It goes without saying that now, more than ever, self-belief is integral to the short and long-term success of our students. In a tough marketplace, at a time when expectations for academic achievement are increasing, and in a culture where young people are simply not valued in the way they once were, a belief in oneself is critical to motivation, self-promotion, an ability to overcome failure and find the positive in mistakes made, and develop the type of thinking and functioning that will result in achievement.
An excellent paper examines the relationship between self-concept and success: Frank Pajares and Dale H Schunk’s Self-belief in Psychology and Education: A Historical Perspective. At one point they focus on the work of Albert Bandura, professor psychology at Stanford University. He proposed a social cognitive theory of human functioning that emphasised the critical role of self-beliefs in human cognition, motivation and behaviour.
He argued that we all possess a system that enables us to exercise a measure of control over our thoughts, feelings and actions. He pointed out that self-efficacy beliefs influence students’ behaviour in a number of ways – the decisions they make (students engage in tasks about which they feel confident), the courses they choose, the activities they select and the effort they will put into them.
Students with low self-belief often come to the conclusion that things are tougher than they really are – a belief that fosters anxiety, stress and a narrow vision of how best to solve a problem; high self-belief creates optimism, lowers anxiety, raises self-esteem and fosters resilience.
The authors suggest that a strong sense of efficacy enhances accomplishment and personal wellbeing. Confident students approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than threats to be avoided. They have a “greater intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities, set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them, and heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure. Moreover, they more quickly recover their confidence after failures or setbacks, and they attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable”.
It is worth reminding ourselves that investing our students with a strong, positive self-belief can help them to see their own potential – and to realise it. How can this be achieved? First of all, it’s important to note that raising self-esteem through an “everyone wins” approach, and false praise, will simply create a classroom of cocky monsters who have little self-knowledge and a self-belief that is not based on reality. Instead, we need to encourage students to understand their own strengths and weaknesses and to believe in their ability to achieve goals that may, at present, be far outside their own expectations and the expectations of others.
Psychologists have long pointed to the obvious means of achieving this: individualised classroom structures that are tailored to students’ academic capabilities – avoiding social comparisons and instead encouraging students to gauge their academic progress according to their own standards.
Interestingly, the authors suggest that teachers should pay as much attention to students’ self-beliefs as to actual competence. They argue that assessing students’ self-beliefs can provide schools with important insights into their academic motivations, behaviour and future choices.
It’s not self-esteem that is the focus here, but belief and that is something very different. Next time, I’ll look at the best ways to assess self-beliefs and ways in which we can encourage our students to be confident and self-assured and fully functioning.
Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email firstname.lastname@example.org