How to help children develop self-efficacy


First coined in 1977 by Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy was defined as ‘a person’s particular set of beliefs that determine how well one can execute a plan of action in prospective situations’. It therefore refers to a person’s belief in their ability to succeed or not in a particular situation based on their capabilities.

According to social cognitive theory, self-efficacy is one of the four processes of goal realisation, the other three being self-observation, self-evaluation, and self-reaction. In other words, our chances of success in a given situation are directly linked to our belief of having the necessary skills or experiences needed. Although similar in meaning, self-efficacy differs from self-esteem as it’s not based on a judgement of self-worth.

cheerful schoolchild practicing handwriting at home with tutor SELF-EFFICACY
Photo by Gustavo Fring on

Self-efficacy in children
Self-efficacy in children manifests itself each time we ask a child to do something. They might not realise it, but when answering their minds are processing four factors identified by Bandura as the key elements that determine our judgement about self-efficacy: vicarious experiences, physiological feedback, verbal persuasion, and performance outcomes. Since we want our children to be able to believe in themselves and be successful, let’s analyse how these four factors come into play when raising children.

Vicarious experiences
Having role models to look up to is incredibly important for children, even more so when these role models are actual acquaintances, friends, or people children can easily relate to. In schools, older children with good grades or positive attitudes can definitely work as role models to younger children who, once exposed to positive and success stories, will hopefully feel as they too can achieve such goals.
At home, one can tell children inspiring stories about men and women who made contributions to humanity. Books on scientists, artists, social activists and so on can be a good starting point.

Two adorable young girls catching babyfrogs in summer forest. Children exploring nature.

Physiological feedback
It is common for everyone, young and adult, to feel nervous when facing an important task, such as performing in front of an audience. Sweating and blushing can be some of the many symptoms we experience on these occasions. To help children feel more in control, teachers and adults alike can teach them some easy techniques. Firstly, one can start by giving a presentation to a small group, and then build up his/her confidence to present in front of the entire classroom. Breathing techniques are always a valid tool to relax and focus, in any given situation. One should also explain that while presentational skills are important, the outcome of the presentation is much more interesting. Starting a dialogue, an open and informed conversation about any topic is much more engaging than delivering an exceptional but entirely aseptic presentation!
Finally, it is by encouraging repetition that children learn the skills required for the task and gain confidence to perform similar tasks or more difficult ones.

Verbal persuasion
If self-efficacy has to do with making the child believe he can be successful, then it goes without saying that words of encouragement cannot be spared. This goes back to the idea that children should be constantly fed positive affirmations in their daily life. Here are some ideas of daily affirmations you can repeat to your child: “my emotions matter/ I believe in myself / I am loved / every problem has an answer / I can become whatever I want / I have potential…”


Performance outcomes
In her famous book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck analyses the concept of Growth Mindset versus Static Mindset. The idea of the growth mindset is that our personality and our abilities can change over time through different challenges and failure, which in itself is not perceived negatively, instead as a learning opportunity to grow and better ourselves.

So while we obviously have to push children to succeed in life (in school exams for example), focusing on the process rather than the end result is just as important. Although failure can be upsetting, we shouldn’t let it define us. Instead, we should teach children that setbacks and failure are an opportunity to understand what has gone wrong and to use our intelligence, and sometimes some creative thinking, to find alternative ways of succeeding.

Benni and Sofi are two sisters who grew up in Italy and moved to London in their twenties to study and work. The combination of their two careers, art professional and teacher, has created 1thousandays. This projects aims at supporting home education for children aged 2-5. We offer personalised curriculums and design room layouts that change along the child developmental journey. Mainly based on Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches, we create educational spaces where children can thrive independently following their own pace and interests.  

Benedetta, co-founder of 1thousandays, an educational consulting startup that focuses on child development by creating home-based learning spaces inspired by Montessori theory.