The answer to better behaviour? Self-efficacy

We've had the same conversations on behaviour for years, says Jarlath O'Brien – but a new approach is breaking through

Jarlath O'Brien

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It might seem like the common topics in discussions about behaviour have hardly budged an inch in years, but there seems to be one angle that I am hearing discussed more and more, and I welcome it.

It is the acknowledgement that, when trying to improve behaviour, we need to explicitly teach children to behave well rather than expect that all children have it within them to simply do it but some are choosing not to.

This acknowledgement is good, but it needs to go further. Teaching children to behave well does not solely amount to using a form of direct instruction by telling them what is required. I wonder if we would be more successful with teaching children to behave well if we thought about it using Albert Bandura’s work on self-efficacy.

I have been influenced by Bandura’s work while thinking about how to strengthen the confidence and skill of adults when trying to improve the behaviour of children. 

Behaviour in schools: The importance of self-efficacy

Bandura’s definition of perceived self-efficacy – people's beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives – can apply equally well to helping children. He contends that people with higher levels of self-efficacy persevere and regard problems as obstacles that can be overcome, whereas people with lower levels of self-efficacy are more likely to quit or to regard failures as resulting from personal deficits.

I see this a lot in children who are struggling to behave well in schools, and at least some of it is rooted in shame avoidance, with some convinced that they’ll never make it so it’s not worth trying. 

Bandura suggests that four main areas underpin a strong sense of self-efficacy.

Mastery experiences

Teachers expertly provide many children with opportunities to be academically successful all day long. We understand that there are foundations to be built before tackling more demanding material, and that the children in our classes are at various stages of confidence and competence so our delivery and choice of resources, and how and where we deploy our support staff, should reflect that. 

We know that experiencing success builds children’s confidence. But Bandura warns that easy successes can breed overconfidence or an expectation of quick results, and when failure arrives, as it most surely will, this can discourage children.

On the other hand, early failures can undermine self-efficacy if experienced enough before confidence is established. Our role here is, therefore, to provide the conditions where success in improving their behaviour becomes probable, rather than possible. It is the repeated experiences, not of success, but of progress, that will sustain improvements in behaviour. 

Social models

Learning from others – Bandura’s social models – in teaching can be powerful, but when applied to children learning to behave well, it is very challenging for a number of reasons. Bandura contends that seeing others succeed or fail can raise or lower our own efforts to improve, but, of course, all children are at different developmental stages. 

Social modelling is important in reinforcing social norms, of course, and I am reminded of Paluck et al’s (2016) study that looked at how the behaviour of peers can influence others. The programme under review sought to understand how community-wide behaviours can be changed as “individuals attend to the behavior of certain people in their community to understand what is socially normative and adjust their own behavior in response”. 

They implemented a social influence strategy, randomising "the selection of students within a comprehensively measured social network to determine the relative power of certain individuals to influence the behavior of others”. 

They found that “by encouraging a small set of students to take a public stance against typical forms of conflict at their school, our intervention reduced overall levels of conflict by an estimated 30 per cent. Network analyses reveal that certain kinds of students (called ‘social referents’) have an outsized influence over social norms and behavior at the school. The study demonstrates the power of peer influence for changing climates of conflict, and suggests which students to involve in those efforts". 

Bandura warns that “the impact of modelling on perceived self-efficacy is strongly influenced by perceived similarity to the models. The greater the assumed similarity, the more persuasive are the models' successes and failures. If people see the models as very different from themselves, their perceived self-efficacy is not much influenced by the models' behavior and the results it produces.”   

Social persuasion

This aspect is dominated by the tone we take with children. If we are encouraging, and if we recognise effort, success and progress, this can persuade the child that it is worth persevering. This is different from reward – enticements offered before the fact that are contingent upon success. 

You can see that social persuasion wraps around the mastery experiences mentioned earlier in that we create the conditions for the child to do better, but then we need to recognise when that happens and show them that we’ve recognised it. It is less effective to withhold our recognition until the child crosses our eventual line of acceptability.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t let them know when things are not good enough, but all progress is worthy of recognition. As I always say, recognition is better than reward, and recognition of progress is better than recognition of attainment.    

Psychological responses

Bandura asserts that “positive mood enhances perceived self-efficacy, despondent mood diminishes it”. We all know that children’s perceptions of themselves play a major role in behaviour. 

The debilitating effects of shame avoidance can make it tough to convince a child to give something a go. This is where approaches such as solution-focused coaching (something that I’m grappling hard with right now) can help. All children are successful somewhere, but some have long since rejected the idea that they can be successful at school. Helping them accept that there are things they do well may allow them to take more risks, as they would see it, later on. 

And, of course, taking risks and trying new things is what progress and personal growth is all about.

Jarlath O'Brien is a local authority advisor and the author of 'Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers'.

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