Persevering through Ups and Downs

Having an initial burst of energy and action toward a goal that matters is not sufficient to drive youth to complete the goal in the long-term. Directed action must be sustained over time and in spite of challenges.

Participating in a long-term, challenging project can be essential to helping youth learn perseverance.

Key youth experiences in a program can include:

  • Repeated experiences of persevering through strenuous tasks and challenging work, and
  • Experiencing the satisfaction of accomplishment and social acknowledgment of their efforts and achievements.

Some of the projects youth work in our SEL Challenge programs, such as building a boat, creating a film or theater production, or planning a community action project, are challenging, multi-step endeavors that are carried out over weeks or months. Engaging in a long-term project provides multiple opportunities for youth to push through external challenges or internal resistance. Experiences of perseverance, of setting goals and reaching them, of seeing oneself as having not given up, tend to have a cumulative and reinforcing effect within youth that builds their capacity for grit and tenacity over time. Some youth succeed with dogged persistence at a task. Others learn to get back into the saddle after failure or discouragement, a facet of resilience. Both strengthen their capacity to consistently work to accomplish their goals.

For instance, boat building in Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory (PWBF) presents opportunities for youth to persevere through challenging work. The cumulative nature of the work requires that tasks be completed sequentially. If any individual task is unsuccessful, it affects the rest of the project. Such setbacks are part of the learning process, though. Victoria Guidi at PWBF explained:

When a piece of wood splits, or we plane down too much so that now we’re under the line and our piece of wood is going to be too small or too thin, these are constant setbacks that we have to work out and work through. There are constant mistakes going on and we discuss them.

On a longer-term scale, accomplishment contributes to changes in the self when youth realize that their sustained effort made an impact on others. Satisfaction and pride can help youth remember the rewards of sustained effort and maintain motivation for future work. Learning to accept setbacks as an inevitable part of pursuing a goal is also a valuable lesson in developing initiative.

In SEL Challenge programs, youth learn sustained effort results in accomplishment. This concept that learning and accomplishment are a result of that hard work, not innate ability or chance, is the “growth mindset” studied by Carol Dweck and colleagues. This plays an important role in developing initiative and sustaining it over time. Youth see that their continued effort is meaningful, and less emphasis is placed on initial or easy success. As youth gain success that requires effort, they begin to understand what it means to push through something hard and discover that there’s something deeper within them that can get them through difficult tasks.

Further Reading

Join the Discussion

How does your program help youth discuss the difficulties they face? How do you frame overcoming challenges?