Sanne van den Brink; Anisha van Waalwijk van Doorn; Mijke Peeters; and Anouk van Kaathoven

Self-efficacy; everyone struggles with it from time to time. Do you remember the feeling when you are given an assignment for school and you think ‘How am I going to do this’? You only see how much work it is, and you think that you cannot do it. This means that you have a low sense of self-efficacy, you do not believe in your ability to complete this assignment. Children in primary school also struggle with their sense of self-efficacy. Some children do not have faith in themselves when reaching a goal or completing a task. Luckily, there is something you as a teacher can do to help your students.

Bandura’s social cognitive theory asserts that learning:

  • takes place in social contexts;
  • consists of a reciprocal interaction of personal, behaviour and environmental factors;
  • involves the processes of observational learning and modelling, which can have a significant impact on how and what children learn, and;
  • Involves self-efficacy.


Key Takeaways (Sidebar)

Self-efficacy, is seen as one of the most significant predictors of one’s behaviour.

The meaning of self-efficacy can be clearly recognized in Watty Piper’s children’s book ‘The Little Engine That Could’.

The very little engine looked up and saw the tears in the dolls’ eyes. And she thought of the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain who would not have any toys or good food unless she helped.

Then she said, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” And she hitched herself to the little train.

She tugged and pulled and pulled and tugged and slowly, slowly they started off.

The toy clown jumped aboard, and all the dolls and the toy animals began to smile and cheer.

Puff, puff, chug, chug, went the Little Blue Engine. “I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can.”[1]

With the phrase ‘I think I can’ the very little engine indicates that she believes she is able to pull the broken engine full of toys and good food over the mountain. Imagine a primary school student who has spent many hours practicing for their math quiz. Even though they have had enough practice, they may still be very unsure of their abilities and competence. What does this child need? Self-efficacy.

“Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives.” Bandura (1994, p. 2).

In more straightforward terms, self-efficacy, or perceived self-efficacy, is a person’s belief in their own abilities to succeed in a specific situation. Succeeding can mean:

  • reaching a certain outcome.
  • performing a specific task.
  • achieving a particular goal or,
  • overcoming an obstacle or challenge.
Self-efficacy is one of the strongest determinants of academic success.

Activity: What is Your Definition of Self-Efficacy?

Target audience: Grades 3 – 6

Introduce the concept of self-efficacy to your class. You could do this by reading a book, The LIttle Engine That Could, or by reading a poem or a short passage from a book to illustrate the concept through story.

After introducing the general idea, encourage students to try and define the word. Facilitate a short class discussion to come up with a common definition.

Optional Activity:

  • Students can create their own stories, poems and drawings to illustrate the concept for themselves or for younger students.


Students’ feelings about their ability to succeed may vary based on the type of task they are undertaking. For example, some may have a strong sense of self-efficacy in academic, and/or problem-solving tasks, but not in the area of self-regulation. Even within a certain subject, students can have varying levels of self-efficacy for different assignments. A student can feel good about presenting their renewable energy idea but feel insecure about the renewable energy essay they need to write. Self-efficacy is not a personality trait or a part of our character; it consists of a set of skills and our level of self-efficacy is not fixed, because different experiences can result in changes and growth in one’s self-efficacy.

One of the most important things for a teacher to know is that everybody can develop self-efficacy.

Children between the ages of 6 and 11 are developing the ability to self-evaluate based on their own and peers’ views and competences as well as the ability to identify their challenges or weaknesses. In addition, children at this age are also learning to self-regulate. Self-efficacy continues to develop throughout a person’s lifespan, as we constantly obtain new skills and insights and learn from new experiences.

Ask yourself, ‘What do I believe I can do?’ in a specific situation when you would like to judge and evaluate your level of self-efficacy (Maddux, 2009).’

Self-efficacy, self-esteem and confidence are not the same thing

Self-esteem is one’s general evaluation of their own worth. while self-efficacy is about a person’s belief that he or she can be successful in specific areas or in accomplishing specific tasks.

