How Parents Can Help Kids Develop Academic Courage

A father is reading a book with his son on a couch

Do you like to admit when you are baffled by a bank statement, perplexed by the new software at work, or stumped by a furniture assembly diagram? If you’re like many people, you probably try to avoid asking for help because it means confessing that you lack knowledge or can’t figure something out. But if you’ve exhausted all other options, you’ll do it.

Taking the steps necessary to learn something new takes bravery, for adults and children alike. Try to remember how it felt to be a small child or a self-conscious teenager constantly learning new facts and new skills. Every attempt to use the newfound knowledge brought the risk of being wrong. Pretty scary stuff for a student. That’s why it’s important for parents to empower their kids to have academic courage.

What Is Academic Courage?

Academic courage, sometimes called grit, is when a student struggles and experiences fear or doubt while learning but persists. Students who have academic courage aren’t just warming a seat; they are putting forth real effort and sticking with their studies despite difficulties and setbacks. This level of involvement requires bravery because it comes with the risk of failure. But in learning, failure is only a temporary setback because it provides the opportunity to try again and succeed.

What makes academic courage so important? Educators have found that when a student perseveres and figures things out for himself, he discovers a deeper, more personal level of understanding. In addition, by overcoming obstacles and eventually finding success, a student gains confidence.

How Can Parents Support Academic Courage?

Parents can help their students do their very best by approaching learning activities with a growth mind-set. One of the most important ideas is that it’s okay to struggle, get an answer wrong, or have an experiment fail as long as you learn from it! As Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus says: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”
A recent article for Edutopia suggests that developing the academic courage needed to learn from their mistakes can actually help kids succeed in school and as adults. Here are five simple ways parents can help their sons and daughters develop academic courage:

1. Encourage students to ask questions.

Remind your kids that if they don’t understand a lesson, they should speak up and ask a question! Teachers welcome questions and are willing to explain new concepts or clarify assignments, but they can’t help if their students don’t ask.

Students can also learn by asking themselves questions as they study. Asking “Why did the character make that decision?” while reading, or wondering What if I tried this method? while working on a math problem, can lead them to deeper insights or new approaches to try. Read what famous people have to say about asking questions in these inspiring quotations, and share them with your student.

“Don't be afraid to ask the ‘dumb’ question. Everyone else will be relieved you had the guts to ask!”
—Sheryl Sandberg

“He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.”
—Mark Twain

“It’s not that I’m so smart, but I stay with the questions much longer.”
—Albert Einstein

“There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”
―Carl Sagan

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask … for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
—Albert Einstein

2. Remind them to bring their A game.

Just like in baseball or soccer, in learning it’s important to give it your best shot! Let your child know that even if she’s feeling unsure, she should jump in and participate in class. Joining in a discussion or trying to solve a problem on the board might be outside her comfort zone, but it will provide opportunities to see someone else’s point of view or clarify something she doesn’t understand.

3. Encourage kids to make a “bad” first attempt.

Mathematicians don’t necessarily perfect a complex computation on their first shot, and journalists don’t win a Pulitzer Prize for their first drafts. If your son is obsessing over homework or a project and getting nowhere, ask him to give himself permission to make a fast and horrible first try, knowing and expecting that the results will need some fixing up.

Many people have trouble getting started when they expect perfection. Take away that stress and it becomes easier. Once your child sees his rough version, he can fix the errors and make changes until he is satisfied.

4. Encourage your child to try again after a setback.

Don’t let your child dwell on mistakes—that will only reinforce a feeling of failure. Just like a cowboy, a student needs to “get back on the horse.” Moving on enables a student to learn from the mistake and to use what she has learned to make a stronger attempt the next time. Before too long, she will find success and become more confident as a result.

5. Share your stories.

Let your kids know that everyone has setbacks, including you. Kids need to know that they’re not alone in struggling, so share your stories. Maybe you had trouble writing a history paper or had a hard time mastering fractions when you were in school. Tell your student how the situation made you feel, how you struggled, and how you finally overcame your problem. Even telling your child about a difficult project at work can reinforce the concept of sticking with something until you find a solution.

6. Praise students for their efforts.

Education is like a marathon. It’s natural to praise a child at the finish line, when he’s aced a test, or after he’s finished a big project, but he needs your encouragement most during the long journey to get there! Parents can reinforce academic courage by cheering their students on during their periods of struggle. Praise students for being persistent, and let them know that you recognize the efforts they are making. Learning to apply themselves and keep at it can help them advance in school.

Whether you call it academic courage, bravery, or grit, helping your student develop the ability to make a real effort and stick with his or her studies can make a big difference. With this ability and the confidence it builds, your child will have two important tools for academic and career success.

Parental involvement makes a huge difference in a child’s education. Visit our website to discover how you can become more involved in supporting your student’s learning with online public school or online private school.

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