even at a military academy—Duckworth has found that the common denominator for individual success is a quality she calls grit: the ability to persevere, overcome obstacles, and reach your goals without giving up.

Sure, natural talents, abilities, and intelligence can help give people a head start toward success. But in any goal worth pursuing, there are going to be challenges along the way that no amount of talent can brush aside.

So whether or not that goal is reached depends much more on the person’s ability to persevere, to find solutions, and to commit to their own success. True achievement comes from what is challenging, not from what is easy—so the way we tackle challenges will determine how successful we can ultimately be.

In short, it all depends on grit.

How can we teach kids grit?

Though we still don’t quite know exactly what makes some kids grittier than others, there are some things we can do to encourage this can-do quality in our kids.

Here are some ideas to teach grit to your child:

1. Learn to set goals.

Without putting specific goals in place, developing grit can be nearly impossible—after all, grit is all about persevering to achieve your ambitions. Teach your kids to set goals that are genuinely important to them, and to make a realistic plan toward achieving them.

You can try helping your child set “just-right” goals by using the acronym SMART. SMART goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. For example, the goal “to be a good reader” can be made into a SMARTer goal: “to read two historical fiction novels and move up three reading levels by June 1st.”

2. Foster a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset and neuroplasticity can have a profound effect on the way kids understand their own learning, and can be a great starting point for developing grittier thoughts and attitudes.

If you’re not familiar with the growth mindset concept, be sure to check out our in-depth article here. Essentially, though, kids with a growth mindset are better prepared to tackle challenges and learn from their mistakes and obstacles, which makes them prime candidates for developing all of the characteristics of grit.

3. Allow kids to fail.

Sometimes, watching our kids experience failure can be more gut-wrenching for us than it is for them. It’s a natural instinct to want to protect our kids from any harm or discomfort, so we may be tempted to steer them in the right direction if we sense a failure coming on.

But doing so may actually be hindering your child’s ability to develop their grittier qualities. If they never have the chance to know what failure looks like, they’re missing the opportunity to learn from that experience in a supportive environment—and they won’t know how to deal with failure the next time it crosses their path.

4. Embrace the bumps, bruises, and boredom.

Simply allowing kids to fail is a good start toward developing their grit—but we can take it even further by teaching them to actually embrace the hard parts, as well.

Anything worth achieving in life isn’t going to be easy to accomplish every step of the way—and the sooner kids can recognize that boredom and frustration are part of the process, the better they’ll be able to work through them.

Think of the thing you’re most proud of achieving in your life, and consider all of the steps it took to get there. If you’re like most people, that beautiful end product was the result of a roller coaster of experiences ranging from inspiration to boredom to feeling like a complete failure—before ultimately deciding to keep moving forward.

This is the reality of success, and we can do our kids a great service by showing them how complex and meaningful each step of the path can be.

5. Surround yourselves with gritty people.

Encourage your kids to learn about their role models, and understand how those people were able to achieve their goals. No successful person in the world ever got there without overcoming a few challenges (even if we can’t always see those on the surface).

If you can, have your child conduct a “grit interview” with someone in your community. Have them choose a person who has achieved success by putting time and effort into reaching their goals—perhaps a small business owner, local government official, or creative professional.

6. Encourage kids to find (and pursue) their passions.

Real grit involves sticking with a goal over an extended period of time, through all of its most challenging obstacles. In order to do this authentically, kids’ goals need to be something they are truly passionate about; otherwise, the end result isn’t going to be something they’re proud of—just something they wish they never started!

If your child already knows what they are passionate about, give them the opportunity to dive into this topic headfirst. If they don’t know what their passions are yet, spend time exploring a variety of different paths, and teach them to take note of the things that ignite a spark of inspiration.

7. Commit to doing hard things.

Grit comes from overcoming obstacles and challenges—not from taking the easiest route. Encourage kids to step outside of their comfort zones to try something that is truly challenging for them—and then to see it through to the end.

And when the going gets tough, you can always repeat my favorite quote from author Glennon Doyle: “We can do hard things!”

8. Practice every day.

Daily practice at a new skill makes all the difference in mastering it. By setting aside even just five minutes a day for kids to work toward their goal, you’re helping them to make grit a part of their daily routine.

For some learners, it can be extra motivating to track their progress as they go. Try to find ways to measure your child’s success each day, so that they are able to look back and see how far they’ve come!

9. Connect goals to a higher purpose.

Having a broader context to our goals can add meaning and passion to them in times of struggle. For some of us, this might mean connecting goals to our beliefs, such as religion or spirituality. For others, it may mean connecting them to our personal values and life purpose.

In other cases, a higher purpose can even be doing something to help others. Encourage your child to think of someone or something that would benefit from their completing the goal at hand—and return to this purpose any time they start to feel discouraged.

It’s amazing how motivating it can be to know you’re working toward something bigger than yourself!

10. Lead by example.

We know that kids learn by modeling after the behavior of others. One of the best ways to teach your child grit is to model the characteristics of grit yourself, so that they have a ready-made example of how to take on challenges and pursue their goals.

The good news? Grit can be learned by anyone, even adults! If you’re someone who gives up easily or shies away from a challenge, try implementing a few of these tips yourself. Then, watch how much your child can learn from your success.