Being Successful in Life and Being Successful in School—September, 2019

The 30,000-foot view of the purpose of education is to help people be “successful.” Success is one of those words that we all use without specifically defining its meaning. For simplicity’s sake and for the sake of this article, I am defining success as the ability to be a contributing and self-sufficient citizen.

Some of things that we teach in school don’t specifically lead to these ends. For example, I have not had to solve a quadratic equation since 1975, when I completed Algebra II. I am also fairly certain that I couldn’t tell you the relevance of a “p” shell and an “n” shell to atomic structure if my life depended on it. However, many of things that are important in school, do directly transfer to having a successful life. Some of these are listed below:

Grit and Attitude

Young people must develop “character strengths” like grit, curiosity, thoughtfulness, and optimism. They need to learn self-control, how to manage stress, and to learn from their failures. The more curious and resourceful children are, the better. No one’s potential is fixed at birth. “Maria is a quick learner.” “I’m bad at math.” We speak of these traits as if they are a given fact. Scientists who study the brain have discovered that all of us can grow strong and meet challenges if we work hard and stick with it. Natural talent and predispositions are just the beginning.

Self-Doubt & Confidence

Self-doubt makes all of us feel alone and this is especially true for children. This feeling of uncertainty about their ability to accomplish something can impact a student’s decision to prepare for further education. Self-doubt is normal, but it can lead to hesitation, indecision and compromising personal expectations. Feeling it does not mean that they are going to fail.

We can help children overcome self-doubt by encouraging them to look back on times in the past when they doubted themselves but ended up being successful. Knowledge and recognition of their past successes boosts the courage it takes to achieve their goals in the future.

Tips for building self-confidence

  • Attend your child’s events when possible.
  • Spend time with your child.
  • Make small, nonmaterial gestures that show you care.
  • Be generous with your praise about your child’s effort.
  • Let kids know you will be there for them now and in the future.


Showing up is important! One of the constant complaints I hear from employers is the inability of some their workers to come to work on time (or sometimes, come to work at all). Students who miss more than ten percent (or just two days every month) of school days in one year are considered chronically absent. This habit can also carry over into their career.

Absences can be a sign that a student is losing interest in school, struggling with school work, dealing with a bully, or facing some other potentially serious difficulty. Regardless of the reason, the effects are real. Once freshmen missed ten percent of school days, their odds of graduating dropped below forty percent.

What You Can Do

  • Insist on regular, prompt attendance. Talk about why going to school every day is critical and important unless they are sick.
  • Encourage your student to get involved at school with a club or activity.
  • Establish and stick to the basic routines (going to bed early, waking up on time, etc.) to develop the habit of on-time attendance.
  • If your child seems reluctant to go to school, find out why and work with the teacher, administrator, or afterschool provider to get them excited about going to school.
  • Reach out for help if you are experiencing tough times (e.g. transportation, unstable housing, loss of a job, health problems) that make it difficult to get your child to school. Other parents, your child’s teacher, principal, social worker, school nurse, afterschool providers or community agencies can help you problem-solve or connect you to a needed resource.
  • If your child is absent, work with the teacher to make sure she or he has an opportunity to learn and make up for the academics missed.

Work Effectively

Whether at work or at school, it’s not enough to just “know the facts”. We all need to organize our tasks, stick to them, and manage our time. As productive citizens, we listen and ask questions when work is assigned. Families can help their children develop these skills.

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