Building self-efficacy

When I was a head, on one staff day we arranged for Ian Gilbert from ‘Independent Thinking’ to come to talk to us all.  Ian said many brilliant things on that day, but one particular thing stuck in my mind.  Ian talked about the importance of developing positive and healthy self-esteem (crucial for both students and staff) and how, for your self-esteem to be high, you need to believe that you are both ‘capable’ and loveable’.

I often thought of this in the years that followed, and of how considering ourselves to be both competent and worthy of love is necessary if we are to flourish, personally and professionally.  As a school leader, I wanted my colleagues and the students to know that they were cared for and valued, and that their strengths were recognised and nurtured within the school community.

I recently reread ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice’, by Robin MacPherson and Carl Hendrick, a book to which I was pleased to contribute.  In the chapter on Motivation, Nick Rose considers the idea of ‘self-efficacy’, which he defines as “that sense of confidence within a particular domain, so that even if there are obstacles, you’re still confident you’re going to do well and overcome any problems that you encounter”, and this encouraged me to think more deeply about self-esteem.

Firstly, I recognised that ‘within a particular domain’ acknowledges that we do not necessarily feel we are capable in every situation.  There are particular areas in which we know we have expertise and this builds our confidence.  In schools, if our curriculum (within and beyond the classroom) is appropriately wide-ranging and ambitious, we will be supporting and challenging young people to build their competence and confidence in a significant number of domains, to develop their talents and their sense of self-efficacy across a broad spectrum of subjects and activities.

Secondly, believing in our capacity to overcome the barriers to success we inevitably meet, and to face with determination the challenge of being tested, is part of strengthening this sense of self-efficacy.  Schools and parents, together, need to recognise that this is not about smoothing the way so that obstacles can be avoided.  We need to build our capacity to cope with occasional failure and disappointment, and to relish and take pride in our success.

Nick goes on to consider how schools are ideal places in which to encourage and facilitate young people’s growing self-efficacy: “If we want children to be successful despite the barriers and obstacles they will inevitably face in life, then actually the safe environment of school and the kinds of mild adversity that schools put in their way are probably ideal. Whether it’s a big sporting event or a maths challenge or an end of year exam, having the experience of success despite those adversities is likely a key way to build a sense of self-efficacy for future occasions.”

It seemed to me that over the ten years of my headship it became increasingly challenging to explain to some parents that their role in their children’s lives was not simply to protect them from the ‘slings and arrows’ and to try everything in their power to circumnavigate whatever might cause their offspring anxiety or distress.  I did understand the impulse to cushion and cosset, and how parents felt the reflected pain and frustration their children felt when all did not go as they hoped – from not getting the part of ‘Mary’ in the nativity or a place on the swimming team to failing to secure the Oxbridge offer or the place at Medical School.  I remember talking to one aggrieved parent whose daughter had not succeeded in winning a place among our senior prefect team.  The girl was tearful and the father was angry and challenging, demanding that we reran the whole process of nominations, elections and interviews in order to change the outcome.  I remember saying, “You do know, don’t you, that this is unlikely to be the worst thing that will ever happen to your daughter in her life?  I see your role and ours as working together to help her to build the skills to cope with disappointment, rather than trying to engineer the situation where she never experiences it.”

Finally, considering Nick’s discussion about the importance of self-efficacy encouraged me to reflect on how leaders at all levels need to help those they lead to develop and strengthen it over time.  It is not about just making it easy for our colleagues, about smoothing their path and helping them to avoid challenge.  It is about recognising their potential and increasing their capacity to cope with challenge – occasionally with disappointment and failure – so that they grow as people and professionals.

Photo credit: John Berry

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