Learning Development and Exercise of Self-Efficacy Over the Lifespan!

Different periods of life present certain types of competency demands for successful functioning. These normative changes in required competencies with age do not represent lock-step stages through which everyone must inevitably pass. There are many pathways through life and, at any given period, people vary substantially in how efficaciously they manage their lives. The sections that follow provide a brief analysis of the characteristic developmental changes in the nature and scope of perceived self-efficacy over the course of the lifespan.

Origins of a Sense of Personal Agency

The newborn comes without any sense of self. Infants exploratory experiences in which they see themselves produce effects by their actions provide the initial basis for developing a sense of efficacy. Shaking a rattle produces predictable sounds, energetic kicks shake their cribs, and screams bring adults. By repeatedly observing that environmental events occur with action, but not in its absence, infants learn that actions produce effects. Infants who experience success in controlling environmental events become more attentive to their own behavior and more competent in learning new efficacious responses, than are infants for whom the same environmental events occur regardless of how they behave.

Development of a sense of personal efficacy requires more than simply producing effects by actions. Those actions must be perceived as part of oneself. The self becomes differentiated from others through dissimilar experience. If feeding oneself brings comfort, whereas seeing others feed themselves has no similar effect, one’s own activity becomes distinct from all other persons. As infants begin to mature those around them refer to them and treat them as distinct persons. Based on growing personal and social experiences they eventually form a symbolic representation of themselves as a distinct self.

Familial Sources of Self-Efficacy

Young children must gain self-knowledge of their capabilities in broadening areas of functioning. They have to develop, appraise and test their physical capabilities, their social competencies, their linguistic skills, and their cognitive skills for comprehending and managing the many situations they encounter daily. Development of sensorimotor capabilities greatly expands the infants’ exploratory environment and the means for acting upon it. These early exploratory and play activities, which occupy much of children’s waking hours, provide opportunities for enlarging their repertoire of basic skills and sense of efficacy.

Successful experiences in the exercise of personal control are central to the early development of social and cognitive competence. Parents who are responsive to their infants’ behavior, and who create opportunities for efficacious actions by providing an enriched physical environment and permitting freedom of movement for exploration, have infants who are accelerated in their social and cognitive development. Parental responsiveness increases cognitive competence, and infants’ expanded capabilities elicit greater parental responsiveness in a two-way influence. Development of language provides children with the symbolic means to reflect on their experiences and what others tell them about their capabilities and, thus, to expand their self-knowledge of what they can and cannot do.

The initial efficacy experiences are centered in the family. But as the growing child’s social world rapidly expands, peers become increasingly important in children’s developing self-knowledge of their capabilities. It is in the context of peer relations that social comparison comes strongly into play. At first, the closest comparative age-mates are siblings. Families differ in number of siblings, how far apart in age they are, and in their sex distribution. Different family structures, as reflected in family size, birth order, and sibling constellation patterns, create different social comparisons for judging one’s personal efficacy. Younger siblings find themselves in the unfavorable position of judging their capabilities in relation to older siblings who may be several years advanced in their development.

Broadening of Self-Efficacy Through Peer Influences

Children’s efficacy-testing experiences change substantially as they move increasingly into the larger community. It is in peer relationships that they broaden self-knowledge of their capabilities. Peers serve several important efficacy functions. Those who are most experienced and competent provide models of efficacious styles of thinking and behavior. A vast amount of social learning occurs among peers. In addition, age-mates provide highly informative comparisons for judging and verifying one’s self-efficacy. Children are, therefore, especially sensitive to their relative standing among the peers in activities that determine prestige and popularity.

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Peers are neither homogeneous nor selected indiscriminately. Children tend to choose peers who share similar interests and values. Selective peer association will promote self-efficacy in directions of mutual interest, leaving other potentialities underdeveloped. Because peers serve as a major influence in the development and validation of self-efficacy, disrupted or impoverished peer relationships can adversely affect the growth of personal efficacy. A low sense of social efficacy can, in turn, create internal obstacles to favorable peer relationships. Thus, children who regard themselves as socially inefficacious withdraw socially, perceive low acceptance by their peers and have a low sense of self-worth. There are some forms of behavior where a high sense of efficacy may be socially alienating rather than socially affiliating. For example, children who readily resort to aggression perceive themselves as highly efficacious in getting things they want by aggressive means.

School as an Agency for Cultivating Cognitive Self-Efficacy

During the crucial formative period of children’s lives, the school functions as the primary setting for the cultivation and social validation of cognitive competencies. School is the place where children develop the cognitive competencies and acquire the knowledge and problem-solving skills essential for participating effectively in the larger society. Here their knowledge and thinking skills are continually tested, evaluated, and socially compared. As children master cognitive skills, they develop a growing sense of their intellectual efficacy. Many social factors, apart from the formal instruction, such as peer modeling of cognitive skills, social comparison with the performances of other students, motivational enhancement through goals and positive incentives, and teachers interpretations of children’s successes and failures in ways that reflect favorably or unfavorably on their ability also affect children’s judgments of their intellectual efficacy.

