Self-efficacy: How to foster in children

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These practical tips for parents help foster self-efficacy, so a child learns to persist when facing a setback.

Key points

  • A child with high self-efficacy believes they have the skills to help them steer through life and reach their goals.
  • Self-efficacy is about learning how to persevere during a challenge or setback.
  • Experiencing setbacks and failure helps foster strong self-efficacy in children. Make sure your child is being challenged enough to experience setbacks and teach them how to learn from the obstacles.
  • Help your child set realistic, short-term goals. These goals are more manageable, require frequent feedback and help foster strong self-efficacy.
  • Praise effort and praise honestly. Praising ability rather than effort undermines motivation and performance.
  • Help your child see their strengths during a setback so they learn to rely on their abilities and persist.
  • Model self-efficacy to your child by sharing your own obstacles and efforts to work towards goals.

Self-efficacy is the belief that you are capable of performing a task or managing a situation. A child with high self-efficacy believes they have the skills to help them steer through life and reach their goals. Perhaps most importantly, self-efficacy is about learning how to persevere during a challenge or setback.

There are many ways parents can help nurture self-efficacy in a child.

Help your child to fail again and fail better

One of the biggest mistakes adults make is preventing a child from experiencing failure. Well-intentioned parents want to protect their child from experiencing disappointment. But a child who never learns to face setbacks does not learn how to rely on internal strategies to cope with them. As a result, you weaken your child’s ability to handle life’s disappointments.

Instead, teach your child how to fail better. A child learns persistence when, after experiencing a setback, they continue to try again. When facing a setback, tell your child each failed attempt is a learning experience. It is a 'step' to get to where they want. This helps redirect focus from the failed result to a more constructive question, like "What can I do differently next time I study for this test?" This way your child learns to adapt to failure or disappointment, not succumb to it.

Help your child set realistic, short-term goals

Teaching your child how to set realistic goals helps them prepare them to fail better. Short-term goals are more easily believable than goals that are much farther away. They make a task appear more manageable, and involve more frequent feedback. This encourages self-efficacy.

Praise effort, not ability

Nurture the belief that ability can always change. Encourage perseverance and persistence as a way to overcome hurdles. In a large-scale study from Columbia University involving over 400 children, psychologists found ability praises such as, "You are intelligent" induces a fear of failure. As a result, a child evades a challenging situation. It undermined both motivation and performance. In contrast, children in the study praised for effort and encouraged to try regardless of the outcome, were keener to tackle challenges. They also enjoyed it. Make a habit of praising sincere effort put in by the child, both at school and home.

Praise honestly

When a child faces a hurdle, it is natural to want to make them feel better. Well-meaning parents often respond to failure by saying "you did great" or "you are the best". These words are soothing at the time, but eventually the novelty (and your credibility) wears off.

Children are smart. They quickly identify empty praise and encouragement. When capable children accomplish competent work with little effort, strong praise sends the message that little effort is actually praiseworthy. A child who perceives praise as undeserved does not develop self-efficacy. In these situations, the child is likely feeling under-challenged. To instill strong self-efficacy, try raising your standards and expectations of the child so they feel more challenged.

Name your child’s strengths

When your child experiences a setback, help them find their strengths. First acknowledge the setback or struggle by saying, "That must feel really disappointing. I understand why you are upset." Then identify specific strengths they can use next time. For example, "You sang the low notes very well," or "Your jump-shots were really strong." By naming their strengths, you also help your child refocus a negative situation into a constructive one. Identifying these skills or strengths helps your child rely on them when coping through a difficult situation: "You have a great ability to express your feelings. How can that help you here?" or "Your ball-passing skills are really strong. How could those skills help you at the next soccer match?"

It takes practice to respond more specifically to your child. Parents who develop this skill feel they communicate more honestly with their children. In the long run, the effort will pay off for both you and your child.

Model self-efficacy

Children are avid observers. They listen and watch what you say and do. The more similar a child feels to the person they are observing, the more strongly the person’s success and failure shapes the child’s beliefs about their own abilities. Parents are a child’s primary role models. Share your own disappointments and willingness to work towards a goal. Continually express your belief in your own success. Watching you persevere to achieve a goal or overcome an obstacle tells a child they too can successfully manage their own environment.

Last updated: August 30th 2012