Think about a time when you saw someone complete a task that made such a beautiful or jaw-dropping product, like witnessing a caricature artist at a street fair or a magician pulling off a mind-bending stunt. Would you offer your services and step in to create the next portrait or perform the following stunt?
Most likely not, right?
When we don’t have the technical training to complete the task at hand, why would we even think of offering our services? We might fail. We might feel embarrassed of our ability. We just don’t believe we can do it.
The feelings that arise when we are challenged are related to self-efficacy. VeryWellMind defines self-efficacy as a person’s belief in his or her ability to succeed in a particular situation. In my own experience, when I am observing a new task and I don’t believe that my hands and brain can accomplish the task, I will not even try. Can you relate?
While surfing on Instagram recently, I came across a post by ArtCartKids that caught my attention with a question about comfort zones, risk taking and self-efficacy. ArtCartKids began her post with: “Typically, my approach to art with children tends to be all about the process and a whole lot of exploration of materials.”
Here, a Reggio Emilia inspired art educator shares her primary goal for her program. While viewing the photos and reading captions it was clear that, for ArtCartKids, materials are the best teacher and this belief acts as the choreographer for her classroom set up and lesson development. She continued this post by sharing an anecdote about weaving a dreamcatcher with her students. She was surprised at how the children wanted a lot of direction; that they were more comfortable with the instructor leading a step-by-step instruction and were not comfortable trusting their hands. She then asked the Instagram universe:
“Do you think as children get older, and have more structure and direction in schools, this becomes their comfort zone?”
“Does their ability to take creative risk shrink?”
“Are they more concerned with right and wrong?”
As fuel_the_makers, I replied with a few concerns that I think about often: “A lot of how students react stems from what they hear at home and in school. Think about a teacher responding to a student who didn’t follow their directions the way they intended them to follow. As teachers and parents, we set expectations without even being conscious of it, and children learn to meet OUR EXPECTATIONS rather than explore their creativity in school. It is what it is. What we can do is be vocal and very clear that our expectations are grounded in their discovery and we are less concerned with their product.”
I also spoke about how we can invite and celebrate children’s ideas and concerns by asking questions beforehand like “How may we weave this thread through the circle?” or “What might we do if we get stuck?” Also, sharing each others struggles and success throughout the class period celebrates the life of the artist and allows us all to witness how our peers share the same concerns. All these discussions focused on our work habits place an emphasis on the art process over the finished product.
If we truly value PROCESS, how may we make that clearly visible and understood in our learning spaces? And what questions, discussions and activities might we invite into the studio space that will help our students be more aware of their hands and brain? How might we help young artists understand what they are physically capable of and how they can use their brain to work through a struggle?
The answers to the questions above will allow us to build self-efficacy in our students and, furthermore, strengthen their ability to be risk takers.
Practice Makes Better.
So let’s embrace these 3 habits to build self-efficacy in your students and children:
- SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS THAT EMPHASIZE PROCESS:
Begin each learning experience with a discussion about the expectations you have for working on a specific task or activity. This can be as simple as:
“Today we want to discover all the possible types of marks a brush can make. We will act like a scientist would act if they just found this tool. There is no right or wrong way to work today because we are trying to discover all we can about how we may be able to use a brush. Take note of what you discover so that we can share our new knowledge and make connections with others who have similar findings.”
In the words above, there is no discussion about what the marks should look like, or about what to do first, second or third. The expectations are grounded in discovery. Students are invited to wear their curiosity hat and are encouraged to ask questions and share what they find. This exploratory activity may take place before a painting unit where students will be invited to implement a variety of techniques focused around mark making, color mixing, layering, composition, etc. Whatever it may be, offering this simple activity about the tools we use and making the time to have reflective discussions about it, will allow students to feel more in control when they pick up a brush in the future.
When we offer directions on how to use a tool or comment on how a student chose to make a mark different than what we may have imagined, we give a message that there is a right and wrong way. Doing this once in a while may be necessary. But if we tend to consistently give too many directives, students will come back to you asking: “Is this OK?, “Is this good?”, or the worst “Is this what you wanted?” or “Do you like it?” Before offering directions, think hard about what your expectations are and try to be specific to the artistic behaviors you wish to promote.
- CELEBRATE STRUGGLES AND SUCCESSES:
Before starting any activity, invite students to share their own concerns and/or goals. When we ask questions like “How may we choose to use these tools today?” and “What can we do if we get stuck?” or “How may we care for our mixing tray?” we are telling students that we value their ideas and that we, the teacher, are not the owner of information. We send the message that this a community that celebrates the ideas of everyone and it is important for us all to be heard and feel comfortable sharing.
When students are half-way through a class period and are messy in the process, I will ask for their attention and invite anyone who wishes to share something they discovered, a struggle or concern they have, or a successful technique they have practiced. This allows students to practice feeling comfortable talking about their personal art process with others and also builds compassion and connections. Celebrating the times when we learn from our mistakes allows students to discover the benefits of messing up and having the motivation to do things again and again. Hey, isn’t that building resilience? Why, yes it is! And these steps lead to OWNING and BELIEVING in our ability which is the definition of self-efficacy! The more we celebrate our struggles and mistakes, the more they will feel like common experiences and we will feel less afraid when they happen. And they WILL happen.
- CREATE A SELF-SERVICE CULTURE:
Offer children the opportunity to be independent, and they will blow you away. Imagine the parent who is constantly tying their child’s shoes because they don’t want to spend the time waiting for a beginner to finish. Or the teacher who tends to collect materials because they want them to be organized a certain way. The message they are sending is clear: “You are not capable and efficient so move aside and let me take over.” And then as a parent or teacher, we wonder: “Why is ____ so lazy and lacking awareness? Why won’t they unpack their bag or put away their laundry on their own?” It is not because a student or child is lazy, but because they simply have not been given the opportunity to practice and they are not aware of what to do or a successful way to do it.
What we can do as teachers and parents, is make a list of every. single. little. task. that our children CAN do. There is no job too small. What may happen is that the parent or teacher will need to do some “elf work”, or adjustments behind the scenes afterwards, which is a tiny task compared to the oodles of empowerment that comes from offering children the opportunity to be independent. In our art studio, from age 3 and up, children are responsible for placing brushes in the “brush bathtub”, wiping tables with a zokien, a special towel, organizing pencils, markers, glue sticks and any other reusable materials, collecting paper scraps and reusable paper…you name it, they collect it. And guess what? They can not do enough.
I believe it stems from the language we use to describe the task. If anyone asked you to clean up, what is the first emotion that comes to mind? For me it might be “ugh, cleaning? I just want to play.” But what if someone asked: “Who would like to use a zokien to care for the tables?”, “Who would like to save the unused papers from the trash?”, “Who would like to be the glue police and make sure all the caps are on tight?”, ” Who would like to place brushes in the bathtub?”
So the next time you are about to speak aloud: “time to clean up!” pause and redirect your language to something that specifies the job at hand and incorporate a bit of humor and care. Imagine the ways you can transform your language to make a simple task seem like a meaningful rescue.
Ask any parent or educator “what are the top 3 things you wish for your children?” and what do you think they will say? I want my students to be happy and confident and successful. Please comment below with other ideas, but this is what first came to my mind. Building self-efficacy will grant all of these wishes above. So remember:
CELEBRATE STRUGGLES AND SUCCESSES,
HELP STUDENTS HELP THEMSELVES,
QUESTION, REFLECT, DISCUSS, and REPEAT.
Create a space that values diversity of thought and allows all these actions to become common behaviors in any learning environment.
Let’s put children in the drivers seat of their learning and give them the tools they need to look adversity in the face and say “I GOT THIS”.