The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Jean Gross

Self-efficacy: simple strategies to raise attainment

Building pupils’ sense of capability is vital to their long-term success. Jean Gross sets out some low-cost, straightforward ways to encourage self-efficacy in and out of school.

I wonder if you use the idea of self-efficacy in your work?

You may instead talk about having a sense of agency or an internal locus of control. All these terms mean the same thing – the belief that you can make a difference to your own life and that of others.

Self-efficacy is emerging as an important factor in attainment, particularly for disadvantaged learners. Research has shown it to be almost as predictive of achieving good educational qualifications by the age of 26 as cognitive skills.

Self-esteem, in contrast, though predictive of mental and physical health in adult life, is not a good predictor of attainment.

Take the self-efficacy test

It’s easy to take your own self-efficacy test. First, think of a job you got, a promotion you received or any other success in your life – small or large. Then complete the sentence ‘I succeeded in… because…’

If you answered ‘I succeeded in getting the job because I did my homework… looked at the school’s website… paid a visit… got a friend to do a practice interview with me’ then it is likely that you have high self-efficacy, attributing your success to internal factors.

If, on the other hand, you said ‘I don’t think they had many applications’ or ‘They must have just liked my face’, you were either being modest or you have low self-efficacy, attributing your success to factors outside your control.

You can spot children with low self-efficacy by their responses in the classroom.

Take a boy who is sent out of class because he got into an argument with the pupil sitting next to him.

If he says, ‘It weren’t me, Miss… he wound me up’, that would be a sign of an external locus of control or low self-efficacy.

If he thinks to himself that the other boy did wind him up but that he could have chosen to ignore him, that would be a sign of high self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy in disadvantaged children

Disadvantaged children are more at risk of low self-efficacy than their peers. Often, many see their families powerless in the face of events. Your dad is in a low-skilled job that gives him little autonomy, your mum loses her job, then the gas gets cut off, then you get evicted. Your life is driven by other people’s decisions.

Schools, too, play their part in cementing low self-efficacy.

We often inadvertently strip lower-achieving disadvantaged children of their sense of independence and capability through grouping practices and offering too much ‘help’.

I have never forgotten the boy who told me ‘I’m in the bottom table group and we can’t do anything by ourselves so we always have to have an adult working with us.’

The seven secrets of building self-efficacy

In my new book about closing the attainment gap, Reaching the Unseen Children, I give practical examples of strategies for building pupils’ self-efficacy by:

  • teaching children to understand self-efficacy
  • changing the way we talk with children
  • finding the pivotal moment, when we notice and comment on a talent or strength
  • giving pupils real responsibility
  • promoting independence by giving less help
  • giving pupils choice and control
  • encouraging children to set their own targets and challenge themselves.

Teaching children to understand self-efficacy

A Year 1 class make a list of some of their achievements on the whiteboard. Their teacher asks the children questions about how and why they were successful.

  • Did you learn to ride a bike because you kept practising?
  • Did you …  because you listened carefully to the instructions?

She comments that she’s noticed that they seemed to have succeeded because of their own actions.

A Year 3 class are given a set of cards saying things like ‘I did well in the spelling test because the spellings were easy’, ‘Kylie doesn’t want to be my friend because I wasn’t very nice to her when she first started at this school’.

They work in pairs to sort the cards into two piles: one pile of cards that showed the person was taking responsibility, the other pile of cards where they were blaming things outside themselves.

At a secondary school, Year 7 learn the terms ‘external and internal locus of control’. They then sort situation cards like ‘He made me laugh so I got thrown out of class’ into piles of ‘internal’ or ‘external’ locus.

Changing the way we talk with children

An easy way of building self-efficacy is to draw children’s attention to strategies they have used to help them succeed.

We can say ‘You showed persistence there; I noticed you didn’t give up’, ‘Well done for getting stuck into learning your spellings this week – you must have practised every day at home.’

If a boy’s school football team won a home game and the boy attributes winning to external factors (‘It’s always easier to win at home’), we can try to shift him to an internal locus of control (‘Well, yes, sometimes it is easier to win at home, but what do you think you’ve been doing lately that helped you play well?’).

Finding the pivotal moment

In the brilliant book The Working Class, Martin Illingworth describes what life is like for a disadvantaged boy with catalogue of failure, who feels written off by teachers. But then...

‘There is a moment in your story when everything could change. Mr Wayment, your English teacher, sees your picture in the local paper. You have won a fishing competition and there you are in the paper holding a trophy….

What would happen if Mr Wayment remembered to congratulate you on your win, if he told your head of year to make a fuss of you?

What if he contacted your mum to say how pleased he was to see that you won the fishing competition (and that it would be great to chat at parent’s evening next week)?

What if when the art teacher hears about your interest in fishing she gets you drawing fish? It turns out that you are rather good at drawing. Your stuff goes on the wall and you choose art at GCSE.

What if that leads you to doing a talk about fishing, and then you are invited to set up a fishing club. After school on Wednesdays with Mr Oswald who loves fishing too? And with every little interest taken in you, you swell and grow.

As he puts the paper down and drinks his beer, Mr Wayment makes a mental note to speak to you. Let’s hope he remembers. Let’s hope he thinks on.’ (The Working Class, 2018, edited by Ian Gilbert and published by Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press)

That’s what I mean by finding a pivotal moment.

Giving pupils real responsibility

To build self-efficacy, we need to give children experiences of actually making change happen.

Most schools do this through community projects, school councils and other pupil voice activities. But how far, I wonder, would your school match up to the example of Netherfield Primary?

Exercising real responsibility

Inspirational headteacher Sharon Gray helped children at Netherfield Primary write their own account of their school experience, to put on the school’s website. This is an extract:

‘This year I got to take my Peer Mediator Training. There are now 12 of us who are Peer Mediators and we are all highly skilled in conflict resolution. If there is an argument or dispute, or if someone is upset or lonely, we’re there to help.

Another of my major roles in school is as a Cabinet Minister for our School Parliament. I’m the Finance Minister for our school so I help to make sure we make the most of our budget and spend it on the things that are going to be the most beneficial to all the children at school.

There are many other roles too, such as the Eco Warrior Team, the Learning and Teaching improvement team and Farm Association.

We have lots of meetings where we can make real decisions. Last week we did some lesson observations of some of the teachers and gave them some really helpful feedback on how to improve their teaching so that we can learn better: Mrs Taylor says she is going to use more songs in her lessons after our feedback.’

Low-cost strategies

Many interventions to close the disadvantage gap are costly – but not all. As I have suggested in this article, when a disadvantaged child is underachieving we often simply need to ask ourselves what we can do to make them feel more powerful in their own lives.

And then use our imaginations, our relationships and our everyday interactions with learners to help them believe ‘things can get better, and I can do something about it.’

Reaching the unseen children

You can read more about these and the other practical, evidence-based strategies in my book, Reaching the Unseen Children: Practical strategies for closing stubborn gaps in disadvantaged groups.

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