In Family Support

photo: Orchard School Student

Aliza Pressman, Contributor

As a psychologist, I’ve spent nearly 20 years studying how to care for and raise good humans. The overlooked skill I always tell new parents to teach is inner efficacy.

Inner efficacy is an individual’s belief in their own capacity to do what it takes to meet their goals. Self-esteem might say, “I’m amazing!” but inner efficacy says, “I have what it takes to figure this out and achieve what I set out to.”

Kids with a strong sense of inner efficacy are more likely to challenge themselves and put in the effort. Rather than blaming external circumstances or some immutable lack of talent for their failures, they’ll focus on factors that are within their control.

Research shows that kids gain inner efficacy from four sources:

  1. The experience of getting things right –For this to happen, kids have to be challenged at the right level. Pushing them into educational experiences they’re not ready for can be counterproductive. Whenever they worry about not being able to do something, you can promote a growth mindset by telling them: “You’re not there, yet.”
  1. Watching others get it right – It’s important that kids see others they consider similar to themselves, in at least some specifics (like age, race or ethnicity, gender identity, interests), achieving similar goals. The peer modeling doesn’t have to come from people exactly like our unique child, but watching a much older child of a different race and gender accomplish something might not have the same effect.
  1. Reminders that they have a history of getting things right – The stories we tell ourselves about the past create our sense of competence about the future. Studies show that people who lean into optimism, have a growth mindset, and believe in themselves often don’t have such different past experiences than their pessimistic peers. They just remember successes more vividly than failures.
  1. A sense of calm in their bodies – If children feel stressed, queasy, or anxious when faced with challenges, it can be difficult to perform without taking care of that physiological response first.Teaching our kids self-soothing practices like mindful breathing will go a long way to help them become competent at whatever they focus on.

How to help kids build inner efficacy

  1. Encourage them to try at something they’re not immediately good at. Instead of saying “Practice makes perfect,” because we know that’s not always true — and we’re not actually looking for perfection — remind your child that “Effort makes evolution.”
  1. Clarify to correct. Don’t just mark mistakes with a red pen and say, “Wrong again, pal.” Instead, try restating, rephrasing, changing the question, clarifying directions, and going over previously learned skills. Even with young children who point to a red apple and say “blue,” you can say, “Oh, yes, blueberries are blue, and this is a red apple” instead of just correcting them or saying, “That’s not blue, silly.”
  1. Praise with specificity when it’s earned. When we say “Good job!” it’s got be sincere and specific. Tell kids when you recognize their real effort, persistence, creativity, independence, and competence. You don’t have to completely erase “good job” from your vocabulary. Just add a bit more detail, like, “Good job applying that chess opening you just learned.”
  1. Point out strategy. Help kids draw the line between the action and the achievement. If your child does a good job writing an essay they’ve outlined, for example, you can say, “I noticed you made an outline. I bet that’s one reason you did so well.” Or, alternatively, you might need to say, “I noticed you didn’t do an outline. It can be really tough to write an essay when you don’t have an outline. Let’s try writing one together.”

aliza-pressman-efficacyWhen kids understand that their failures aren’t due to permanent limitations, there’s an opening for future achievement.


Dr. Aliza Pressman is a developmental psychologist with nearly two decades of experience working with families. She is an assistant clinical professor in the Division of Behavioral Health Department of Pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, where she is cofounding director of The Mount Sinai Parenting Center. She holds a BA from Dartmouth College and is the author of The 5 Principles of Parenting: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans. Follow her on Instagram @raisinggoodhumanspodcast.

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