Self-Efficacy & Growth Mindset

Summer 2019

Many of us know the story “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 our success, both as children and as 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 that 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” would indicate a strong sense of self-efficacy, where the statement of “I may not know how to do that, but I can learn to do it if I keep trying” would illustrate 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 so beneficial.
  • Social Modeling: When children observe their peers work hard and accomplish a task, it helps increase their belief in themselves 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 the negative thought with a truthful, positive thought
  • Establish achievable goals, and
  • 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!