Essential Traits of Habit and Mind

When thinking about success for children, some of us may believe that high scores on classroom tests or standardized tests are indicators or predictors of success. In a college preparatory school such as ours, tests do matter—primarily in the sense of offering important feedback to incorporate in an effort to make corrections—and to learn from one’s errors and re-adjust. A singular focus on scores undervalues the process of learning, which is how children develop essential traits of habit and mind. Such traits of habit and mind are potentially life-long; test scores are temporary. Do we adults remember our grades from eighth or ninth grade?

Students (and to some degree their parents) are wise to adopt a spirit of optimism about test scores that are not as high as we had hoped or expected. In our faculty summer reading book How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, there is a wonderful definition of “learned optimism” (this term derives from the title of a book written by Martin Seligman of the Positive Psychology movement; the idea is the opposite from “learned self-helplessness”). Being optimistic, it turns out, is to reject failure as something personal, something permanent, or something pervasive. “There are short-term explanations for bad events,” according to the book. Cliche or not, failure absolutely represents an opportunity to improve and to grow.

Optimism is among seven traits that Tough singles out as learned behaviors that may be far more indicative of success than grades on tests or scores on standardized tests. He refers to these behavior traits as character—“essential traits of mind and habit.” In addition to the character trait of “optimism,” the book lists the following traits, all of which I have compared to the ten traits of the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile which we at Madison Country Day School incorporate into our teaching and interactions with students.

  • Curiosity: This trait correlates closely with the IB traits “Inquirer” and “Knowledgeable.”
  • Gratitude: This trait is connected to the IB trait of “Caring.”
  • Social Intelligence: I see connections to the IB traits of “Principled,” “Communicators,” and “Open-Minded.”
  • Zest: There is a clear connection to the IB trait “Risk-taker,” which the IB partially defines as our potential to “approach uncertainty with courage and forethought and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas, and strategies.”
  • Self Control: I view the IB Learner Profile traits of “Reflective,” “Balanced,” and “Principled” as closely related to the notion of self-control.
  • Grit: Angela Duckworth, author of a book entitled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” As relates to an IB Learner Profile trait, I suggest “thinker,” which is encouraged as a necessary trait to “approach complex problems.” Clearly, the MCDS Belief Statement of “Effort is generally more important than ability” is also reflected in this trait.

There are some schools that focus on these traits to such a degree that character report cards have been developed—to me, that would potentially be misguided as I do not think of character as a straightforward measurement. Instead, I am a proponent of encouraging students toward character development by modeling these traits and intentionally teaching students about these traits. Additionally, I think these character traits may form a wonderful foundation when conducting parent-teacher conferences. I encourage parents to solicit feedback from teachers on how their students are developing in these traits just as I encourage teachers to reflect about their students in terms of their character development.

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