Does it ever seem like once your child or teen gets started on a project that they struggle to sustain their interest and complete it? Sustained-attention and goal-directed persistence are two key executive functioning skills that work together to help a student cross the finish line. Sustained attention refers to the ability to maintain focus and extended efforts over time. Goal-directed persistence means the ability to set a realistic goal and follow through on it without being waylaid by distractions and interruptions. These skills mature slowly as a child develops into adulthood and require repeated, targeted support in the face of intense frustration, fear of failure or lethargy. Rather than anxious hovering or distressed reminders, though, you can help your youngster establish do-able goals, improve work continuity and nurture competence by shifting to collaboration and compassion.
When students struggle with setting appropriate goals and paying attention to what needs to happen to finish them, they often feel ashamed. While neurodivergent kids have natural challenges in these areas, other students who don’t meet the criteria for ADHD may just have weaker capabilities. Either way, they often feel bad about themselves as a result of comparing themselves negatively to peers who don’t have these challenges. They may wind up with low self-esteem and low motivation.
GRIT is more than the ability to persevere toward a goal in spite of compelling obstacles and practice self-regulation in the face of disappointment or frustration. I think GRIT is a process for motivation and goal-directed persistence that can be applied to any task to boost concentration, steadfastness, and confidence. It’s a map for success for all types of learners. Here’s how it works:
G — Go-For-It Goals: Work with your student to discuss the Big Picture before the details. Assess the forest and pick a trail before beginning your hike through the trees. Collaborate on the overall goal and then what needs to be done first, second, and third in working on it, keeping the tasks simple and clear. Together you are creating a map or flowchart of how to get from here to there. If you make it too complicated, you will lose your child’s buy-in. Remember, they may already feel overwhelmed or dejected. Later, when these initial goals are completed, you can reassess and set new ones for the Big Picture. Above all, mutually set goals can accomplish and offer incentives. You want them to walk away feeling productive and proud, not self-critical.
R — Resist Distraction with the Routine of Family Work Time: This is the most fundamental element that reduces arguments and ensures continued efforts because you are present. You and your student (and perhaps other siblings) sit down at the kitchen table at a specific time. You do your work (email, crossword puzzles, balancing your checkbook—anything) while they do theirs. This way, you’re there to answer any questions and steer them back to the task at hand when their mind and their body wanders. One of my clients had his teen daughter sit in the same chair at the table every night because he could see the reflection of her screen in the darkened window. This way, he could monitor when she went to YouTube or Instagram instead of pretending that she was doing her assignments. He would comment: “It looks like you’ve drifted off the task at hand. Let’s get back to it.” He was also able to start and stop breaks along with her and assist her in getting back to work.
I — Improve Initiation with the ‘Order of Operations Formula (OOF).‘ Everybody has tasks they enjoy that are easy for them and tasks that may be more distasteful or complicated which are harder. Work with your child or teen to figure out their approach. Do they like to do something easy to get things rolling or something hard to get the task out of the way? What academic subjects, chores, or other things qualify as easy, medium, and difficult. Together, in a quiet moment (not the day before an English essay is due) create your student’s Order of Operations: their unique approach to working on and completing tasks or projects. The OOF may stay the same or change depending on your youngster’s level of cognitive flexibility and their likes and dislikes at a particular time. You can make an OOF daily or weekly: whatever will best serve your student for increased persistence and perseverance.
T — Timed Tasks (and Breaks) Improve Tolerance: It’s rare for a student to work non-stop on homework without breaks for food, talking to a friend, changing the music, or engaging with a pet or sibling. Student concentration and motivation for less desirable tasks are improved when a child or teen works for a few timed periods, taking time breaks and getting back to work. The length of these work periods can be determined through conversations with them and their teachers or guidance counselors. Let’s say that your 12-year-old can work in blocks of 15-20 minutes that don’t exceed 70 minutes. You both agree for him to work for 20 minutes, take a five-minute timed break, work for 20 minutes, take a five-minute supervised break, and work for 15 minutes with a five-minute timed break. Make sure you show them how to make a few notes regarding what they are thinking about onto a Post-it or in their document before they pause. At the end of the entire work period, he can earn a pre-approved incentive of his choice. If there’s more to do, discuss when and where you can set up another set of work periods. These timed breaks reduce how daunting a task can be and offer the brain a chance to integrate what it’s been doing. Some kids don’t like to take breaks, preferring to hyperfocus for hours at a time. Longer work periods are great if a student is productive. They don’t work if your student goes down rabbit holes of related but irrelevant material. Collaborative conversations combined with trial and let’s -see-what-happens thinking foster the most effective arrangements.
My GRIT method aids you in developing a wide range of executive functioning skills related to motivation in children and teens. Students, especially those who are neurodivergent, will benefit from setting goals within reach, removing distractions within the environment (including phones or other devices), expectations that “likes” and “dislikes” may change over time, and understanding that continuous efforts on non-preferred tasks (homework, shoveling the snow, cleaning up the kitchen, etc.) will vary. You may have to adjust the length of work blocks to accommodate these shifts.
Most importantly, applying the GRIT method shifts adult thinking from what a student lacks (the capacity to overcome obstacles based on self-control) and what’s wrong with them because they can’t do this to how a student applies themselves and what facilitates this process. They feel more capable because they are engaged in sticking with something, efforting with your encouragement, and seeing things through. This is what motivation is all about!
Learn more about Dr. Sharon Saline at www.drsharonsaline.com.