Select Region
Helping Parents Make Better Decisions

How to Define Success with Your Kids

Whether or not your child is affected by a learning disability, it's true that all children have varying strengths and interests. Get tips on how to define success with your children and how to foster traits that can help them achieve it. 

two young girls sweeping front porch

Are you a college-educated professional who can't imagine anything less for your child? Maybe you've even visualized the famous actor or successful surgeon, earning $300,000 a year. Perhaps goals like these are within reach for your child. But even if they're not, don't just give up. Whether or not a child has learning disabilities (LD), you can define success in many different ways. It inhabits the realm of health and relationships and fulfilling work, for example.

Redefine success based on your child's unique strengths and interests. Then help your child pursue that image of success. How can you do this? By fostering traits that lead to success. One such trait that research shows can lead to success, especially for those with LD, is perseverance--the ability to keep going, despite challenges or setbacks.

A Model of Resolve

Watch and learn. As you well know, your child is continually doing just that. And, you're the very first teacher. So when it comes to perseverance, what are the lessons you're teaching? Do you give up after the first try at something new? Is your knee-jerk response to turn to others as problem solvers? If so, give these habits a second look. If you want your child to persevere, you must do so as well. To paraphrase Gandhi, "Be the change you want to see in your family."

Still, it's also important for your children--whether learning disabled or not--to know that their parents' lives have not always been a bed of roses. Jeff Rice, principal of one of the Briarwood Schools in Houston, Texas, serving students with LD and developmental delays, uses himself as an example.

"I hit my wall in high school with math," he says, describing why, when he went to college, he took a required calculus class as pass/fail. He worked really hard, but still failed the class. It was only after one-on-one work with a teacher and retaking the class over the summer that he was able to earn a solid B+. Sharing experiences like these can help your child understand that everyone struggles and everyone needs to practice stick-to-itiveness.

Here are a few other tips for teaching your child how to persist.

1. Size up the situation. Paul J. Gerber, Ph.D., professor of Special Education and Disability Policy at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., describes the importance of sizing up each situation to see whether you can adapt to it or make it adapt to you. This, he says, is an "incubator," a thought process for good problem solving. He calls it "learned creativity," the opposite of learned helplessness where you give up because you think you're prone to failure. (So, why try?) People with that mindset, he says, are often marginally adjusted to adulthood or become very dependent. But the closer you are to being able to shape situations for your best purposes, the more creative and successful is your approach to the world.

Try helping your child size up situations and develop a creative mindset by asking probing questions like these:

  • What's missing for you to be successful in this situation?
  • What would it take for you to complete this task?
  • Are there adjustments you could make in yourself, or could you change something so this works better for you?
  • What are you lacking in support? Where could you go to find it?

2. Break it up. One of the best ways to encourage perseverance is to break up large projects into smaller steps. This makes them more manageable. Show your child how to "chunk" a large research project, by creating a checklist and putting specific tasks onto a calendar. This way, each completed step provides immediate results and a sense of accomplishment. Then it's easier to keep going.

Rice says this need to break things up continues throughout high school and college. (And, it can often be applied in the workplace!) "We recommend that our students take no more than three classes at a time in college," he says, referring to students with LD who struggle with multiple courses. This, combined with knowing how to ask for accommodations, can make the challenges of college much less daunting.

3. Make it real. Students absorb the concept of perseverance in concrete ways, says Chris Schnieders, Ph.D., director of teacher training at the Frostig Center in Pasadena, Calif. One way teachers do this is by tying it to a task, such as an academic fair project or science fair project. This project can center on almost anything your child is studying--global warming, World War II, Renaissance artists. Students must ask a big question, do the research, and present the information. This allows them the opportunity to figure out how to get from point A to point B--and beyond--and to practice perseverance along the way.

As a parent, you can also help your child tie perseverance to concrete tasks in "real" life. Make it a part of your family's culture. Does your child want to be a lifeguard during the summer? Plan a party? Learn how to play guitar? Overcome her fear of public speaking? If needed, help your child figure out the steps involved in achieving these goals--and provide continual support.

