Empowering children with resilience and self-efficacy: A story about Charlie

Empowering children with resilience and self-efficacy: A story about Charlie

We often speak about resilience but when last did you have a conversation around self-efficacy. Children with high levels of self-efficacy know how to persevere during challenges and setbacks – to try and try again. They believe that they are capable of performing tasks or managing situations. They believe in themselves – that they can reach their goals and they are, therefore, more willing to set goals, to try new things, and to have dreams. They believe that they have the tools to steer themselves through life. Fostering self-efficacy, is a strong predictor of resilience.

Unpacking Resilience

Having resilience is like having a strong immune system. A strong immune system doesn’t necessarily keep you from ever getting sick, but you get sick less often and bounce back faster or heal quicker when you’ve been exposed. In the same way, having resilience doesn’t mean you won’t face problems or you won’t be affected by it – it means you’ll bounce back quicker and easier.

Children with high levels of resilience have the capacity to adapt to external and internal stressors in a flexible and resourceful way. They respond to traumatic events or difficulties with minimal distress. They cope better with difficulties and hardships and use more effective problem-solving strategies, and they show an early and effective return to their usual level of functioning

Let’s assume that everyone reading this article knows at least one child. Whether you know him or her personally or just know about this child, you can picture a child in your mind. Maybe this is your own child or maybe this is a child at school that popped up in your mind, for some reason – a child you teach, a child in your neighbourhood, a child that stands out because they always sit alone, or causes trouble, or perhaps it is a child who your own child always brings up in conversation around the dinner table.

This child might be a boy or a girl, or they may have their own views on gender. Their hair colour, skin tone, the language they speak, their height and body shape will be different for everyone who reads this article. Perhaps they live in a single parent household, or are raised by an extended family, where aunts, cousins and grandparents are all part of the parenting team. Or a child with two moms, or two dads. Or someone with foster parents. They might be a single child, or have one or more siblings.

This child you are thinking of have a family – whatever that may look like. Even if they lost theirs or do not currently have contact with them. She also has some other people in their life – teachers, friends, maybe some mentors or other role models (some of whom might even stand in as family), you – all of which have influence (whether positive or negative) on their life. Just like the environment and circumstances she lives in would have an influence.

Let’s call this child Charlie, and let’s become aware of the relationships in Charlie’s life.

The relationships that Charlie has have a significant impact on who Charlie is and will be later in life. The people and circumstances surrounding a child, are very much part of the child’s story. It is therefore those relationships, and specifically the adult relationships, we need to think and talk about. There are lot of factors in Charlie’s story that we have no control over but we, as adults, can choose and control how we respond and relate to Charlie – which will make the difference. A difference that could create the resilience and self-efficacy that Charlie would need to not only survive, but to thrive.

How do we help Charlie?

We help Charlie, by fostering resilience and self-efficacy and thereby creating the belief in themself, that they could access a future they maybe don’t even dare to dream of – a future they stopped hoping for. A belief that they can rise from difficulties, past or present and thrive amidst the unfair challenges which life throws at them. We are the ones who can serve as support, as a buffer and as protection.

What will happen to Charlie when the adults around them put in the effort to foster resilience and self-efficacy? Charlie will grow up – yes, facing a lot of difficulties – but Charlie will know how to face them. Charlie will be able to live towards others – be an influencer, dreamer and explorer because the future they want would be attainable. Charlie will be connected, confident and competent – and will become a parent, friend, partner who cares and loves their own children and the children of others.


