Self-Confidence in Learning

by Dahlia Miller
October 2003

“Your mental attitude is the only thing over which you, and only you, have complete control.”
Napoleon Hill (1883 – 1970)

Do you know the story of The Little Engine That Could? She succeeded in a task that seemed nearly impossible by being a cheerleader for herself. Imagine how much harder it might have been for the little engine to pull that train over that high mountain had she been saying, “I just know I can’t. Oh, what if I don’t make it? This is never going to work! I’ve never done this before, why am I even trying?”

The story of the little engine offers several important lessons in self- confidence:

  • Believe in your ability
  • Have a positive mental attitude
  • Speak positively to yourself (i.e. be a cheerleader for yourself)

Self-confidence is a belief in your ability to do your best. You don’t have to be the biggest, the best or the brightest to have self-confidence. You just have to believe that you are capable of doing your best. And you have to be willing to take risks.

For students, maintaining a high level of self-confidence is absolutely necessary. Students make themselves vulnerable by taking risks and reaching beyond their present abilities. They have to be open to criticism and feedback without losing faith in their ability to improve. This can be a difficult challenge. But with a strong belief in your ability to do your best, you can open yourself to new ideas. You can learn a new skill if you are not afraid to make mistakes.

Surprisingly, lack of self-confidence is not necessarily related to lack of ability. Instead it is often the result of focusing too much on the unrealistic expectations or standards of others, especially parents and society. Depending on the approval of others undermines your own belief in yourself. Many times those other people are completely wrong! For example, Karl Arbeiter, one of Albert Einstein’s former teachers said this about him: “The boy failed my grade school math class...And not that many years later he’s teaching college...No aptitude at all for long division...How he talked his way into the Nobel Prize is beyond me.”

Self-confidence is an inner game. You play it with yourself. There are no other players. Others can criticize or put you down, but it is up to you what you believe about yourself and your ability. Only you can give yourself the gift of self-confidence and only you can take it away. Only you know your inner strength and abilities.

“With the realization of one’s own potential and self-confidence in one’s ability, one can build a better world. According to my own experience, self-confidence is very important. That sort of confidence is not a blind one; it is an awareness of one’s own potential.”
H.H. the Dalai Lama

People who are self-confident speak positively to themselves, they take risks, they are energetic and happy (most of the time), and they empower others to believe in themselves. They say things to themselves like: “I think I can. I have been working very hard on this. I’m doing my best. I’m proud of myself. Look at what I can do!”

Strategies for Developing Self-Confidence in Learning

For Students:

  • Ask questions when you don’t understand. Take responsibility when you need help by asking for it. Acting with confidence whatever your level will help to foster more self-confidence.
  • Emphasize strengths. Give yourself credit for everything you try. By focusing on what you can do, you applaud yourself for efforts rather than emphasizing end products.
  • Take risks – stretch a bit beyond your comfort zone. Approach new experiences as opportunities to learn rather than occasions to win or lose.
  • Be your own cheerleader. Tell yourself how proud you are of everything you’ve done. Positive self-talk is a great way to quiet any critical thoughts you may have. For example, when you catch yourself expecting perfection, remind yourself that you can’t do everything perfectly, that it’s only possible to do your best. This allows you to accept yourself while still striving to improve.
  • Set reasonable goals. Do your best and be happy with that.
  • Self-Evaluate. Learn to evaluate yourself independently. Focusing internally on how you feel about your own behavior, work, etc. will give you a stronger sense of self.
  • Learn what resources and help are available to you in your school and community and learn how to use those resources. For example: libraries, counsellors, teachers, study groups, tutors, the internet.

For Parents of Students:

  • Remind your child of his/her accomplishments.
  • Praise efforts.
  • Find out what your child’s goals are; ask your child how she feels about her ability to reach those goals. Ask about your child’s fears in reaching those goals. Be careful not to judge or comment negatively about your belief in their ability.
  • Set a positive example by behaving with self-confidence.