Grit: The new silver bullet

I, like many others in the child development field, have within the past year been swept up by all things “grit” related. Since Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, grit has become the #1 new buzz word when it comes to child and youth development. Grit now joins it’s academic counterpart term, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), in realizing sudden and extreme celebrity-status fame; millions of federal, state, and private dollars are now being funneled towards it, all with the same overarching goals of improving outcomes for children and youth.

What exactly is grit, anyway? Within the context of child development it tends to be synonymous with perseverance and resilience. But I was curious what I might find when searching for a definition of grit. There are many out there, but my favorite by far was, “firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”

Longitudinal studies make evident the importance of this trait as it is correlated with children’s later success in life. When grit is present, a child might be able to overcome terrible things that have happened in life like multiple adverse experiences and toxic stress. Where there is no grit, the outcomes are grim. Hardships and dangers are not overcome.

It’s easy to buy into the importance of grit, as the neuroscience research is so compelling. But what are the implications of all of this? Whenever you encounter hype this big, you see a lot of folks jumping on the bandwagon. The question is — who is doing this well? What is the most cost-effective way a policymaker could institute a grit-enhancing initiative in her state? I did a quick-and-dirty assessment of some of the best child and youth programs out there working to increase grit and to combat adversity. Here’s what I found to be the three key elements of success:

1. Start early. One of the keys of grit-enhancing programs is to start as early as you can. The federal Early Intervention Program starts working with at-risk children as soon as they’re born, and Nurse Family Partnerships start even sooner, before the child is born by working with pregnant mothers to teach them how to deal with stress in non-harmful ways. And, I’ve always been a proponent of Early Head Start and their home-based model, especially now that the recompetition of grants will increase accountability and (hopefully) lead to better results.

2. Stick with it through the school years. The implications for schools and educators are great, as well as for communities. The Harlem Children’s Zone has been so popularized in recent years that it’s sure to receive a few yawns here, but Geoffrey Canada created such an impactful model in HCZ that it cannot go without mentioning. My favorite quote about HCZ is from the NYT Magazine: It “starts at birth and follows children to college. It meshes those services into an interlocking web, and then it drops that web over an entire neighborhood….[It creates] a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can’t slip through.” There’s also plenty of room for innovation in this area of reaching the school-aged child. For example, KIPP Charter Schools created character report cards for students — an entirely different metric that gets the character strengths necessary for leading engaged, meaningful, and purposeful lives.

3. Focus on the whole child. Adverse childhood experiences affect not just kids’ focus and attention, but their physiological well-being. Pediatric Wellness Centers, like the Center for Youth Wellness in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco, is seeing real results for kids by performing early screenings for toxic stress and following up with appropriate pediatric treatments. The real policy implication from this model is that mandatory universal screenings for ACEs could help to detect early on the children with the greatest need for intervention and treatment.

There’s surprisingly little information out there on what policymakers can actually do to create grit-enhancing and trauma-alleviating programs in their states and localities. One resource from the National Center for Children in Poverty that I found, while extremely dated, might still be the best summary out there of strategies to make this work. But getting down to the basics, initiatives must begin to reach the child right from the start, must follow the child through his or her school years, and must focus on all areas of psychological AND physiological development that might be thwarted by adverse experiences. It’s a basic recipe but still not an easy one to achieve; grit is one tough cookie.

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