Chase Mielke

Author. Speaker. Well-Being Expert.

Grit Ladders: A Simple Strategy to Fuel Motivation

I celebrate D-minuses. I celebrate class averages that are just barely above passing. Sometimes I even celebrate a kid just turning in a paper. Not because I have low standards. D-minus is not my end goal. A group of kids barely scraping by in their education is far from my definition of satisfactory teaching.

I celebrate these because for many of my students, “bare minimum” moments truly are feats of accomplishment. I celebrate them because they live in a world that seems only to acknowledge the Advanced Placements, the A-plusses, the accelerated track. And it is in this environment that many students simply give up because the end goals we set for them (and that they set for themselves) seem simply too far beyond their reach.

What many students need is a clear path—one on which the steps for progress are clear, and each small accomplishment is an opportunity to reflect, celebrate, and recalibrate.

Creating such a path is an embodiment of one of the greatest discoveries I made in working with at-risk students:

Celebrating progress fuels more progress.

Students accelerate their academic progress when we teachers help them find accomplishment in the minor steps, too. When we place value on (and coach students through) their steps of progress, we fuel their self-concept and willingness to persevere. I’ve found this to be true again and again with my students; when I help them focus on their small victories, they increase their effort to achieve.

But, the end goal of every teacher is to help a student become his/her own teacher. So, how do we teach students to break up their large, gritty goals into more manageable steps?

A few years ago, I took what I did – what most every teacher does with students – and broke it down into an easy concept that students could habituate. The strategy is simple in concept but powerful in action. It’s called a Grit Ladder.

Using a simple graphic organizer, students break down ambitious, long-term goals into smaller, more approachable steps on a ladder. These small steps have three major benefits:

1. Purposeful Paths

Having students link their short-term goals with their long-term goals helps that developing frontal lobe see the purpose of putting effort into challenging tasks. When they are overwhelmed by the great distance between their long-term goal and their current status, seeing a step-by-step map strengthens their purpose and perseverance.

2. Dopamine Kicks

When we have a sense of accomplishment, even a minor one, we get a kick of “feel good” dopamine. Since we like feeling good (and since dopamine drives addiction), we are motivated to seek that burst again.

3. Frequent Feedback

Breaking down long-term goals provides more short-term opportunities to evaluate what is working and what isn’t. As teachers, if students don’t hit one of their immediate goals, we can connect and coach sooner rather than later.


Here’s an overview, with an example my student Olivia created:

1.  Students start with a long-term goal written at the top of the page.

2. Under this “top goal,” students write the step or goal they would need to accomplish just before the “top goal”

3. Working backwards, students will map out each successive step necessary. The ultimate goal is to find one small goal they can accomplish this week (or day) to make progress on their grand goal.

One major goal of the process is to help students identify first steps: What can they do today or this week to make positive progress?

Seems simple, right?  Here’s how you can take this idea and ramp up your students’ motivation and accomplishment:

Continually check in with students each week to re-assess goals and support their moving onto the next step. The value of this process isn’t just in students accomplishing their goals; students learn just as much, if not more, from debriefing a failure, learning what went wrong, and what to try next.

On that note, Grit Ladders pair nicely with the WOOP strategy for goal-setting.

In addition to using Grit Ladders for their passionate goals, students can use them for academic goals too, such as “End the trimester with an 85% or higher in this class” or “Read a chapter book.” Sub-steps can help students set goals for turning in assignments, studying, or asking questions. Teachers can help students create Grit Ladders for long-term projects like portfolios, essays, test prep, books, and projects.

Coach students on how to make their goals as SMART as possible (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-stamped) Ensure even the sub-goals are SMART.

Some goals may have multiple “ladders” of sub-steps. For example, attending a college may have a series of steps solely focused on finding a major, as well as a series of steps focused on improving g.p.a. or ACT/SAT scores, joining clubs, etc. An academic goal of getting a B in English may require separate ladders for completing assignments and studying for tests.

Students can create graphics as visual reminders.  Or, you can post grit ladders in the classroom with “checklists” for each step.

To help you get started, here’s a FREE Grit Ladder Goal Setting printable.

Got even more ideas on how this concept can boost accomplishment in your classroom?  Add a comment and share the wealth.

Check out more strategies like Grit Ladders via my free ebook: G-Words: 20 Strategies for Fostering Grit and Growth Mindset


6 responses to “Grit Ladders: A Simple Strategy to Fuel Motivation”

  1. This is very much like why I allow kids to choose their own books. I meet them where they are and help them grow across the year. We talk a lot about grit, but I love how concrete and practical this is.

  2. Reblogged this on G Smith Ideas on Tap and commented:
    I won’t lie. I’m not a fan of the word “grit.” Partly because it immediately conjures up the idiom “grit your teeth.” Not a motivating image. But I get it. Every generation has its buzzword. Like “lean in,” this is du jour. However make no mistake. I strongly believe in strategies for persevering. Especially when you have a brain like mind that does a fantastic job of encapsulating the big picture–and end results–and which is my own intuitive means of getting stuff done.

    But this doesn’t always work. Because my brain-mind can become suffocated under what seems like a ga-zillion details. Often I have no idea how to start, much less the one-foot-at-a-time steps so I eventually get there.

    This is a fantastic structure for others like me, including CTE students–who being visual, hands-on learners somethings get stopped in their tracks when it comes to this kind of them.
    This isn’t just a good structure for students, of course. If you’re in the workplace, a manager-mentor can place the part of monitor or coach, checking in with you. However in the workplace, you can’t always count on someone dedicated to having your back in that way. In that case, a peer-coach might serve the same role. If they aren’t at your company, then simply having someone you’re accountable to and/or who just seems to get how to help you become your own best teacher.

  3. Thank you so much for writing such a great post! I had a tough academic year this time and I can definitely use this strategy with my students to foster grit and growth

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