Can you train children to persevere?

February 14, 2017 - 06:10

New project will discover whether children can be trained to become more persistent in their learning and boost their life chances as adults.

Practice makes perfect. A new research project will investigate whether it is possible to train children to be more persistent and help them to focus on their goals. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Is it possible to boast your perseverance by training, so that everyone can achieve the same level of ‘drive’ to take them further in life—whatever their starting point?

This is what a team of scientists are trying to discover.

“Research shows that a child’s conscientiousness and self-control has a big impact on how they learn and develop in school. Some children are persistent and find it easier at school, but others find it difficult. In this project we design tools that can help children in the long run to stay focussed and knuckle down even in the face of challenging tasks,” says one of the scientists behind the new project, Simon Calmar Andersen from Aarhus University, Denmark.

The project is supported by the Tryg Foundation and builds on results of a previous study where Andersen and colleagues helped children improve their reading skills.

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Perseverance pays off

There are two types of children who cope better in school.

There are those who catch on to new ideas quickly and seem to coast through their time at school on autopilot. And then there are kids who need to work a bit harder to achieve good grades.

They achieve their goals by being persistent, and it is this characteristic that researchers will investigate, to see whether kids can boost their own persistence by training.

“Research shows that with very intensive training, small children can learn to persevere. This has been shown in controlled experiments, but the problem is how to roll the concept out to kindergartens so that we can support children’s perseverance in their everyday lives. We want to discover how we can do this,” says Andersen.

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Changing children’s mindset

Andersen’s studies ways in which children approach challenges.

“Some children think about their own abilities as fixed and perhaps don’t know that they’ll improve if they continue to practice. They think that their ability will not change and that they won’t improve. This type of thought process means that when facing challenging tasks instead of keeping on practising, they look for something else to do,” he says.

But persistent children know that practice pays off. One example is when children are learning their multiplication tables.

“It’s easier for some children to learn them [tables], but others have to fight for it, and within the latter group there are some who know they will learn if they just keep practising. And then there’s a group where the children give up and convince themselves that they’ll never be able to learn it. That’s not a healthy image to have of yourself,” he says.

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Professor: the conditions for success

Professor Terrie Moffitt from the University of Otago in New Zealand is one of the leading experts in the psychology of self-control and persistence among children, and she welcomes the new project.

While many scientists have developed experiments to study how to train children to persevere in their learning, no one has yet discovered the golden key.

“For such an experiment to be successful, it requires certain key elements: a large study with lots of children, independent researchers to measure whether children have in fact learnt to persevere, and then the scientists need to follow the children for at least one year after [the study],” says Moffitt.

To date there is no concrete evidence that perseverance can be learnt in the long run, but it is still important to discover whether this really is the case, says Moffitt.

“Children who don’t have any self-control often grow up to be less successful as adults. We’ve studied 1,000 children over four decades and we can see that children with the lowest self-control more often suffer from mental disorders, have a drug abuse, get divorced, commit crime, earn less, and make poorer parents,” she says.

“Gradually, as the population ages and birth rates fall, children become rarer. Children are the nation’s future so we need them to reach their full potential,” says Moffitt.

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Read the Danish version of this article on Videnskab.dk
 

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Translated by
Catherine Jex

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