“In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life.” -Psychologist Albert Bandura

Given that change, with accompanying losses and hardships, is an inevitable part of life, it is crucial to learn how we can increase our capacity to rebound or spring back after painful life events, a capacity called resilience. Although we know that some aspects of resilience are inborn (related to temperament as explained in another blog), others aspects can be learned and practiced. Just as children are vaccinated to avoid physical disease, parents can help by inoculating them for the challenges they will face throughout their lives.

This can be done by teaching kids to have a resilient mindset or a positive lens through which they see themselves and the world. An example of this is teaching young children that mistakes are an inevitable part of learning new skills and are actually helpful rather than something bad to be avoided. An essential building block of resilience is a high level of self-efficacy. Although I have a pet peeve against fancy words when simple ones can do just as well, I think that it is important that parents, teachers, and therapists learn about self-efficacy: what it is, why it is important, and how to build it in ourselves and others.

Self-efficacy is defined as a person’s belief (whether true or not) in his or her ability to succeed or manage in specific situations or tasks. It is what helps nurture effort, perseverance, resilience, serenity, and optimism in the face of adversity. Do you remember the children’s story, The Little Engine That Could? When the little blue train has to pull a load of toys over the mountain, she succeeds only when she tells herself, “I think I can, I think I can, and then delights in her success by saying to herself, “I thought I could, I thought I could!” The little engine is a model of high self-efficacy.

Albert Bandura, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, is one of the pre-eminent thinkers in the field of psychology and social learning. Since Bandura published his famous 1977 paper, “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change,” the subject has become one of the most studied topics in psychology. As Bandura and subsequent researchers have demonstrated, self-efficacy can have an impact on all aspects of our lives such as career choice, dating behavior, academic success–everything from internal psychological states to behavior and motivation. Low self-efficacy can lead people to imagine that tasks are harder than they actually are. This can lead to poor task planning, as well as increased stress. If you don’t believe your efforts will result in your desired outcome, you will have a lot of trouble getting started, applying effort, or persevering in any activity. You anticipate failure, so why bother?

On the flip side, when you have high self-efficacy, confronting an obstacle often stimulates you to apply even greater efforts rather than becoming discouraged and giving up. When failure occurs, someone with high self-efficacy will attribute the failure to external factors, whereas someone with low self-efficacy will blame themselves or their lack of ability. For example, a child with high self-efficacy may attribute a poor test grade to a lack of effort, insufficient preparation, or an unusually difficult test. A person with a low self-efficacy will believe that the poor test grade demonstrates their lack of ability or not being smart enough.

How do we acquire our beliefs about our ability to master our own universes? According to Bandura’s theory, our self-efficacy beliefs are formed by how we interpret the input we receive from four sources:

FIrst, we build self-efficacy through our own experiences of mastery. How we interpret the results of our performance on any given task is the most influential source of our self-efficacy beliefs. If you are a parent or teacher, as often as possible, ask kids to evaluate their performance before you give them feedback. Most importantly, have kids identify what they did well, what kind of effort they put into the task, and what they learned.

Second, we form beliefs vicariously by observing others. Children will learn from parents, teachers and other role models for better or for worse. A good mentor can model a better way of doing a task, whether the task is learning how to resolve conflict, how to ask good questions, how to persevere, or how to learn from mistakes. If you are a parent or a teacher, you can reinforce positive modeling by asking kids what they observed another child doing well. Adults can also practice healthy self-reflection and share with kids what they liked about their own behavior and what they might improve with practice or effort.

A third way we develop self-concept is from the verbal judgments about us made by others, both adults and peers. An interesting finding is that repeated negative appraisals by others can and will weaken self-efficacy beliefs even more than positive appraisals will strengthen them. In other words, lots of praise is not going to make up for lots of criticism and negative judgments. It is more important to teach kids (and ourselves) that failure is a necessary part of learning, and that mastery of any difficult tasks takes repeated, concentrated practice for everyone. When giving feedback on areas that need to be addressed, give information about what your child can do in order to succeed at the task rather than what they did not do.

The final way we acquire self-efficacy is by how we interpret the signals we get from our bodies and our emotions. In stressful situations, most people experience common signs of distress. We get the shakes, suffer an upset stomach, have cold hands, sweat more than normal and feel anxious or afraid. We each assess how confident we feel by the way we interpret our emotional and physical state as we contemplate whatever task is at hand (a test, a game, a speech, a job interview). Parents can help kids tune into their bodies and explain how the physiological signs of stress are actually healthy mechanisms that get our bodies ready for action rather than signs of imminent failure. Teach kids how to take slow deep breaths and feel the difference between tension and relaxation, and have them practice the feared task in their imagination while feeling good about themselves.

Another way to learn about self-efficacy and resilience is by studying and celebrating our heroes. We are surrounded by models of those who have been courageous in the face of hardship and defeat. Can you think of some examples? Do you have a favorite?  I’ll share some of mine in the next blog…