Developing perseverance in preschoolers: Here's what to know

Perseverance is the ability to overcome obstacles and the desire to continue to work toward a goal or task even when challenges are involved.
Getty Images

Many successful adults throughout the years have shown this trait. For example, Milton Hershey, who founded Hershey’s Chocolate, unsuccessfully started three different candy companies before he was successful. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first television job and told she was “unfit for TV.” Even basketball star Michael Jordan didn’t make his ninth-grade team.

The ability to persevere and overcome challenges is key to success in work and personal relationships. Many children struggle in class but continue to study and improve. Others miss the goal when shooting for the win, but keep trying and playing. Preparing your child to handle setbacks well contributes powerfully to their future success. When a child is three or four, learning to persevere often starts by trying something at which he or she is naturally skilled. This could be puzzles, building blocks, coloring, or painting, depending on the child. As your child gets better at doing puzzles, for instance, she may then learn to persevere in areas in which she’s not as skilled. You can help lay the foundation for your child’s future success by teaching him about failure and perseverance now.

A great way to discuss perseverance with your small child is to read books together where the characters overcome obstacles. For example, "The Little Engine That Could" by Watty Piper is a classic story about a train engine who perseveres and succeeds. For a lesson about failure and quitting, "Winners Never Quit!," by Mia Hamm, is another good book to read together.

Try to let your child fail from time to time. If your child is working on a puzzle or trying to zip his jacket and you see him struggling, try not to step in immediately. Allowing your child time to work through frustrating and difficult tasks will help build his perseverance. Even if your child isn’t successful, it’s O.K. to simply say to her, “Do you need help with your zipper?” instead of solving the problem for her. If she asks for help, show her how to do it, and be patient if she insists on trying again herself. Neurologist and teacher Judy Willis recommends setting your kids up for success by letting them know when something will require time and perseverance. For example, when starting a puzzle, or learning to tie a shoe, tell them it won’t be completed all in one sitting. There might be a smaller goal for today -- crossing the laces -- with a longer-term goal in the future -- to tie the shoes all by themselves.

Talk to your child about the work that goes into success. Emeritus Head of School at New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, Tom Hoerr recommends taking the opportunity while listening to music or watching a sporting event with your child. Explain that yes, the musician or athlete is talented, but what you’re seeing and hearing is hours and hours of practice coming to fruition. Often, children think that success “just happens,” but by talking about the effort that goes into success you can show your child the benefits of perseverance. You can also apply this idea to your conversations with your kids around their performance. Make comments when you notice their resilience like, “You tried really hard” or, “I like how you didn’t give up,” or “I could tell you were trying your best,” rather than “You did well” or, “You’re good at soccer.”

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Thomas Hoerr, Emeritus Head of School, New City School and Judy Willis, Neurologist, Teacher, Author, International Lecturer, University of California, Santa Barbara.