Every parent hopes that their child will be successful, that they will be able to deal with difficult or challenging situations with confidence, and that they will be able to meet challenges head on and learn from both successes and failures. To do this, a child must have a good sense of self-efficacy.

What is self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy is the belief that you have the abilities to reach a goal or outcome and to succeed in their efforts. It is different from self-confidence, though closely related. While self-confidence is feeling good about yourself, self-efficacy is believing you have the ability to succeed. In fact, self-efficacy is one way to build self-confidence- learning what your strengths are and believing that you can succeed can help you to feel good about yourself.

What influences self-efficacy?

Albert Bandura, the psychologist who first coined the term “self-efficacy,” described four main factors that determine a person’s beliefs about their skills and abilities to succeed:

  • Direct Experiences: How successful we are at a task impacts self-efficacy. One of the best ways to develop self-efficacy is succeeding. On the other hand, failing at a task can contribute to low self-efficacy, decreasing your confidence in similar tasks. For example, a child who studies and performs well on a test will likely feel confident about the test the next time, while a child who studies and performs poorly on a test will feel less confident about similar tests in the future.
  • Observed Experiences: Seeing others succeed or fail can impact self-efficacy, as we tend to compare ourselves and our abilities to those of others. Seeing someone similar to us succeed shows us what we might be able to achieve, while seeing someone similar to us fail may cause us to doubt our own abilities.
  • Feedback from others: Feedback about our performance, whether positive or negative, impacts our beliefs about our abilities. Positive encouragement from others can persuade us that we have what it takes to succeed and achieve. However, negative comments from others can make us doubt our abilities and whether we have what it takes. Negative feedback and comments generally are more powerful than positive feedback and encouragement.
  • Bodily Response: It is normal to feel “butterflies” in the stomach or other bodily sensations when faced with a challenge or task. However, some people mistake these normal, natural feelings for incompetence or as a sign that they are not prepared and lack the ability to succeed, and this causes a decrease in self-efficacy. On the other hand, pushing through these feelings and sensations and putting a positive spin on them can maintain current or increase self-efficacy.

Why is self-efficacy important?

Self-efficacy shapes self-confidence and motivation, which are highly related to performance and achievement. One study found that a child’s self-efficacy predicts their academic success and achievement as much as their overall intelligence and cognitive abilities. Someone with low self-efficacy may try to avoid difficult or challenging activities, may give up easily or not try hard on things they feel they are “not good at,” tend to focus on failures, quickly lose confidence in themselves, and may be more negative and anxious about performance.

These are the children who say “I’m not good at that” before attempting the assignment or test, or the children who immediately stop when they encounter an unfamiliar or challenging problem. Often times, these children struggle to achieve in school. On the other hand, someone with higher self-efficacy views tasks as a challenge to master, becomes more involved and interested in the tasks, recovers more quickly from failure, and displays more effort and motivation. These are the children who work hard on assignments and studying, are excited about learning, and persevere even when assignments are difficult or challenging.

How can I help my child develop self-efficacy?

  • Provide mastery experiences: Start with a simple task and help your child succeed in that. Then, once the simple task has been mastered, increase the difficulties and demands of the task, with the idea that as the child succeeds on more and more difficult tasks, they develop a sense of mastery and the belief that they can achieve and succeed.
  • Teach goal setting: Help your child learn to set realistic goals, as well as make a plan as to how they will reach those goals, including thinking about how to handle challenges that may get in the way.
  • Praise effort: Rather than just praising your child for successes (e.g., a good test grade or scoring a goal in a game), also praise them for trying their hardest and persevering. Give specific praise about their effort, saying things like “You worked so hard on that project” or “I really like how you stuck with this, even though it was difficult.”
  • Allow failure: Many times, when children fail, it is tempting to either ignore the failure completely, or become overly critical of the failure. Instead, help the child identify the reasons for the failure, as well as specific talents, skills, or strengths he or she can use next time when faced with a similar situation.
  • Celebrate success: When your child succeeds, acknowledge it! Help them recognize their success and reasons for their success, by giving them specific praise and helping them to identify their strengths.
  • Stand up to negativity: When your child expresses a thought like “I can’t do this” or “I’m not good at that,” help them identify this as a negative thought and challenge their statements. Then, help them come up with a positive or neutral statement to replace the negative thought. For example, you could replace the thoughts of “I can’t do this” with “This will be hard, but I will try my best.”