What’s More Important Than Good Grades?

Posted June 4, 2015 by jimhigley

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I’ve seen three children receive their high school diplomas. They’s learned a lot. And so have I. Especially this: Cognitive skills count, but traits like patience, persistence, and self-confidence are a critical part of children’s academic success.

That’s why I’m a big believer in pumping up a kid’s character.

A California school district actually saw standardized test scores increase more than five percent annually after the integration of a character curriculum. And a University of Chicago study echoes those same findings. “What we’ve come to understand is that character is a central ingredient for success in school,” says co-author of the study, Nobel Prize recipient James J. Heckman, Ph.D., University of Chicago economics professor.

So that’s why I’ve come to learn that while flash cards and science projects have their place, parents need also focus on character. The great thing is that there are plenty of things to do with children that build a limber brain and a developed sense of character. They’re fun. And they’re a great way to connect. Here’s my five favorites.

1. Teach your child chess: A Zaire study shows that kids who play chess have stronger numerical and verbal skills. And researchers in Wisconsin report that an integrated chess program in schools increased standardized math scores by 23% while pushing reading skills by more than 1.5 grade levels.

Character Builder: It shows them how to handle failure: I’ve seen this with two of my children. Chess is a great way for kids to figure out how to deal with setback. And it shows them in very tangible ways that a loss is something you can bounce back from—and learn from.

2. Go climb a tree: Researchers at Georgia Health Sciences University say that regular exercise of all kinds makes kids smarter. In just three months, grade school kids who participated in 40 minutes of daily exercise saw intelligence scores increase 3.8 points.

Character Builder: It strengthens their emotional control: My youngest son was a tree climber. He loved it. Little did I know that climbing trees actually help children learn how to keep their emotions in check. As my good friend Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D. told me (he’s the co-author of The Art of Roughhousing),  “Kids can’t climb a tree if their emotions are all over the place. While some climbing moves are easy, others may be challenging and downright scary.” According to Anthony, climbing requires emotional focus which transfers to a valuable life skill.

3. Give your kids 3 balls to juggle: You’ve probably experienced the hand-eye coordination benefits of juggling yourself. But did you know it also increases the size of your child’s brain? Oxford researchers discovered a five percent increase in brain white matter in novice jugglers after just six weeks of daily practice.

Character Builder: It shows them that perseverance pays off: I’ve given all of my kid juggling kits along their life journey. Candidly, I did it to keep them busy! But what I’ve come to see is that it’s a great activity because it’s a hard enough skill that they can’t master instantly –  but it’s not so hard that they quit.

4. Praise kid’s efforts: Academic performance is higher with students who believe it’s possible to increase their intelligence over those who see intelligence as inborn and unchanging according to Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a Stanford University psychology professor. She says that kids work their hardest when they think they can impact the outcome.

Character Builder: It helps them feel optimism: It took me a while to figure this out, but the praise and encouragement along the way – highlighting all of the wonderful skills that a child has within themselves – is what kids really need. And value. Reserving praise for the end product (good grades, a fantastic project, a home run) pales in comparison to the value of praise along the journey to success (or failure!).

5. Make them wait: Kids who know how to delay gratification do better academically. A Stanford study shows that students who exhibited patience as young children scored measurably higher on SAT tests years later. And a more recent follow-up with those same kids revealed unchanged willpower characteristics well into adulthood.

Character Builder: It teaches them self-regulation: This is one of my favorite reminders. We don’t always have to say “yes.” And everything doesn’t have to happen immediately. And while my children aren’t always happy with me when I don’t jump at their every request or desire, I just remind myself that they’ll be a better person for it in the long run.

Plus it gives us more time to just have some fun together!


This memory is part of a series of stories I’m sharing during the months of May and June – highlighting the importance of connecting with our children. These memories are brought to you by the wonderful folks at Kimberly-Clark who have compensated me for my writing. All opinions are my own. 

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