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We all want our children to have a high sense of self-esteem. As parents and educators we hope that our children will feel confident about themselves. And it’s possible, but it comes at a price. The price? Well, it’s the cost of being successful and successful in a real way, not a contrived or pretentious way.

We first need to understand the difference between the terms self-esteem/self-confidence and something called self-efficacy. If you think about all the people you have met, some more than others, presented themselves in a very confident manner. They were indeed competent, quite capable and extremely successful in what they did. This is what we would observe to be a self-confident person–one with high self-esteem.

Self-esteem and self-confidence are a sense of who, in general, we feel ourselves to be across our various environments—community, social events, in school or even at home. But how does this personal sense of “us” come to be?

High self-esteem emerges from first having developed a strong sense of self-efficacy. Where self-esteem is an overall feeling about one’s self, self-efficacy is the belief of one’s ability to carry out a task or make/effect change in the environments.  Whereas as self-esteem is a general sense of one’s self, self-efficacy is task specific.

Bandura (“THE” learning social theorist) states that there are four sources/experiences that lend to the development of self-efficacy. Logically, achieving a high level of self-esteem, therefore, is dependent on having first achieved a strong foundational set of experiences that ultimately leads to a strong self-efficacy.

1.   Performance accomplishments is a history of repeatedly experiencing more favorable than negative outcomes as a result of the child’s effort(s) on a particular tasks or set of tasks. You might then think that all we have to do is to set up environmental conditions to guarantee success—and we, too often, do this very thing.  But this is NOT the case. In fact, if you want the child to believe that he/she was responsible (efficacy) for the outcome, you need to ensure that the child’s experiences are challenging—not simply easy to accomplish—requiring cognitive (thinking), behavioral (some action) and self-regulatory (thinking before acting) processes. Simply put, success can lead to more success, but only if the conditions of the learning require real effort/persistence on the part of the child when facing some cognitive/behavioral challenges. That’s a big difference from “making it easier” for them. Or, giving everyone a medal for just showing up.

2.   Vicarious experience Yup, just watching someone else perform a task or deal with some sort of event can help us to think we can also do the same, or very similar, thing by imitating what was observed.…assuming the task is similar and not exceedingly difficult (see permanence accomplishments).

By itself, this is not sufficient because—and here is the important catch—the person observed must be similar in a variety of characteristics to your child. Huh?

It means if you want to bring in a role model whose skills are so far beyond those of your child, it will have little positive influence on your child’s belief about their own skills. You are better off bringing in someone of their age and general apparent skill levels who has been successful. This is why when kids who are having difficulty in school are presented with such heroes as Alexander Graham Bell, Steve Jobs, Einstein, Tom Cruise or Woopie Godlberg, they internalize it to think,“That is ridiculous.  They are rich and famous. I can’t read now! and “I’m not Einstein!” Peers who are, or were struggling and who accomplished what the children themselves are dealing with will have a greater impact on their belief that they, too, can accomplish a particular task and be successful.

3.  Verbal persuasion proposes that when someone else encourages you to perform a task and suggests that you are capable of completing it your self-efficacy is enhanced and you, too, tend to think that a particular task is possible to be accomplished. But this only occurs when that person is someone who is respected, trusted and believed in. That person’s credibility lends itself to our believing that we might well be capable of performing the task. And, of course, the delivery of this “pursuasory feedback” (aka sincerity) is as important as what is said and by whom. Hence, the need for the encouragement to come from someone felt to be highly regarded/respected by the child.

4.   Emotional Arousal/Physiological States refer to the personal, emotional and physical states you are experiencing when a task is presented. Think of the feelings of anxiousness or fear. It’s how we perceive our own state of mind and body to be. If you are anxious about a task, that feeling will likely influence your belief about how you will meet and affect change or be successful with that particular task.

Anxiousness may lead to a lowering of self-efficacy or while feeling also excited about the new task/challenge, it may well increase your level of self-efficacy. Are you one who jumps to new initiatives/challenges or do you pull back (avoidance) when you are presented with such challenges? The point is, we tend to evaluate our ability to carry out tasks (self-efficacy) based on those emotional and physiological states. And, if we can reduce personal anxiety—the personal level/state of arousal—we may well increase our sense of self-efficacy.

Bottom Lines…

·        Our children cannot attain a high level of self-esteem or self-confidence without first building a sound level of self-efficacy. In order to do that, we and they need to be aware of those influences on developing self-efficacy.

·        Make certain that, in an attempt to increase self-efficacy, we don’t overly provide tasks that can easily be accomplished. This kind of task accomplishment will not develop a (self) sense of personal performance and a belief that the child is indeed capable. They, themselves, will know they achieved little to nothing.

·        Don’t offer individuals whose skills are far above your child’s as role models. “I’m not Einstein!” should ring loud and clear in your mind when you list out successful individuals with disabilities! Research has shown that doing so tends, instead, to point out their own INabilities to them because what they see is a comparison to non-peers who are already successful. Your child needs to feel successful first.

·        As previously noted, persuasion is only valued if perceived as something that can be directly related to—not a general reference—the child and their skills.  Those words also need to come from someone who is personally respected with words that are stated with absolutely sincerity.

·        Lastly, and although some anxiety is known to be helpful in some situations (test taking, dangerous encounters), a constant level of anxiousness, or anxiousness when faced with particular tasks, is not of benefit and will negatively impact the child’s self-efficacy. Why? Because that physical and emotional state of being, in themselves, can be perceived as a sign of incompetence. Is it hopeless to have those feelings? No, because if the other three are in place—or at least in process—anxiety may well be reduced.


So, as much as we might want to make life easier for our children, giving them the opportunities and supports and experiences as noted here, will inevitability better serve to build a strong sense of self-efficacy and with that the development of a high self-esteem. No more ribbons just for showing up. They won’t want or need them.


  • You are so right about the meaningless blue ribbons. Kids see right through them. But allowing them to take on challenges (smaller ones at first, then bigger as they gain confidence and ability) and then supporting them through these challenges, is a great way to build their self-esteem.

    • Vaughn

      Totally agree. It is the degree of support that is the challenge in order for the learning to take place to the point where the child recognizes that he/she accomplished the task and feels capable of repeating that and similar tasks successfully. We still tend to overly compliment/praise when it is not felt to be sincere, was not earned. It learned this while student teaching, applying what I thought I had learned in classes of rewarding for every correct response. The high school boy started laughing. When asked why he said he got a kick our my excitement for things he got right and my then thought to be meaningful praises. Hmmmmmm This student, by today’s standards, was Intellectually Impaired. He taught ME that the praise had to be meaningful. I never forgot it and then ran in to Bandura in grad and post graduate work–all validating what i had already been taught by a child with IDs…imagine that!