On Stretching to Develop Grit

Downward Gritty Kitty

I don’t know about you, but this Season Of Busy is beginning to catch up with me. No matter how determined I start into late November planning not to get too busy, I seem always to end up in the same busy place. I think my inability to stick to my non-busy plan is stuff for another post, however!

The first thing that seems to go when the Season Of Busy descends is my (fairly) strong commitment to daily stretching. As one of the leading generation that has spent most of my professional life hunched over a computer, starting way before we knew about the ergonomic principles that are supposed to help us, I realized I needed a daily stretching routine if I was to be able to do all the other things I love to do that do not involve sitting at a computer.

And yet, in this season… here I am with a fairly painful neck and shoulder. So. This morning I woke once again determined to reclaim my stretching time. And that first stretch? Ouch! Very painful. And stiff. And hard to do. Yet the little voice of encouragement inside me said: “well of course it is stiff and painful, but it won’t be if you just stay committed to daily stretching” and so I slowly stretched on.

So what has this to do with growing Grit, you ask? Well, as an analogy, everything! If you recall the three D’s of growing Grit (Discover, Develop, and Deepen), the second – Develop- is what I am talking about. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Dr. Angela Duckworth proposes that the way to develop something is through practice. And practice takes perseverance and daily discipline. In this formula, grit is grown by trying each day to do something a little bit better than we did yesterday. Mastery (ah-ha! there is that word we know from the Essential Elements of 4-H again!) happens when we enter the place where our current skill is exceeded – meaning that we have to stretch ourselves in order to be better tomorrow.

We can help youth develop grit by encouraging them to stretch just a little past their skill level. When I push myself to stretch beyond my current level daily, I do so with some confidence that indeed I will get better and better each day. I know this because I have already experienced the result of regular stretching and the benefits of being looser. But when we are working with youth, they most likely do not have the experience of achieving results before. That is where a really important concept called “scaffolding” comes in.

The idea of scaffolding comes from the Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who demonstrated that children learn through social interaction with others. Vygotsky coined a term “Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)” which is the place just beyond one’s current ability, but not so far beyond that the task feels hopeless (for more on this check out this short video!) In my current state of stretching I can touch my toes, and perhaps with more practice I will be able to put my palms on the ground. But I am not at all confident that I will ever bring my nose to my knees in a forward bend. So… let’s start with getting the palms closer to the ground though daily practice – that is my ZPD for now.

When we work with youth to develop grit through deepening, we challenge them to stretch their skills, knowledge, and ability in the zone just beyond where they are, and we scaffold this stretching through gradual, but increasing difficulty. And guess what this does? Yup- you got it- increases youth thriving through helping youth be open to challenge and discovery. A young person who learns that stretching just a little bit more each day helps them achieve will be more likely to stretch in other areas as well.

How can you use the ideas of stretching, deepening, the Zone of Proximal Development, and practice as you help youth grow?

Thriving On

Mary Arnold


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