The Power to Persevere: How Mindfulness Develops Grit

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When you think about practicing mindfulness, what do you envision? Do you picture someone with their eyes closed, breathing deeply in a quiet room? Mindfulness is defined as the intentional practice of focusing attention on recognizing feelings, thoughts, and emotions without interpreting or judging them, and then using evidence-based tools and strategies to process them. While mindfulness does include strategies such as deep breathing and quiet meditations, it can also be more active and used to achieve a wide variety of goals. For example, mindfulness can develop perseverance and grit. It can also promote specific traits such as nonjudging and nonreacting that are predictors of increased perseverance on difficult tasks (Evans, 2009). (These traits also align with Fly Five’s mindfulness principles of Suspending Judgment and Putting It in Neutral.) Mindfulness can be a foundation for individuals to develop grit and create positive coping strategies for reducing stress (Raphiphatthana, 2018).

Grit requires “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining both effort and interest over years and years—despite failure, adversity, and even just stalls in progress” (Duckworth et al., 2007, pp. 1087–1088). It is the ability to persevere through challenges and sustain passion and interest for one’s long-term goals (Eskreis-Winkler et al., 2014). Grit is essential, especially now, as students continue to adapt to different modes of learning, educators creatively engage students
through a screen, and all of us are working through the personal ways in which this pandemic has changed our lives. Studies suggest that grit, an aspect of positive psychology that supports mental resilience, can mitigate the loneliness and academic stress brought on by the pandemic (Mosanya, 2020).

During these difficult times, developing grit may seem like an impossible task, and we might be tempted to meet our struggles without compassion and empathy. However, by cultivating grit now, even in small ways, we can build a resilient state of mind in ourselves, and our students and their families. Mindfulness can help us to develop grit in a compassionate, incremental way.

Mindfulness and Grit

Mindfulness encourages individuals to act with awareness and intentionality, both of which are predictors of a consistency of interest, a key aspect in developing grit. Mindfulness practice also teaches us to observe and process our emotions, no matter how big or uncomfortable they may be, which helps us to remain resilient while navigating setbacks. By learning how to navigate setbacks while sustaining interest and focus on our goals, our sense of self is more likely to remain steady and positive, which in turn will help us to persevere (Raphiphatthana, 2019).

Mindfulness also broadens the way we think about ourselves and our circumstances, empowering us to interpret stressful situations as benign, beneficial, or even meaningful (Garland et al., 2011). When we can appraise stressful situations or challenges in a more positive way, we can bounce back from them more quickly (Dweck et al., 2014). We can foster this mindset in students by explicitly showing them how to use mindfulness to reframe and develop the ability to spiral upward, which is a mental framework that allows individuals to “counter the self-perpetuating and damaging cycles triggered by negative emotions” (Garland et
al., 2011). Mindfulness makes us aware of how we react to negative emotions, observe them without judgment, and ultimately change our habitual reactions to be more constructive.

Over time and with practice, we can intentionally choose how to react to stress or challenges, thus cultivating our ability to spiral upward rather than downward.

How to Use Mindfulness to Foster Grit

We can use mindfulness specifically to develop perseverance and grit in our students with the following strategies.

Visualize Setbacks. Students can learn to be mindful of what caused the setback or challenge they faced. Using a visual or list can help them with this. Have students create a chart, list, or “grit pie” to write out an obstacle and all of its possible causes (Zakrzewski, 2014). For example, if a student does poorly on a test,
have them write down what may have caused the poor performance. Did they have their favorite gaming website open while their Zoom classroom faded into the background? Are the school’s COVID-19 guidelines causing them to feel stressed or anxious, inhibiting their ability to focus? Are they rotating between home and
school learning spaces and having a hard time transitioning between the two? Creating a list will help students move away from the thought that they aren’t good enough and instead expand the way they think about overcoming obstacles.

Focus on mindfulness principles that support perseverance and grit. Embed mindfulness activities into the classroom that focus on these principles: Have Faith, In the Moment, Reset Experiences, and Suspend Judgment. Offer students techniques such as deep breathing and body scans to address stress and anxiety. Highlight that these techniques will help students persevere because they will enable them to gain control of their emotions, focus on the present moment, and prevent catastrophizing.

Teach students the difference between downward and upward spirals. Have students draw their spirals and note the differences between a downward spiral and an upward one. Ask them to list positive affirmations that work for them on their upward spiral. Encourage them to listen closely to their inner voices and recognize when they are speaking negatively about their abilities. Remind students of their affirmations when negative self-talk appears, and to take a few deep breaths and change the narrative in their minds.

Make it meaningful. Making work meaningful has been shown to result in increased satisfaction and performance (Hilmantel, 2016). Have students consider how to make their schoolwork meaningful to help them find the sustained interest necessary to persevere. Use mindfulness activities such as journaling and visualizations to enable students to reflect on what is meaningful to them and discover how all aspects of their educational journey can support their longand
short-term goals.

When we are able to sustain interest and keep focused on our long-term goals, we are able to recommit to our passions day in and day out. Mindfulness can be an unexpected and important tool for keeping that commitment. When we help students step back to observe themselves in a kind and nonjudgmental way, and make positive changes in their reactions and behavior, we set them up for success. As they learn to process emotions in a constructive manner and maintain a positive sense of self, no obstacle will be too big for them.