A practical “how-to” guide for building self-efficacy in children

  1. Create opportunities for mastering – involve your child in something they can succeed in (research what is developmentally realistic for their age, but also challenging), e.g. what kinds of chores can they be asked to do, what could be expected from them academically, what physical challenges should they be able to succeed in, how long should they be able to sit still and listen. Set these tasks as challenging, yet realistic, goals.
  2. Know your child’s strengths and set up opportunities or activities for them to choose, utilise and practice these strengths. Name these strengths when celebrating the successes they achieve.
  3. Praise the effort they put into things – this would encourage them to try (because trying is seen as positive) regardless of the outcome: say “You did so well because you were practicing every afternoon” rather than only stating “you are so talented”. This does not mean that telling someone they are talented is a bad thing, however, that will help boost self-ESTEEM, but not self-EFFICACY).
  4. Notice and mention progress that you notice and link it to the efforts they put in. This will encourage further practice and perseverance: e.g. “I know that you are disappointed that you did not get the marks you wanted, but you did so much better than last week – doing some extra exercises already paid off!”.
  5. Don’t protect your child from all failures , rather teach them to learn from their mistakes and to try again. This will help them to learn to use strategies to cope and persist with life’s difficulties, rather than giving up because it is too difficult.
  6. Be honest and praise sincere effort – praise should not be undeserved. Have and set high, although developmentally realistic, standards and goals. If you have more than one child (or a classroom full of learners), these successes will be different and specific for different learners – for example: for one learner, achieving 70% for a test does not take a lot of effort – and therefore might warrant less praise than another learner who worked very hard to achieve 55% in the same test.
  7. Do not disregard failures or emotions about disappointments by saying things like “that judge didn’t know what she was taking about”. Acknowledge what your child is feeling (“I can see that you are sad”; “I know that you are feeling frustrated”) and identify strengths that can help them in future efforts: “You have already improved your own track time since you started attending all of the practices. I am sure you will improve even more if you keep on doing the hard work”.
  8. Help your child set realistic, short-term goals which are more manageable (breaking things up into smaller chunks), require frequent feedback and provide a quicker sense of progress and mastering.
  9. Provide the verbal and non-verbal encouragement that you believe your child is capable of being successful – instead of doing something for the child, encourage the child to try, communicating your belief in them (even if they don’t do it as well or as fast you would’ve done it!), e.g. “You know how to tie your shoe laces – show me what you’ve learned”. There have been some studies that found that we tend to help girls more frequently, while we let boys “struggle it out”. The studies linked these actions to girls not persevering in subjects such as Mathematics and Science later in life, because they believe that they are less capable.
  10. MODEL self-efficacy: sharing stories about your goals, your efforts and your belief in your own successes will inspire children who look up to you, and to model the same.

A practical “how-to” guide for building resilience in children

    1. Acknowledge the child’s feelings: when you witness an emotional reaction, respond to it – e.g. “I can see that you are sad, that must have been scary when that happened”.
    2. Even when your child did something wrong or acted in a wrong way, empathise with their emotions first – remember they have to know that it is ok to experience emotions – “Wow, it seems that you were really angry at Sarah” – while then teaching them how to control their reactions to those emotions – “It is ok that you were angry, I get angry too at times. However, it is not ok to hurt someone else because we are angry”.
    3. Explain the situation and help them understand why it is causing distress, e.g. “It sounds to me like, when Johnny wasn’t back in class after break, you thought something bad happened to him and you ran out of class to look for him”.
    4. Help them take responsibility for their actions when needed: “Do you think it could be that the test was difficult because you did not study as hard for this one as for the last one?”
    5. Teaching problem solving by brainstorming or role playing some ideas: “Let’s think of some other ways you can react next time. Let’s act out what happened so I can understand it better and then let’s try some different ways for you to react.”
    6. Also acknowledge your own situations and uncertainties, like sickness, death, financial hardship, global pandemics, you cannot control and appropriately share your own emotions. If they can see that you are saddened by the death of a loved one, they have permission to also feel the emotions they are experiencing.
    7. Reassure them without bending the truth – do not try to cover up your child’s (or your own) emotions with an “everything will be OK” approach if you are not sure whether this is true. You can, however, reassure them by informing them with facts, e.g. “People very seldom die of the disease dad has” OR “Earthquakes are much more prevalent in Japan than in South Africa”.
    8. Help your child feel safe by
      1. creating structure and routine
      2. minimising access to unsettling information (such as too much detail about family financial hardship)
      3. showing them and reassuring them that you (and others) are there for them
      4. reminding them of their own strengths

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