Self-efficacy in children

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​​Learn why self-efficacy is important for academic success and well-being in children.

Key points

  • Self-efficacy is the belief that you are capable of performing a task or managing a situation. It is about learning how to persevere when one does not succeed at first.
  • When a child equates success to internal factors, they develop a sense of mastery, which reinforces stronger self-efficacy beliefs.
  • A child with high self-efficacy works harder, is more optimistic and less anxious, and perseveres more.

What is self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy is the belief that you are capable of performing a task or managing a situation. As a quote often attributed to Henry Ford says, "Whether you think that you can or that you can’t, you are usually right." 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 when one does not succeed.

Canadian psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura is most noted for his research in self-efficacy. Now a professor in social psychology at Stanford University, Bandura contends that self-efficacy touches nearly every aspect of our lives.

Higher self-efficacy is linked to:

  • better ability to think productively by applying positive thinking skills when facing a challenge
  • higher motivation
  • stronger effort put into an activity or task
  • greater resilience
  • lower vulnerability to stress and depression

Lower self-efficacy is linked to:

  • tendency to shy away from difficult tasks
  • lower aspirations and poor commitment to goals
  • pessimistic attitude towards obstacles
  • greater vulnerability to stress and depression

Finding the right balance

Self-efficacy goes beyond simply "believing in yourself." Rather, a person needs to have a realistic sense of their strengths and weaknesses. This is what determines a person’s actions, willingness to set goals, and achievements in life. If one’s self-efficacy in an area is much lower than their ability, they will likely under-challenge themselves. However, if self-efficacy is much higher than actual ability, they may over-challenge themselves, set unrealistic goals, and experience failure and frustration. Parents can help nurture realistic self-efficacy in children by praising honestly, helping set short-term goals, and helping children learn from setbacks.

Self-esteem vs. self-efficacy

Self-esteem is an opinion one holds about one's self-worth or self-value. It certainly influences self-efficacy. However, high self-esteem alone does not give a child an optimistic attitude and willingness to persist when experiencing resistance. A child develops these characteristics through self-efficacy. They believe they are capable to continue during setbacks – the key to achieving success.

What influences self-efficacy?

A feeling of mastery

A sense of mastery is when a child truly feels they grasp the subject or task at hand; they acquire an expertise. It happens when a child equates success to something they can control. For example, they may think, "I got an A on my test because I studied hard and I am intelligent," or "I did not get a good grade on the test because I did not prepare well." Mastery reinforces stronger self-efficacy beliefs.

In contrast, a child does not develop a sense of mastery when they equate success to something that is out of their control. They blame success and failure on external factors. For example, a child may think, "I got an A because the test was really easy and the whole class did well," or "I did not get a good grade on the test because my teacher is mean and unfair."

Overcoming a challenge early on

Experiencing success early on improves self-efficacy. Tasks need to be challenging enough to keep the child's interest, but not so difficult that they become frustrating. To truly grasp a skill or task, a child needs to experience a level of difficulty while trying to learn it. After putting in the effort and succeeding, a child is motivated to try newer, more challenging tasks. Overcoming challenges also builds a child's resilience when encountering more challenging tasks; instead of feeling anxious, the child is more likely to persist.

Hearing praise for effort, not ability

Teachers and parents who send helpful messages about a child’s capabilities and skills to handle challenging tasks greatly influence a child’s willingness to persist during setbacks. Empty self-esteem boosters like "You can do anything!" do not promote self-efficacy. Praise must focus on effort, not ability.

In a large-scale study from Columbia University involving over 400 children, psychologists found "ability" praises such as "You are intelligent" actually induced a fear of failure, causing children to evade challenging situations. Praising ability undermined both motivation and performance. In contrast, children in the study who were praised for effort and encouraged to try regardless of the outcome, were keener to tackle challenges.

Why is self-efficacy important?

Education researchers consistently note that a child with higher self-efficacy works harder, is more optimistic and less anxious, and perseveres more. In a Nike commercial, basketball star Michael Jordan, who was cut from his high-school basketball team, said, "I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed." Studies show self-efficacy shapes one’s motivation and sense of personal accomplishment. As a result, it significantly influences a child’s success or failure.

Self-efficacy and school success

Psychology research shows that self-efficacy is as strong a predictor of a student’s academic performance as IQ alone.

Self-efficacy and physical well-being

A child with strong self-efficacy is more motivated and dedicated. Hence, they are more likely to consider changing their health habits, achieve better physical health, and eat healthy. Studies show that along with social support, high self-efficacy is linked to improved physical wellbeing in school-aged children.

How can parents help foster self-efficacy? Learn practical tips in Self-efficacy: How to foster in children.

Last updated: August 30th 2012