STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Grit: helping kids bounce back from failure and (maybe) trauma

The U.S. Army

Many folks who tuned into Jennifer Guerra’s arresting audio documentary on foster care, "Finding Home," wondered how some of the young adults featured, people like Jasmine Uqdah, were able to overcome so much adversity in their young lives. Their success is so statistically unlikely, that numerically and practically it is almost impossible. So what explains it?

Is it grit?

We’re not entirely sure. Sometimes called “persistence” or “character,” grit is a collection of traits and brain functions that can provide mental toughness or courage. What is it that helps people stick with a goal or task long enough to achieve it? That’s grit. It’s not a new concept, actually. Stories like the tortoise and the hare and sayings such as “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” have been around for a long time.

Grit has been explored by a lot of academics, scientists, and journalists, including us, in regard to academic achievement. But can it also help Jasmine and others like her overcome trauma?

Here’s what we do know:

  • A key concept of grit is to keep going when the going gets tough. For young people in foster care – and others facing similarly difficult life experiences – that’s often the only option they have.
  • Not all of those who encounter tough luck acquire grit. Grit is only developed when folks successfully overcome difficult experiences and move beyond them to try to succeed again.
  • If grit is learned through overcoming obstacles, can it also be taught? Some people, like Stockbridge teacher Josh Nichols who Sarah Alvarez introduced us to earlier this year, think it can through an approach to education that emphasizes trial and error and experimentation. Those settings, a hands-on learning environment for example, make failure routine and as such less difficult to overcome.
  • Some schools are discussing how to best teach or incorporate grit in the classroom and psychologists are searching for the best ways to measure it. They’ve even created a survey you can take to see how much grit you have.
  • Despite the growing attention, there are still skeptics that feel grit is counterproductive.

It’s not just low-income or traumatized kids who need grit. Many kids from affluent families and communities are insulated from adverse experiences and don’t have an opportunity to develop grit. Kids from low-income families, on the other hand, may not actually have the resources needed to overcome adverse experiences because trauma has changed their brain’s response to stress and failure in a way that makes bouncing back from these experiences less in their conscious control. This includes young people in and aging out of the foster care system.

Surviving foster care, like Jasmine did, takes persistence, patience, and the ability to repeatedly overcome difficult experiences – all of which are the main ingredients of grit. We don't know for sure whether grit alone can help young people like Jasmine overcome trauma, but having grit can make their success much more likely. 

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