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This is the ONE Thing Your Students Need to Succeed

At 27 years old, Angela Duckworth abandoned her cushy, six-figure job in management consulting at one of the top agencies in the country to become a math teacher.

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Talk about a lifestyle change. She took a cut in pay and an increase in work hours to pursue her passion for teaching and along the way she made some observations that sparked her return to academia. All of the research Duckworth conducted while pursuing her Ph.D. in Psychology revolved around the same ground-breaking concept.

The question that drove her research was simple enough: Who is successful and why? The answer even simpler: Grit and effort always matter more than intellectual ability and raw talent. 

Inspired by the work of Angela Duckworth, I’ve been exploring and experimenting with how to grow grit + resilience in my students. While I couldn’t find any research conducted on students with special needs or students of bilingual/bicultural backgrounds, my clinical and professional experience give me the confidence to say that it is just as important, if not more, to be intentional in the ways we help our students grow in grit.

One of the ways we are being intentional about helping our students transition from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is by channeling the power of affirmations. We have been incorporating the Push Through chant created by educator Jasmine Wright into our daily routines.

We had to teach the chant to the kids in sections and lead the call and response ourselves. Two months in, students who usually speak in short utterances and whispers are approaching teachers and asking to lead the chant almost independently.  One non-verbal student is learning how to navigate features like Word Finder through LAMP on his iPad to lead the push through chant.

It is a beautiful thing to see how far they have come in their initiation and communication skills.

Just as important, the students are internalizing the message that they can “push through” challenges and mistakes. One of our occupational therapists, Jessica Nacinovich (founder of Jessie Jams and WePlay4Life) has taken to adapting the chant for students in crisis. She asks students things like, “What if the schedule changes?” or “What if YOU don’t get what you want?” and they respond with “I have to be flexible” or “I have to push through.”

I had a student take her glasses off and go to throw them after being told she made a mistake during a structured therapeutic assignment. I stopped her mid-throw.

“I know you’re frustrated, but we all make mistakes. I make mistakes. Your teacher makes mistakes. We have to keep going though. We have to,” I stopped and showed her the pushing motion with my arms. She paused, cracked a smile with her missing front tooth and responded, “we gotta push through.” She put her glasses back on, apologized, and half-shouted, “OK, I’m ready to try again!”

My heart has been smiling since with the validation that what we are doing works. We are helping facilitate brain shifts and the incorporation of this Push Through mantra is helping our students build GRIT.

The one thing your students need to succeed is grit. A never-give-up attitude. And you can help them establish that. 

You can download the Push Through chant for free here and in Spanish here if you are interested in implementing it in your therapy sessions or in collaboration with your classroom teachers. (Sidenote: Adelante would be the PROPER Spanish translation for moving forward. Pa’ lante is common Dominican dialect and, in my humble Dominican opinion, sounds better in the chant.)

Adapt it as needed for the specific challenges your students are facing and help your students embrace the transformative power of deliberate, positive self-talk.

(For an in-depth, research-drenched framework, take the time to read Angela Duckworth’s best-selling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance There is good reason why Duckworth was selected as a  2013 MacArthur Genius Grant fellow. .)

IMPORTANT UPDATE – July 2019

After sitting down and discussing these ideas with equity coaches from NYU’s Center of Strategic Solutions (shout outs to Natalie McCabe Swerger and Cathleen Antoine-Abiola ) and reviewing the work of Dr. Bettina Love – I have come to realize that while the body of this essay is mostly true, the connotation that grit alone is the only thing students need is problematic.

We NEED to change and remove the systematic and attitudinal barriers that have systematically served to deficitize our students. While it would have been easy to delete this post as though it never existed, I think it is more important to show how even when we are well-meaning, we can be working from a place that doesn’t best serve our students. It is our responsibility to model to students that we too make mistakes and we too are forever learning.

I hope to share more soon, but these reflections led to the development of a workshop we titled “Decolonizing Grit: How to Highlight + Grow Resistance” which my colleagues and I first presented at the 2019 Decolonizing Education Conference hosted at the Brooklyn Law School. We have submitted the workshop to be considered for the 2020 SXSW EDU Conference. Stay tuned for updates as we continue this community work for equity and access for all students.

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