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The Harley School teaches resilience, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and grit—they make a big difference in academic success.

By Beth Bailey

Recently, an article from The Atlantic aught my eye. It discussed research about a set of qualities—including resilience, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and grit—that seem to make a big difference in academic success. These noncognitive skills, or character strengths, are all things I see taught and reinforced in the classrooms at Harley.

What actually teaches grit to kids? How do we do it? (Especially in the Upper School where there are greater demands.) I spoke with John Dolan, our Upper School counselor, who shared his thoughts and a few examples with me.

  • In our Upper School history and English courses, we promote grit by assigning research papers and essays that are fairly complex tasks requiring integration and the synthesis of information. These require a good deal of time, planning, and thought before students reach the final stage: a grade, recognition, and feedback from faculty.

This shows the importance of being able to delay gratification (or the above-mentioned “self-control”)—a big component of grit.

  • All of our Grade 9 and 10 students are required to play on at least one HAC sports team during the academic year. Some kids have never played before. When they step onto the court, take the diamond, get on the track, or jump in the pool against seasoned competitors from other schools they may well be out of their comfort zones. This allows kids to have new experiences and, occasionally, puts them in situations where they are likely to fail.

The willingness to risk failure, then get right back up and try again, is another key feature of grit.

  • It is difficult to “fly under the radar” in the Upper School at Harley. Students must stretch their intellectual, social, and emotional limits at one time or another. For example, the annual Grade 10 camping trip is outdoor education where kids, many of whom have never had to make do out in the woods, are in a controlled survival situation. (Enjoy this student video of one year’s trip here. Thanks, Nick Schultze!)
Outdoor ed trip

Outdoor ed trip

During this trip the kids literally get a bit gritty as they hike, cook, and camp! They rise to the demands of being outdoors and must be accountable for their actions at all times, as everything affects the larger group’s success.

Our students learn to consider problems and decisions carefully. They learn to slow down in order to be calm when faced with the unexpected or with provocation. They understand there are always “little failures” in life and this is okay. Being “grittier” (or more resilient) has lifelong dividends and we work hard to make sure our students are ready to handle all the fascinating surprises life steers their way.