Two years ago, as GreatSchools embarked on research for the second season of our podcast for parents, Like a Sponge, I faced a mounting sense of worry. Our podcast was about the science of learning, but this season would be entirely devoted to the science of character.
Although I’m a big believer in big love and eternal forgiveness (chalk it up to my coastal California roots), the reality is that I’d bought into the old mechanistic dichotomy: cognitive vs. noncognitive, thinking vs. feeling, academics vs. social-emotional learning. Even how we map the two destinations in our bodies differs. Learning happens in the head; character in the heart.
But it wasn’t long after we’d waded into the swelling seas of personal stories and studies that define character science that we began discovering how profoundly intertwined the two realms are: Character profoundly influences every aspect of learning. Drawing from our Like a Sponge podcast, below are four strengths that your children can cultivate—from gratitude to humility—that will help them become better students.
Learning forgiveness can improve kids’ grades
Decades of research show that the ability to forgive is a life skill that helps us build resilience. When you can forgive, you can move on from hurt and misfortune. In one episode, we spoke to leading forgiveness researcher Robert Enright, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who shared how teaching kids forgiveness not only changes their outlook on life but can impact their academic performance.
In one study of middle schoolers who were failing academically, the group who participated in a 12-week forgiveness class saw their average grades improve a full letter grade, whereas students who did not receive forgiveness classes showed no academic improvement. While such results may seem surprising, Enright says, they make perfect sense.
“If you are a 13 year old in middle school and you have a throbbing knee that day, you’re going to miss the lesson because your knee is getting in the way of concentration,” explains Enright. “What if you have a broken heart and you have this lesson? You’re going to miss it, too. But what if we can bind up the heart? Now, you have more time, focus, and energy to focus on your lessons.”
Parenting takeaway: In order to give your child the superpower of resilience (and more chance to learn), model forgiveness and talk about its value in small ways in daily life. That way, when your child experiences hurt or injustice (as we all do), they have already developed the practice of forgiveness.
Kids with purpose lean into learning
Researchers have long understood that people with a strong sense of purpose are on average happier, healthier, and more successful than those without a sense of purpose. For young people, the benefits extend to their schoolwork: Kids with a sense of purpose say their schoolwork is more meaningful and, perhaps even more powerful, that their schoolwork is within their control.
Unfortunately, only 40% of adults and 20% of youth report having a sense of purpose. Are these just the lucky few born with a clear direction in life? Or could a sense of purpose be cultivated?
We posed these questions to Kendall Cotton Bronk, professor of psychology at the Claremont Graduate University, who shared a surprising story about her research on youth and purpose. She and her fellow researchers asked questions to young people in order to simply measure their sense of purpose, but something unexpected happened. When interviewing the participants nine months later, the researchers discovered that their sense of purpose had grown substantially. Just talking about purpose during a single conversation, no matter how much or little direction they started with, helped young people discover a deeper sense of purpose.
Parenting takeaway: Researchers caution that parents should be careful not to impose their purpose on their children. But open-ended conversations about what your child cares about and what they want to see change in the world can be wonderful ways to lay a foundation for them to explore their values and ultimately to develop a stronger sense of purpose.
Gratitude can help kids build relationships that enable learning
When we set out to explore the science of raising kids with gratitude, we understood it very much from a parent’s point of view. What parent hasn’t muttered under their breathe, “How ‘bout a little gratitude?” when their child has forgotten to say thank you or seem appreciative? The value of gratitude seemed obvious: Wasn’t it just to help kids get along with others (especially their beleaguered parents)?
But we were surprised when Giacomo Bono, gratitude researcher and professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, broached why gratitude is such a powerful character strength for children to learn early: It changes the very nature of their lives, enabling them to tap into their motivation to learn, cultivate mentors, and find lifelong success.
“It’s not just that wandering around with a sense of gratitude alone makes you happier or more resilient,” Bono told us. “It’s that it makes you behave differently in the world, build your relationships differently.” In other words, when children feel and act on their gratitude for others, it changes how they engage with the world and changes their own sense of themselves. First, they express authentic gratitude to people (like teachers or friends, or family) who support them. This deepens those relationships and enables them to find positive connections with peers and mentors, who in turn facilitate goal-setting and motivation.
Parenting takeaway: Asking children to say thank you or write thank you notes sends messages about politeness and social norms but may not tap into genuine gratitude. Instead, build your family practice of gratitude with small, easy rituals that enable you to model it to your children, such as naming three things you’re grateful for before bed or sharing who you’re grateful for in conversation.
Humble kids get better grades
We want our kids to be confident learners. We tell them to “speak up in class” and “fake it ’til you make it.” What if all this focus on bluff and bluster isn’t building confidence but instead getting in the way of learning?
Humility is an ancient virtue associated with Greek philosophers and Christian theologians, but according to new research, it may also be a key to helping children maintain the mindset essential for learning. Why? Learning requires curiosity, and curiosity requires not knowing—or admitting what you don’t know.
We spoke to Tenelle Porter, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, about one of her studies on how intellectual humility in teenagers seems to influence their learning. In fact, the higher teens’ level of humility, the higher their grades. And it’s not because they’re more intelligent; they’re good at learning.
“They actually persist longer through really difficult problems,” she told us. “They’re more effortful. If they fail something, they get failure feedback, they’re actually more interested in trying to learn what they did wrong.” Even after the researchers controlled for a number of factors, they discovered that students with high humility made more gains in their learning that year.
Parenting takeaway: Instead of focusing on what your child knows, allow more room for what they’re curious about learning. You can model your own intellectual humility, too, by saying things like: “I’m so curious about…” or “I really want to learn more about…”
When learning fuels character
All of this research suggests how character can often be a powerful catalyst for learning. When children can feel gratitude for their teachers, humility in the face of new knowledge, purpose in connecting small tasks to big goals, and forgiveness when distracted by hurt, they can better open themselves to the daunting, exhilarating, and often tedious process of learning about the world. But as children learn, this can also pave the way for further character development.
In our episode about love, we spoke to Amy Warren, a researcher at Tuft University’s Institute for Applied Research and Youth Development, who studied “great love and compassion,” the capacity for people to widen their circle of care to the whole of humanity. After in-depth interviews with 100 teenagers, she discovered that the crucial factor that influenced young people’s capacity for great love and compassion was not moral instruction or a religious upbringing, but exposure to different experiences and knowledge—everything from playing sports and conversations with people from diverse communities to knowing a second language and scientific knowledge. In other words, learning.
She summed up her discoveries with a quote from the poet Ortega Y Gasset: “So many things fail to interest us, simply because they don’t find in us enough surfaces on which to live, and what we have to do is to increase the number of planes in our mind, so that a much larger number of themes can find a place in it at the same time.” In this metaphor where each child is like a prism gathering and reflecting light, it’s easy to see how parents can support their child’s character and learning as one and the same.