We often talk a lot about wanting our children to have good self-esteem. There’s nothing wrong with good self-esteem; it means that a child has a positive view of themselves and their worth. However, self-esteem is not enough. Life has its challenges, failure being one of them. How are we helping children to pick themselves up and try again? If our children are lagging in this ability, we need to help them develop realistic self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy and self-esteem are related but are also qualitatively different. Self-efficacy is related to how you feel about your ability to succeed in different contexts. It is more specific and context-driven versus self-esteem. Is your child capable of preserving at performing a difficult task? Do they stay engaged and try again, or do they give up? Self-esteem is considered a global belief about oneself, whereas, according to psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.”
A child with high self-efficacy believes their challenges are obstacles to overcome. Failures don’t immobilize them. Their inner voice says, “I’ve got this!” They may demonstrate good self-awareness by knowing their strengths and challenges, thus setting manageable goals and achieving success because the goals are indeed attainable. Their motivation to try difficult tasks is buoyed by a positive thinking style and an inner belief system that recognizes failure as a part of life. So, when they fail at something, their self-esteem remains intact. They don’t “beat themselves up” when they make a mistake. They recognize it as a part of learning. As they say, “they get back in the saddle.” Children with good self-efficacy have better self-regulation, utilize a growth mindset, and have a stronger sense of agency and mastery. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
Children with poor self-efficacy often shy away from work that they failed at or with tasks that they perceive as difficult. They tend to believe that these tasks are beyond their capabilities, so they shy away from even trying to do them. Children with low self-efficacy often berate themselves when they make a mistake, lose confidence in themselves, and their self-esteem suffers.
Helping children develop self-efficacy is important to their overall social-emotional functioning and well-being. The earlier we start helping to develop self-efficacy in our children, the better off they will be at improving their self-efficacy independently throughout their lives. Bandura identified four influencers or sources that impact self-efficacy: performance experience, vicarious experience, social persuasion, and physical and emotional states. Using these as our guideposts when teaching our children enhances their development of self-efficacy.
Performance Experience refers to when we perform a task successfully, it strengthens our sense of self-efficacy. This can also be called Mastery Experiences. We feel good about ourselves, our skills, and our knowledge; however, the converse is true as well. Failing to perform a task well will further weaken self-efficacy, particularly if it was not strong to begin with. Thus, it is important to emphasize and normalize the concept that failure is a part of the learning process.
When we watch others who are like us succeed by persevering at and completing a difficult task, it can raise the observers’ beliefs that they, too, can achieve it. This is Vicarious Experience or Social Modeling. By watching another person succeed through dedication, a person can be inspired to achieve the goals they set for themselves.
Another way to improve self-efficacy is through Social Persuasion. It is just as it sounds – someone you trust as a credible source giving verbal encouragement about your ability to perform a task can have a positive impact on one’s self-efficacy, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The last influencer, Our Own Personal Physical Sensations, Moods, Emotional Reactions, and Stress Level, etc., can dramatically…and positively or negatively impact how a person feels about their skills and abilities to complete a task. Bandura, highlighted, “it is not the sheer intensity of the emotional and physical reactions that is important but how they are perceived and interpreted by the person.” If we can acknowledge the stress and minimize it when we are confronted with a challenging task, we can improve self-efficacy. These are all important ways to help facilitate a child’s development of self-efficacy.
Facilitating the development of self-efficacy in our children can be done through a variety of means, keeping Bandura’s four influencers in mind. Here are some approaches to consider:
- Keep in mind Bandura’s four self-efficacy influencer types as your guideposts.
- Model self-efficacy and point it out to your children. Share your struggles/set-backs and how you managed to persevere. Talk about how you are willing to work towards a goal even though you failed multiple times along the way. Typically, parents do it without even knowing it.
- Help children develop realistic self-efficacy by praising them honestly and concretely. Praise their effort, not their ability. Help them recognize failure is a part of life and learning.
- Preview new learning by saying something like, “Remember you’re learning ___. You might make some mistakes. It’s okay. Mistakes are a part of learning.”
- Use failures to help build realistic expectations and self-confidence by pointing out growth from previous attempts. Help children learn from their set-backs.
- Empathize with their emotions related to their failures, struggles, etc.
- Name their strengths and challenges, and use them as jumping off points related to their effort, not ability.
- Help children set “realistic” short-term goals and help them stay on track. Help children recognize that their achievements are related to internal strengths, skills, and thoughts – not on external factors (i.e., I learned that hook shot because I practiced, watched and analyzed videos, and listened to my coach, etc.).
- Create opportunities that are within “their zone of proximal development” (i.e., just right learning level – not too hard or too easy). To help build self-efficacy, a child needs a difficulty level to hold their interest, feel challenged, and experience some amount of struggle while ultimately achieving success.
Self-efficacy is worth paying attention to as it is truly one of the best gifts we can instill in our children. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”
Bandura, A. 1999. Self-efficacy in Changing Societies. Cambridge Univ. Press, UK.
Self-Efficacy: Helping Children Believe They Can Succeed https://www.forsyth.k12.ga.us/cms/lib3/ga01000373/centricity/domain/31/self-efficacy_helping_children_believe_they_can_suceed.pdf
If You Think You Can’t… Think Again: The Sway of Self-Efficacy https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/flourish/201002/if-you-think-you-can-t-think-again-the-sway-self-efficacy
About the Author
NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Principal of the Partners Program/EDCO Collaborative and previously the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.
Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.
To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert clinicians, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant/service in the referral line.
NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, Londonderry, New Hampshire, and Burlington, Vermont, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.