Classroom

Instilling “Stick-to-itiveness”: Teacher Tips on Perseverance and Goal Setting With LD

Written by Diana Sticker, Parent Contributor | June 21, 2013

As parents, we know that our kids with learning disabilities (LD) have two choices: give up or try again. Sometimes it is as simple as that. But perseverance is also very challenging. Our kids with LD have enormous mountains to climb—and every day we ask them to stick with it.

I have sat for hours with my daughter who has dyslexia at the kitchen table as she struggled with a homework assignment, encouraging her to see past her tears, work through her frustrations and keep going. During one of her low moments, I told her that we are a family of fighters; that she comes from a long heritage that has never given up. At that instant I saw in her face a glimmer of hope.

My encouraging words were helpful that evening. But quite honestly, my tactic was not well planned. I wondered, “What do I do next to keep her going? What works? What doesn’t?”

As it turns out, perseverance is a hot topic these days. And teachers—especially those who work with students whose disabilities put them at high risk for giving up—are keenly aware of the importance of instilling perseverance.

What the Research Says

Researchers are beginning to highlight the significance of perseverance. They are looking at specific attributes and behaviors that help students excel in the classroom and in life. There is a growing understanding that kids who have certain characteristics are more likely to succeed—and having these characteristics is just as influential to success and academic achievement as intellectual capabilities. Here are a few of the latest publications:

  • The Frostig Report identifies six attributes and behaviors that help LD students achieve successful life outcomes. They are: self-awareness, proactivity, perseverance, goal setting, the presence and use of effective support systems and emotional coping strategies.
  • US Department of Education & Office of Educational Technology, Promoting Grit, Tenacity & Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century.” (Draft report) Feb 2013.
  • For an interesting perspective read Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: The Importance of Developing Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance.

Teachers In the Trenches

Teachers instinctually know the importance of “stick-to-itiveness” in the classroom. Special education teachers in particular support students whose disabilities can leave them frustrated and discouraged with reading and writing. But they know that these youngsters have tremendous potential, and they are constantly seeking and employing strategies to encourage their students to not give up.

I am a board member of The Shadow Project, a Portland, Oregon based non-profit which is helping special education teachers instill perseverance for life-long success. Even though there is no research that tells us if (and how) perseverance can be taught, programs like this one show that certain learning environments can foster characteristics for success. Therefore, I want to bring you a series of stories of special education teachers involved with The Shadow Project and include tips on how they encourage their students to stick with it and succeed. We can learn from their experiences.

Melanie and Sam

Melanie is a special education teacher in a low-income, inner-city Portland, Oregon K-8 school with a diverse population. There are over 40 different languages represented at her school.

One technique that Melanie uses in the classroom to encourage perseverance is to ask students to set personal goals. She uses a prototype of a self-directed goal system that was designed by The Shadow Project. Each student has their own “Goal Setting Book”. In this booklet, students choose a meaningful goal, outline strategies for implementation, and establish measurements to determine success. Melanie says the opportunity for students to take ownership of their goals promotes a feeling of empowerment, and potentially increases self-awareness. Her students earn tangible rewards when they reach a goal and feel motivated to try again.

Sam is a bright 4th grader with severe ADHD. Melanie noticed that he has trouble sitting still and staying focused like most kids with his disability. Although many of his classmates chose academic goals, Sam’s goal was to make a friend.

The booklet asks students to outline the specific steps to achieve their goal and identify who can help. Sam wrote his plan with the following strategies:

  • Go up and say “Hi”
  • Invite them to play
  • Not call any names
  • Not burp in their face
  • Not call their mom names
  • Not stand too close
  • Let them have all the turns

The strength of self-directed goals is that they are personal; children can focus on what is most important to them, and the steps to achievement are child-focused.

Sam was able to accomplish his goal. In four weeks, he reported having made seven good friends. The booklet also required Sam to identify how he reached his goal. Sam’s measurement of success was that he did not have any more behavior infractionsduring recess and that he continued to maintain his friendships (which he did).

Instilling perseverance is not the only benefit of personal goal setting. Teachers like Melanie believe that students who practice goal setting in personal ways will transfer the newly acquired skills to other challenges, including learning challenges. Encouraging students to be actively involved in goal setting may eventually help foster self-advocacy. All of these influences may help kids with LD to keep trying everyday.

Tip for Parents

This summer have your child create a personal goal book. Encourage them to choose their goal; even summertime type goals. Help them create and follow steps to accomplish and measure their goal. Let them take pride and ownership in the process. You can do it together for a few days or weeks. It might be fun!

In Summary

With a background in public health research, I understand the great amount of information that happens from those who “work in the trenches”. Anecdotal information can be astounding in its own right. I hope that these stories will offer parents and teachers inspiration to keep going themselves on the long road of supporting our amazing kids with LD.


Diana Sticker is a former research professional with a Master of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. She and her daughter have dyslexia. Diana is a Board Member of The Shadow Project, a nonprofit that partners with special education teachers to close the achievement gap for children with learning challenges. Also, she a founding member of Decoding Dyslexia Oregon, a grassroots parent movement that strives to bring dyslexia awareness to public schools.

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