4. Promote perseverance
--in ways big and small. Give plenty of specific strokes when your child demonstrates signs of perseverance. You might say something like, "You could have let obstacles get in your way, become bored, or stopped, but you didn't--you kept at it." 

You can promote determination in other ways, too. By playing up the concept of strengths and weaknesses, you can help your child counteract negative self-talk when challenges arise. Instead of telling himself, "I'm a failure, I never do anything right," your child can remind himself, "This task is harder for me, but that doesn't take away from my strengths and contributions." Help your child to continually take stock of when he or she is able to persevere. When it doesn't happen, see if you can figure out together why not.

Become a storyteller with a rich heritage. How did Uncle Robert learn to ride a bike despite having polio as a kid? How did your sister Sarah find her love of music and pursue her passion as a pianist? What did it take for your grandparents to survive the Great Depression? The lessons abound and the reminders can be inspirational for the whole family.

5. Keep at it, but know when to bend. Whether it's Thomas Edison's hundreds of attempts at electric lighting or J.K. Rowling's rags-to-riches storybook success--we're all inspired by the persistence of people who "never say die." But, according to many experts, knowing when to throw in the towel is at least as important as knowing when to impersonate a tenacious pit bull.  In fact, perseverance and failure are two sides of the same coin.

We don't often talk about quitting, though, because it's not culturally acceptable, says Rice. "In Texas, we have a saying, 'If things get tough, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.'" But this idea can do our kids a disservice. "If you're working in the field of math and you're struggling horribly, it might be time to look through the want ads," he says.

But how will you know which attempt might finally illuminate the proverbial light bulb? Or how can you tell which draft will result in a story that revolutionizes children's literature?  Self-awareness, another important attribute of success, has a lot to do with it, says Don Trimmer, Ph.D., principal at Evergreen Elementary School in Diamond Bar, Calif. It can help you and your child know when to continue and when to stop, says Trimmer. He absorbed this lesson when teaching one of his own sons to catch and throw a football. "When he kept coming back with a bloody nose, I had to learn that my kid was never going to be a football player."

To illustrate the importance of flexibility, Frostig researcher Roberta J. Goldberg, Ph.D., recounts a tale of two former students with learning disabilities. One had a goal of working in retail, where she started on the floor and graduated to the register--with multiple retailers. "Unfortunately, she was terrible in math, and every time she was promoted to register, she tanked," says Goldberg. "Eventually, she quit and never worked another day in her life."

The other former student was a tennis star whose whole life had centered on becoming a pro. But a serious knee injury short-circuited her plans for the tennis circuit. She neither continued to play nor gave up altogether. Instead, she pursued another interest, becoming a ceramics teacher in a local community center. Adaptability, which the other student lacked, became a major asset and allowed her life success, despite a previous setback.

Think about what you can do to help your child not only stare challenges in the face, but to also be flexible and play to his or her strengths.

Remember that perseverance is a skill that's needed for a well-rounded life--from education to fitness to interpersonal relationships. The good news is that perseverance is a transferable trait. If your child learns how to make it to the end of a rough basketball season, for example, she'll be more likely to apply that mindset to the next challenge. Of course, it's worth remembering that each child is unique. If there are extenuating circumstances--a serious personality conflict or a mental illness, for example--you may need to step in and pull your child out of a dicey situation.

But with the support of parents, just about any child can become a little more like that loveable Nemo character, Dory, who knew how to just keep swimmin', just keep swimmin'...

Annie Stuart is a freelance writer and editor with nearly 25 years of experience. She specializes in consumer health, parenting, and learning disabilities, among other areas.
This article is made possible by a grant from the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation.

Featured Listings:

Tutors on Wheels

Tutors on Wheels

Our Ivy League tutors pride themselves on offering personalized sessions that are geared towards each student’s individual needs to create an exciting...

EBL Coaching - Manhattan

EBL Coaching - Manhattan

New York, NY EBL Coaching specializes in one-on-one HOME tutoring for students in grades pre-K-12 in reading, writing, math, study skills, executive functioning, a...