Perseverance is defined as continued effort despite encountering difficulties. It is identified as the first mathematical practice in the Common Core of State Standards. We encourage and celebrate perseverance. What is missing is developing perseverance, and even defining it.

Often, we conflate completion of work with perseverance. Sometimes students complete work but did not have to persevere as the work was easy. Sometimes students do not complete work but they persevered. If students are given mostly or only work that is easy to complete, they do not learn to persevere and becoming accustomed to work that they know how to do makes it harder to learn to persevere.

Perseverance is a behavior so it can be shaped, as is true for critical thinking and other self-help behaviors. I broke down the act of perseverance using a task analysis approach and created a table for progress monitoring (below). This handout has an outline of an IEP objective, the table, and additional information.

To shape the behavior, I present students with tasks for which they can come up with some answer, albeit not the correct answer. For example, the image below shows a problem of counting up squares (including bigger squares made up of the smaller squares). When they come up with an answer, I praise them for the attempt and following directions, then explain that there are more (no one has come up with the answer on the first attempt). They have hit a road block and are now prompted to continue their effort. That is perseverance on a smaller scale with prompting. This is an entry point.

In this task, the students have multiple criteria to address. Often, students will shut down and immediately respond with that they don’t know what to do. I will prompt them to try something and many will simply fill in the boxes in order with 1, 2…9. Some will simply write in 9 in each box. I explain that they met the first criteria or partially met it, then ask them to try to meet the next criteria. As in the checkerboard activity, I am guiding them through the process for perseverance. The handouts for these activities are located here.

Perseverance is essential for not academic situations as well. For example, if a student counts out the incorrect amount of money at a grocery store in a post-secondary situation he or she will need to try again – to persevere. If they are reliant on educators or parents to fix this situation they will be reliant when the parents and educators are not around. Try to mimic real life problem situations with scenarios which allow shaping. For example, a student in class learns to pay a price with dollars and cents. Create a purchase scenario but don’t provide them with coins and do not explain what to do. That can be a first step in shaping perseverance.