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These 7 skills separate successful kids from ‘those who struggle’: Psychologist and parenting expert


When I began my career teaching at-risk children, most of my students lived in poverty, suffered abuse, or were challenged by learning, emotional or physical disabilities. I wanted to find ways to help them succeed.

As an educational psychologist, I learned a very important lesson: Thrivers are made, not born. Children need safe, loving and structured childhoods, but they also need autonomy, competence and agency to flourish.

After combing through piles of research on traits most highly correlated to optimizing kids’ thriving abilities, I identified seven skills kids need to boost mental toughness, resilience, social competence, self-awareness and moral strength — and they are what separates successful kids who shine from those who struggle:

1. Self-confidence

Most parents equate self-esteem with self-confidence. They tell their kids “You’re special” or “You can be anything you want.”

But there’s little evidence that boosting self-esteem increases academic success or even authentic happiness. Studies do show, however, that children who attribute their grades to their own efforts and strengths are more successful than kids who believe they have no control over academic outcomes.

Real self-confidence is an outcome of doing well, facing obstacles, creating solutions and snapping back on your own. Fixing your kid’s problems or doing their tasks for them only makes them think: “They don’t believe I can.”

Kids who have self-assuredness know they can fail but also rebound, and that’s why we must unleash ourselves from hovering, snowplowing and rescuing.

2. Empathy

3. Self-control

The ability to control your attention, emotions, thoughts, actions and desires is one of the most highly correlated strengths to success — and a surprising untapped secret to helping kids bounce back and thrive.

One way to teach self-control is to give signals. Some kids have a hard time changing focus between activities. That’s why teachers use “attention signals” like ringing a bell or verbal cues: “Pencils down, eyes up.”

Develop a signal, practice together, and then expect attention! A few: “I need your attention in one minute.” “Ready to listen?”

Another technique is to use stress pauses. Slowing down gives them time to think. Teach a “pausing prompt” your child can use to remind them to stop and think before acting:

  • “If you’re mad, count to 10 before you answer.”
  • “When in doubt: Stop, think, cool off.”
  • “Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want said about you.”

4. Integrity

Integrity is a set of learned beliefs, capacities, attitudes and skills that create a moral compass children can use to help them know — and do — what’s right.

Laying out our own expectations is a huge part of the puzzle. But equally important is giving them space to develop their own moral identity alongside and separate from our own.

It also helps to acknowledge and praise ethical behavior when your child displays it so they recognize that you value it. Call out integrity, then describe the action so your child knows what they did to deserve recognition.

Using the word “because” makes your praise more specific: “That showed integrity because you refused to pass on that gossip.” “You showed integrity because you kept your promise to go with your friend even though you had to give up the slumber party!”

5. Curiosity

Curiosity is the recognition, pursuit and desire to explore novel, challenging and uncertain events.

To help kids build curiosity, I like to use open-ended toys, gadgets and games. Give them paint, yarn and popsicle sticks to create constructions. Or offer paper clips and pipe cleaners and challenge your kids to see how many unusual ways they can use them.

Another method is to model inquisitiveness. Instead of saying “That won’t work,” try “Let’s see what happens!” Instead of giving answers, ask: “What do you think?” “How do you know?” “How can you find out?”

Lastly, you read a book, watch a film or just walk by someone, use “I wonder” questions: “I wonder where she’s going.” “I wonder why they’re doing that.” “I wonder what happens next.”

6. Perseverance

Perseverance helps kids keep on when everything else makes it easier to give up.

Mistakes can derail kids from getting to the end and succeeding. So don’t let your kid catastrophize their problem. Instead, help them zero in and identify their stumble.

Some kids give up because they feel overwhelmed with “all the problems” or “all their assignments.” Chunking tasks into smaller parts helps kids who have difficulties focusing or getting started.

You can teach your daughter to “chunk it,” for example, by covering all her math problems with a piece of paper, except the top row. Lower the covered paper down the next row and the next as each row is completed.

Older kids can write each assignment on one sticky note, in order of difficulty, and do one task at a time. Encourage them to do the hardest thing first so they won’t stress about it all night. Confidence and perseverance build as kids complete larger chunks alone.

7. Optimism





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