Search form

How to Teach Kids About Effort

Try harder.

When I think of the number of times I heard those words growing up, the frustration of being a kid and not understanding how to make a change for the better still resonates. For many students, being told to do more (or hearing the dreaded phrase “not up to your potential”) doesn’t mean much. It’s not that kids don’t want to improve; in fact, quite the opposite. As much as students who struggle feel bad about their lack of success, many are prone to giving up when adults do not explicitly give them strategies that will address how effort leads to achievement. Therefore, teaching kids how to make an effort by showing them what that looks like is far more powerful than just telling them what to do and expecting a change. 

Talk About Distractions

Nowadays, distractions run far more rampant than they did even just a few years ago. As we all know too well, technology has become an obstacle to focus for so many students as they cope with social media, peer dynamics, and the sheer availability of options available online that present attractive alternatives to work. Beyond that, kids face an increasing number of challenges at home in the recovery period from this global pandemic, and they are also more likely to take on added responsibilities like caring for young siblings or working night jobs. 

To help kids see the role that distraction plays in their success, ask them to make a list of all the things that pull their attention from schoolwork. Anything is legitimate, from their devices to a much-beloved pet who needs attention at the end of the day. Then, below each item on the list, have them brainstorm ideas for how to keep their focus when the distraction is present. Students can start with their own ideas, and then ask a classmate for help via turn and talk or “phone a friend.” If time allows, it can also help to make time for kids to share their thoughts with the larger group, since a lot of students will have distractions in common that they want ideas for managing. The one caveat with this strategy is to tell students they need not share anything that feels overly personal or uncomfortable. However, what they do share can create added empathy, community and empowerment in the classroom. 

Normalize and Celebrate Asking for Help

Somewhere along the way, our society misconstrued asking for help as a sign of weakness. It’s our job to teach kids that asking for help is actually a sign of incredible resourcefulness and maturity. We don’t want them to think that adults operate with an all-knowing set of skills; rather, we also ask for assistance when the need or opportunity arises. Showcasing human vulnerability is important. When a teacher doesn’t know something, for example, it can be revelatory for kids to hear an adult say, “I don’t know, but I think I can find out who to ask for help.”

In addition to modeling our own practice of reaching out and consulting resources that are both human and material, we can also help students develop a running record of where to go for help. To begin, students create categories on a sheet of paper (or online document) that represent areas of need. For example, a portion of the page might be devoted to identifying people who can help alleviate more general confusion about the class, or it could be broken down by materials that help build skills like reading, writing, speaking, or listening. Students might also be directed to create a two-sided page, one for questions and the other for answers. It is up to the teacher to figure out what the running record would look like specifically, but the intent and results are the same: to empower students by growing their capacity to consult resources where needed, and to celebrate their tenacity when they ask for help.

Elevate the Importance of Hard Work

There may be some people who can roll out of bed and produce excellence, but they are hardly the norm. Most of us need to work hard to achieve results, and that is not a deficit of any kind. Rather, there is strength in achieving results through effort on a consistent basis. To that end, students will benefit from seeing images like this one by Sylvia Duckworth that highlight the important role failure and struggle plays in ultimate success. Often, students are accustomed to seeing the end result and assuming that any individual who achieved great things simply started out that way. Both the iceberg image and inspiring videos like this one tell a different story, and one that all can appreciate. 

Think About Time

One of the most precious commodities is also one that kids and adults alike struggle to manage: time. It may be true that nobody can add hours to an already packed day, but making some plans around how we schedule time to work is a skill that must be taught explicitly to students. A way to begin this process is to make a timeline of the hours that take up the day between the end of the school day and bedtime. Suppose that students work within a range of time between four in the afternoon and nine o’clock at night. That might seem like five hours at the outset to play with, but appearances can be deceiving. 

For a week, ask students to track their time, as some days differ from others with athletic practices, responsibilities at home and so forth. In addition, they should record how much distraction plays into their time, like hours spent on screens or with friends. Once students have a full record of how they spend each day during one sample week, patterns will begin to emerge. Then, each student can develop a “Productivity Plan” for their after-hours time to focus on where they have some space to do homework, and also to see just exactly how much they might be getting distracted. When their plans are built around real-life challenges and constraints, kids are more likely to see where they can get things done, and where they might be allowing themselves too much leeway for distraction.

Use What You Know

It can be hard for kids to believe that they already have skills at a young age, but every student comes into our classrooms equipped with different tools that help to guide their academic success. Some students might be rule-followers who thoroughly address each task by ticking off directions and criteria. Others might enjoy exercising some creativity through a variety of mediums. Whatever their individual skills might be, celebrating that by offering flexible modalities for completing assignments where possible is a student-centered move that yields excellent results. In addition, teachers will benefit from seeing a side to students that might not be otherwise visible within the constraints of a more rigid classroom environment. 

Moving forward, instead of asking kids to put forth their full effort without explicitly demonstrating what that means, it is far more useful to show them what that looks like. By trying out the strategies above, teachers can highlight the importance of having more awareness around what effort looks like in action. That way, instead of being frustrated by vague directives to “try harder,” kids will make progress with concrete strategies that make their lives in school much more manageable. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS