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“I think I can… I think I can…”

The Pony Engine allegory emerged in spoken word at the beginning of the 20th century and over time became best known and widely published as The Little Engine That Could. One of America’s most endearing children’s stories, The Little Engine That Could has encouraged generations of children (and adults) to believe in themselves and in their power to succeed.

More recently, the embrace of failure as a learning opportunity has become quite trendy and almost cliché. There is, of course, truth to the idea; however, we must not forget that success and the acknowledgement of achievement are critical to the development of our children. Belief in one’s competence and ability to perform effectively, reinforced through the experience of success, is an essential factor in healthy human development and behavior.1

Those of us old enough to remember visiting an old-fashioned zoo or the circus have seen massive elephants held in place by a thin chain around their ankle, attached to a spike in the ground. The elephants could easily break the chain or remove the spike, but they don’t even try. From the time they are very young and too weak to break the chain, they learn that pulling on it is futile. They become convinced they are not powerful enough to break free. The elephants become accustomed to failure and being held back. Eventually, they stop trying and passively stay where they are.

This kind of learned helplessness and hopelessness in our own human experience can form the expectation that desired outcomes are not attainable for us, or that undesired outcomes are inevitable. In a school setting, this can be particularly true for students who may live with learning differences, social difficulty, or physical challenges. There is clear evidence that feelings of hopelessness shut down what is called the “approach system” so that an individual is “no longer motivated to pursue rewards and goals.”2

Psychologists have developed multiple ways of measuring self-efficacy and personal agency. They describe “specific self-efficacy,” defined as that related to a certain task or behavior, and “general self-efficacy,” which is confidence across a wide range of potential situations.3 The latter becomes a trait that supports the child in their confident exploration of the world and their fearless attempts to try new things.

Though the determinants of self-efficacy are complex — they include biological, psychological, behavioral, and environmental factors — we must not underestimate the power of acknowledgement of success, no matter how small the achievement may seem. This is not an endorsement of the “every player gets a trophy” philosophy, but a reminder to be mindful of those moments when a pause and a pat on the back will go a very long way and, quite possibly, last a lifetime.

1 Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist, 28(2), 117-148.

2 Haeffel, G., Abramson, L., Brazy, P. & Shah, J. (2007). Hopelessness theory and the approach system: Cognitive vulnerability predicts decreases in goal-directed behavior. Cognitive Therapy & Research, 32, 281-290.

3 Scherbaum, C., Cohen-Charash, Y. & Kern, M. (2006). Measuring general self-efficacy: An comparison of three measures using item response theory. Educational & Psychological Measurement, 66(6), 1047-1063.