My dad had a saying for every situation, often variations on the same theme: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, you eat an elephant one bite at a time, and so on and so forth. Essentially: get to work and stop complaining.

One question always nagged at me as I was sent off to mow the grass, or drag sticks out of the yard, or stack lumber into piles (Western New York, what can I say?) why would anyone want to walk a thousand miles, let alone eat an elephant?

Really, why do anything that feels hard? Or isn’t personally motivating? Set me up with fresh markers (Crayola thick, thank you very much) and a ream of paper and I would be lost in my own world for hours, but in school I often struggled to work hard at assigned tasks- it was the elephant again and I didn’t know why I would work at things that were uninteresting to me. I recently found an old report card where my teacher referred to me as “sometimes lazy”  (and also noted I needed help with jumping, ah the old days) and I wonder, what is that about? What is it that “laziness” masks?

The “L” Word

Let’s get it out there right now, I don’t think young kids are lazy. I think they can appear lazy to an eye ascribing adult characteristics to small children, but really, actually lazy? I don’t think so. So what is it that we see when we see kids under-performing or avoiding certain situations at school or home? The whole, “s/he could do it, s/he just doesn’t” situation? In my previous post I talked about fixed mindsets, and I do think that is one avenue: fear of failure. I think another is engagement, true cognitive engagement with a task- or a lack thereof… I think I was, in no small part, perceived as lazy because I had not learned yet that real learning comes from work, even work that you do not think you want to do.

Building Cognitive Engagement

Last year I worked hard to build an engaging environment by cashing in on the things my students loved (namely Star Wars). I wrote about it extensively on the blog I co-author with Marjorie Martinelli,, (you can find the Star Wars post here). I believe strongly that primary teachers need to find a way to make the line between learning and play as blurry as possible, but lately, thanks to my reading list: Thinking, Fast and Slow, Mindset, How Children Succeed, and Drive I have been thinking that children also need explicit opportunities to learn about and practice the character traits of persistence, resilience, flexibility, and optimism. (There are more, but these are the four that my amazing kindergarten team decided to start with.) Its not just the teachers who need to do work, learners do too. So through play, and in playful ways, we have been celebrating that trying things, even hard things that we may not want to do, is fun and exciting, and a really important part of being a kindergartener.

The Path We Have Taken Did Start with a Single Step:

  • We launched with idea of “Brains, like bodies, grow!” Your body needs food and water, but your brain needs to try new things, and solve mistakes, and say “I can try!” to grow. Growing is a good thing!
  • In, and after, choice time we have a circle conversation that starts with: What did you try today that made your brain grow?
  • We started reading aloud books that had characters that demonstrated the character traits we were emphasizing: Worm Builds (persistence), Bunny Cakes (persistence), Oh No George! (resilience), Elephants Cannot Dance (optimism), Lilly’s Chocolate Heart (flexibility), Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle (all of them in one beautiful package). We noticed and named the behavior, and thought about other options the characters had (giving up, having a tantrum, etc) and how that would have changed the story.
  • Katie Lee, kindergarten teacher extraordinaire, started putting the cover of the book on a crown with the word (for example: Worm Builds on a crown with the word Persistence). As children were caught exhibiting certain traits, they got the crowns. When kids in my classroom receive a crown, they story-tell the event that got the crown (I was being persistent because I tried to make a wand in the art center and I couldn’t do it but I tried until I could) so they can later repeat it to a family member. Also, what five year old does not want to wear a crown?!
  • I sent a letter to parents asking them to take pictures of their children being persistent and send the photos in, so children could tell the story of how they were persistent at home- one child brought in a photo of him FINALLY sipping up his coat by himself, another of learning to throw a frisbee. The photos are up on our wall along with characters who acted in a persistent way.
  • Christine Hertz, 3rd grade teacher extraordinaire, pushed my thinking around the idea of self talk, and since speaking with her, I have been teaching children what it sounds like when one is persistent: I can do it, I can try, let me try this one more time, I have done hard things before, I can do this! The easiest way to do this has been through choice time and writing workshop. Whenever I demonstrate, I think aloud those words. When I work side by side with children, I ask them to say those mantras to themselves as well.

We have been introducing the traits one a week, never really letting go of the one before. Many children naturally demonstrate these traits, and in celebrating them, we name them as something to do again and again. Much of this thinking grew in the company of others: Valerie Geschwind, Kathryn Cazes, Mollie Smith, Katie Lee, and Christine Hertz in particular, so I would be remiss to sign off without thanking them for their persistence and optimism in what we can accomplish in our teaching. It seems everywhere I turn, I see the keywords of persistence, grit, optimism, and effort linked to success. What ways are your celebrating and emphasizing this work in your own classroom?



  • readingtothecore
    Posted at 03:23h, 07 October Reply

    Kristi, I love this post! I’ve been overwhelmed by several large projects lately, and have found that if I tackle them one piece at a time, I make more progress than if I tried to finish each one in a single sitting. The idea of reading books around the character traits you’re emphasizing is brilliant, as are the crowns. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • kristimraz
      Posted at 22:41h, 07 October Reply

      Thanks so much! It’s been a lot of thinking with others. I am on the same project train 🙂 good luck!

  • Jennifer DeSutter
    Posted at 04:19h, 16 November Reply

    I knew I loved this work when I read this article a few years back. I thought… Can I have a school day like this?

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