April 22, 2015

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

In light of the recent marathon, we are all feeling Boston Strong. Watching the runners and celebrating their achievements has become a cornerstone of Boston’s culture, and, in many ways, has shown us how to overcome challenge together as a city. At Engaging Minds, the marathon has got us thinking: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to inject a bit of the marathoners’ grit and strength into our students’ educations? We’d love for our students to know that perseverance, training, and commitment can take them a long way, maybe even farther than 26.2 miles.

In a recent blog, we covered the concepts of growth mindsets and fixed mindsets, and their respective abilities to build work ethic and grit in our children. While these mindsets are certainly important, the marathon shows us that yet another mindset is crucial to success. Students must understand that achievement takes time, tenacity, and endurance over many weeks, months, and years. In short, becoming educated and succeeding in life is a marathon, not a sprint.

Marathon not sprint

The Traits of a Marathon Student

There are many special qualities required of athletes to complete the Boston Marathon. Long-term commitment to training, intrinsic motivation, and a tireless work-ethic are only a few of the boundless characteristics that all marathoners share. However, it is some of the “behind the scenes” skills, like the ability to set and work toward achieving goals or a willingness to push beyond a comfort zone, that make the biggest impact on runners’ successes.

These skills, which overlap with what psychologists and educators might deem “executive function skills,” are many of the same tools students need to achieve their full potential in school – and in life. For both teachers and parents, it is important to engage your students in a conversation about what it takes to be a marathoner and achieve a lofty goal. Consider each of the following skills, and connect those ideas to your child’s own experiences in school, in athletics, or in achieving a goal that seemed beyond his reach, but wasn’t.

  1. Organization is a unified approach to how a project is attempted or achieved. It encompasses the ability to impose order on physical materials and conceptual ideas so a task may be performed smoothly and systematically. Organizing for a marathon involves gathering the right tools (you can’t go for a run without your sneakers!) and setting appropriate goals for each stage of the training process. Organizing for school requires the same preparation: every student needs a system of organizing their materials, tracking their assignments, organizing their ideas, and setting new and appropriate goals for the “big picture.”  
  2. Planning and Time-management are similar to organization, but focus more so on the ability to manage current and future-oriented task demands in a systematic and efficient manner. Organization means developing a system for your work, while planning and time-management involve responding to real-time changes in the situation or task demands, estimating time needed to complete tasks, and having the ability to make and follow-through with a schedule; runners make running schedules, while students make homework schedules!
  3. Initiation of Tasks is the ability to independently recognize when it is time to start a project andto confidently mobilize one’s resources to do so. Marathoners don’t develop the endurance and strength to run 26.2 miles the week before the race. Instead, they have the know-how and will power to know when to get started training, far in advance of race day, and how to begin. Students can do the same by learning to recognize the amount of effort or time that goes into different types of assignments. Then, they can make appropriate decisions about when to begin, and what kinds of problem-solving approaches to use.
  4. Flexibility and Transitions encompass the abilities to think and problem-solve in a flexible, dynamic manner. Having flexibility and transitioning easily includes the ability to adapt to changes and to flexibly generate new ways to view a situation or solve a problem. Marathoners, certainly, encounter some roadblocks during their training, and must come up revised plans to continue pursuing their intended goals. Students need the same skill, so that they can adjust their planning when, inevitably, something prevents them from studying, writing, or approaching their homework in the way they originally hoped.
  5. Follow-through and Self-monitoring are perhaps the most important skills a marathoner must practice in order to reach the finish line. Self-monitoring is the ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected. Follow-through is the ability to persist until the task is finished, and to know when the job is done. A marathon runner monitors their pace, their progress, and their readiness to participate in the final race, following through with their training until they are ready to perform their best. Students need to do the same, tracking their progress toward finishing an assignment completely, thoroughly, and to the best of their ability. They also need to know their own strengths and weaknesses, apply them to their work, and follow-through until the job is done.  
  6. Emotional Control is the ability to modulate and regulate emotional responses, using rational thought to interpret and manage feelings. Emotional control can also include willpower, or the ability to control one’s thoughts, actions, and behaviors by one’s own “will.” Running the marathon can be an emotionally tumultuous experience, as can being a student. In both cases, it is important that students or athletes be able to impose their own will upon the situation, rationalize the fact that short-term effort leads to long-term success, and prove to themselves that they can overcome frustration, insecurity, lethargy, impatience and more.

Executive function coaches train marathon students every day. Students can learn and practice all of these skills, from organization to emotional control, in weekly sessions with an executive function coach or tutor. However, parents can also help their students become marathoners at home by encouraging careful self-monitoring, planning, and follow-through during homework time. You can also have a discussion with your child about the similarities between running a marathon and getting an education; the connections you make together will “light a fire” within your child and hopefully inspire him to reach new heights of his own. And to all those running or studying this week: Congratulations on your ongoing, remarkable accomplishments