written by Frank Schofield, superintendent, Logan City School District

Many of us know the story of “The Little Engine That Could,” with the small train whose repeated refrain of “I think I can, I think I can,” helped her accomplish a challenging task. The lesson of that story, that our attitude influences our success, is a lesson we all hope our children learn early in their lives. Self-efficacy, or the belief that you are able to achieve a goal, is a key to success, for both children and adults!

Growth mindset and self-efficacy are closely related, but slightly different. Children need both self-efficacy (belief in their ability to accomplish a task) coupled with a growth mindset (belief that, with effort, their ability to accomplish a task will improve). By helping children develop self-efficacy and a growth mindset they can overcome challenges, recognize their strengths, put forth effort, and achieve their goals. The idea of “I can do hard things,” indicates a strong sense of self-efficacy and a statement like, “I may not know how to do that, but I can learn to do it if I keep trying,” illustrates a growth mindset. Both are key to a child’s growth.

Four Building Blocks of Self-Efficacy in Children

During early childhood, four main building blocks of self-efficacy in children begin to develop:

  • Mastery Experiences: When a child performs a task successfully it strengthens his/her sense of self-efficacy. On the contrary, when a child is unsuccessful at a task it decreased his/her sense of self-efficacy. This doesn’t mean children shouldn’t be challenged to “stretch” themselves, but it does show why providing children with challenges they can succeed at is beneficial.
  • Social Modeling: When children observe their peers working hard and accomplishing a task, it helps increase their belief that they can accomplish the task too.
  • Social Persuasion: When children receive specific verbal encouragement from others that they will be successful, it helps them believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed.
  • Psychological Responses: A positive mood can influence our ability to succeed.

Parents, teachers, and others can help enhance self-efficacy in children in a variety of ways. For example, adults can teach children to:

  • Recognize and challenge negative thoughts by replacing negative thoughts with truthful, positive thoughts.
  • Establish achievable goals.
  • Celebrate small and big successes.

Adults and peers can help children by:

  • Using specific praise regarding the task, i.e. “You did well because you tried three times to tie your shoes without giving up!”
  • Providing just-right activities. Children need to be involved in the decision-making process to use and practice new skills that are challenging but achievable.
  • Being honest. Do not disregard the situation if the child does not succeed. Acknowledge the situation and offer suggestions for the child to use their strengths the next time.
  • Praising effort.
  • Modeling self-efficacy themselves.

As children develop self-efficacy, they are better prepared to address the variety of challenges they will face throughout their lives. A sense of self-efficacy is key to our long-term personal happiness, and parents and caregivers can play a key role in providing children with this key to their lifelong success.