The National Association of School Psychologists agrees that children’s self-esteem is important but asserts that the best way to help children feel good about themselves is by making them aware of their abilities and by developing and building on their belief that they can trust in their competence when they are working through a challenge.

Bandura (1997, p. 382) states that “Confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about… Perceived self-efficacy refers to belief in one’s power to produce given levels of attainment.” Self-efficacy and confidence can cyclically strengthen each other, as more confidence can lead to successful experiences which heightens self-efficacy levels, and high self-efficacy can result in more confidence, and so the cycle begins again.

Self-efficacy and growth mindset

A growth mindset is the belief that with effort, determination, and practice, one’s abilities can change. The combination of high self-efficacy and a growth mindset can be very beneficial to students, because then when students experience a disappointment they will not be discouraged, rather they will continue to believe that they are able to successfully accomplish their goal or task by putting in more work and practice. While working on developing a growth mindset, students can ask the following question: Can I grow in this area?

Self-efficacy affects how we feel, think, act, and motivate ourselves

Cognitive: Most actions are first planned and established in thought. Controlling situations requires effective cognitive processing of information.Thinking in self-enhancing ways (‘I have control over the outcome’) or self-debilitating ways (‘I have no control over the outcome’) impacts how well we might function in a specific area.

Motivational: Self-efficacy contributes to motivation through its influence on goal setting, effort, perseverance and resilience.

Emotional: People with a strong sense of self-efficacy can accept and move on from negative emotions that can be the result of perceived failures. Our psychological state affects our self-efficacy, and our sense of efficacy affects our emotional states.

Decisional or selection: Self-efficacy influences the settings and situations we choose to engage in and to what extent those environments promote our personal growth and development.

Self-efficacy and self-regulated learning

Self-regulated learning (SRL) is is a process that consists of metacognitive, cognitive, and motivational components that work together to, “effectively regulate one’s learning process.” (Vandevelde et al., 2012, p. 1563).

Academic self-efficacy beliefs have a significant impact on forethought, performance and self-reflection, the core areas in Zimmerman’s cyclical self-regulated learning model. Zimmerman’s focus is on the impact that motivation can have on self-regulation.

“How do students self-regulate?: Review of Zimmerman’s cyclical model of self-regulated learning,” by E. Panadero and J. Alonso-Tapia, 2014, Anales de Psicología, 30(2), p. 453.

A person’s beliefs, values, interest, and goals bring about and maintain the motivation to complete a task, and so, the interplay of these variables determine one’s motivation to perform a task. Self-efficacy beliefs are essential for students’ motivation. If a student does not believe in his or her abilities to do well on a math task, then his or her motivation will lessen and he or she will put in little effort to successfully complete the task.

In the self-reflection phase of Zimmerman’s model, students’ self-explanations about why they succeeded or failed in a task, lead to positive or negative emotions, and these emotions have an impact on students’ outcome expectations.

Questions for further thinking

  • How have the five primary sources influenced your self-efficacy? Can you name specific examples?
  • In what ways has your self-efficacy influenced your self-regulated learning skills?
  • Can you think of/name something else (e.g., depression) that self-efficacy influences?
  • Try explaining what self-efficacy is at the dinner table, to your friends, and so on. Will the people you talk about self-efficacy to also recognize influence self-efficacy has on their daily lives?


Key Takeaways


  • was introduced by Albert Bandura and is part of his social-cognitive learning theory.
  •  refers to a person’s belief in their own abilities to succeed in a specific situation.
  • Is influenced by and can influence self-esteem, confidence, growth mindset and outcome expectations.
  • Works through four processes: cognition, motivation, emotion, and decision-making.
  •  Academic self-efficacy is one of the strongest determinants of academic success.





  1. The Little Engine That Could (Piper, 2001, p. 31-34)


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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by Sanne van den Brink; Anisha van Waalwijk van Doorn; Mijke Peeters; and Anouk van Kaathoven is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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