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School readiness includes academic skills, as well as foundational skills – skills that need to be in place to allow for academic learning. Last month I talked about the academic skills of literacy. This month I want to look at the foundational skill of persistence.

Persistence is the skill of staying on task. Persistence requires a child to be motivated. As an adult, it’s easy to think that young children are not persistent. A toddler wanders from one activity to another, or a preschooler starts playing with a toy after only putting on one shoe. But children can be persistent if they are highly motivated. For example, a toddler might want to listen to the same book repeatedly, while a preschooler might request ice cream again and again.

Persistence requires a child to be curious, motivated, flexible in their thinking, able to problem-solve, and able to filter out extraneous sound and activity. Allowing for uninterrupted time for play is a great way to foster these skills. Here are some ideas to get you started:


Curiosity is how children explore and discover the world around them. Toddlers often explore objects around the house, while preschoolers ask question after question. We need to put limits on this at times for safety and other reasons (e.g., bedtime). On the other hand, adults should encourage this exploration and curiosity most of the day. Young children will often move from one activity to another. It may seem to be the opposite of persistence, but the child first needs to know that they can engage with activities that catch their interest. As they develop, they will stay at an activity longer, but first they need to be curious, to wonder about the world around them and how it works.


Motivation comes from within. Children are generally motivated by three things: curiosity, social connection, and food. As adults we often have to consciously motivate ourselves to complete tasks that we are not inherently motivated to do. This skill will develop eventually for children, but for young children, we want to encourage them to follow through on the activities that motivate them. For example, a 3-year-old is not going to be motivated to clean up toys, but they might be motivated to clean up with a trusted adult if the adult turns the chore into a game and offers lots of smiles in the process.

The way to foster motivation with young children is to allow them to play. Provide toys and materials that will engage them longer. The more open-ended the material, the longer a child will stay motivated because there are more ways to use and engage with the materials. A flashy toy might cause initial excitement, but the box it came in will have more possibilities and may be more motivating to engage with over the longer term. Materials like blocks, Legos, or even boxes are great for building. Markers and paper will keep the visual artists motivated. Places to run and climb will keep an active child motivated.

Don’t worry if a child is still shifting their attention from one activity to another. If children are allowed time to engage with materials and playmates, the length of time they stay focused will increase over time. For most preschoolers, this will happen as they start playing cooperatively. The main motivation will be the desire to play with their friends. In addition, cooperative play brings in multiple ideas and perspectives, which can keep an activity going longer.

Flexible Thinking and Problem-Solving

When a child is engaged in an activity, it may not go as planned. The drawing might rip; the building could fall; or the playmates might disagree. Children must be able to work through their emotions and decide what action to take. The younger the child, the more likely they are to simply move on. As they develop, they can recover from frustration quicker and think of more possible solutions to a problem.

The first step in fostering flexible thinking is to acknowledge the emotion the child is experiencing. “You’re mad that your building fell,” or, “You’re frustrated that she doesn’t want to play family right now.” As children get better at recognizing emotions, they can think about solutions to a problem they encounter. You can ask open-ended questions to guide them. For example, you might ask an older preschooler, “Your paper ripped. What could you do?”

Toddlers will probably forget why they started crying by the time they calm down, but you can still foster flexible thinking by joining them in the problem-solving or providing activities that have an opportunity to problem-solve. Activities like nesting cups or putting clothespins in a container (with small holes in the lid) can challenge toddlers to rethink strategies in ways that are less charged emotionally.

Filtering Out Extraneous Sounds and Activity

This ability to filter out sounds typically develops in the first five or six years of life. Most adults can have a conversation and not notice the sound of a fan overhead. Young children in the same situation can often miss parts of a conversation because they also hear the fan. You can help your child by using gestures, as well as words. If you ask your child to put on their shoes, point to the shoes as you say it, or wave your hand when you ask your toddler to come closer. These gestures give the child clues as to what to pay attention to.

Eye Spy is a great game for preschoolers to focus on individual objects as they look around. You can do the same game outdoors, but listen for different sounds. “Can you hear the dog barking? The dog is far away, so it’s quiet.” You may find that your child hears sounds you don’t notice.

School Readiness

All of these skills will develop if a child has opportunities to play and interacts with adults who are responsive to the child. There may be a few children who need more support from a therapist for these skills. If you have any concerns with your child, please feel free to contact us. At St. David’s Center, we are lucky to have the knowledge and resources to support children with a variety of needs.

For more information on our Early Childhood Education, click here.

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