The task of creating learning environments conducive to development of cognitive skills rests heavily on the talents and self-efficacy of teachers. Those who are have a high sense of efficacy about their teaching capabilities can motivate their students and enhance their cognitive development. Teachers who have a low sense of instructional efficacy favor a custodial orientation that relies heavily on negative sanctions to get students to study.

Teachers operate collectively within an interactive social system rather than as isolates. The belief systems of staffs create school cultures that can have vitalizing or demoralizing effects on how well schools function as a social system. Schools in which the staff collectively judge themselves as powerless to get students to achieve academic success convey a group sense of academic futility that can pervade the entire life of the school. Schools in which staff members collectively judge themselves capable of promoting academic success imbue their schools with a positive atmosphere for development that promotes academic attainments regardless of whether they serve predominantly advantaged or disadvantaged students.

Students’ belief in their capabilities to master academic activities affects their aspirations, their level of interest in academic activities, and their academic accomplishments. There are a number of school practices that, for the less talented or ill prepared, tend to convert instructional experiences into education in inefficacy. These include lock-step sequences of instruction, which lose many children along the way; ability groupings which further diminish the perceived self-efficacy of those cast in the lower ranks; and competitive practices where many are doomed to failure for the success of a relative few.

Classroom structures affect the development of intellectual self-efficacy, in large part, by the relative emphasis they place on social comparison versus self-comparison appraisal. Self- appraisals of less able students suffer most when the whole group studies the same material and teachers make frequent comparative evaluations. Under such a monolithic structure students rank themselves according to capability with high consensus. Once established, reputations are not easily changed. In a personalized classroom structure, individualized instruction tailored to students’ knowledge and skills enables all of them to expand their competencies and provides less basis for demoralizing social comparison. As a result, students are more likely to compare their rate of progress to their personal standards than to the performance of others. Self-comparison of improvement in a personalized classroom structure raises perceived capability. Cooperative learning structures, in which students work together and help one another also tend to promote more positive self-evaluations of capability and higher academic attainments than do individualistic or competitive ones.

Growth of Self-Efficacy Through Transitional Experiences of Adolescence

Each period of development brings with it new challenges for coping efficacy. As adolescents approach the demands of adulthood, they must learn to assume full responsibility for themselves in almost every dimension of life. This requires mastering many new skills and the ways of adult society. Learning how to deal with pubertal changes, emotionally invested partnerships and sexuality becomes a matter of considerable importance. The task of choosing what lifework to pursue also looms large during this period. These are but a few of the areas in which new competencies and self-beliefs of efficacy have to be developed.

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With growing independence during adolescence some experimentation with risky behavior is not all that uncommon. Adolescents expand and strengthen their sense of efficacy by learning how to deal successfully with potentially troublesome matters in which they are unpracticed as well as with advantageous life events. Insulation from problematic situations leaves one ill-prepared to cope with potential difficulties. Whether adolescents foresake risky activities or become chronically enmeshed in them is determined by the interplay of personal competencies, self- management efficacy and the prevailing influences in their lives.

Impoverished hazardous environments present especially harsh realities with minimal resources and social supports for culturally-valued pursuits, but extensive modeling, incentives and social supports for transgressive styles of behavior. Such environments severely tax the coping efficacy of youth enmeshed in them to make it through adolescence in ways that do not irreversibly foreclose many beneficial life paths.

Adolescence has often been characterized as a period of psychosocial turmoil. While no period of life is ever free of problems, contrary to the stereotype of “storm and stress,” most adolescents negotiate the important transitions of this period without undue disturbance or discord. However, youngsters who enter adolescence beset by a disabling sense of inefficacy transport their vulnerability to distress and debility to the new environmental demands. The ease with which the transition from childhood to the demands of adulthood is made similarly depends on the strength of personal efficacy built up through prior mastery experiences.

Self-Efficacy Concerns of Adulthood

Young adulthood is a period when people have to learn to cope with many new demands arising from lasting partnerships, marital relationships, parenthood, and occupational careers. As in earlier mastery tasks, a firm sense of self-efficacy is an important contributor to the attainment of further competencies and success. Those who enter adulthood poorly equipped with skills and plagued by self-doubts find many aspects of their adult life stressful and depressing.

Beginning a productive vocational career poses a major transitional challenge in early adulthood. There are a number of ways in which self-efficacy beliefs contribute to career development and success in vocational pursuits. In preparatory phases, people’s perceived self-efficacy partly determines how well they develop the basic cognitive, self-management and interpersonal skills on which occupational careers are founded. As noted earlier, beliefs concerning one’s capabilities are influential determinants of the vocational life paths that are chosen.

It is one thing to get started in an occupational pursuit, it is another thing to do well and advance in it. Psychosocial skills contribute more heavily to career success than do occupational technical skills. Development of coping capabilities and skills in managing one’s motivation, emotional states and thought processes increases perceived self-regulatory efficacy. The higher the sense of self-regulatory efficacy the better the occupational functioning. Rapid technological changes in the modern workplace are placing an increasing premium on higher problem-solving skills and resilient self-efficacy to cope effectively with job displacements and restructuring of vocational activities.

The transition to parenthood suddenly thrusts young adults into the expanded role of both parent and spouse. They now not only have to deal with the ever-changing challenges of raising children but to manage interdependent relationships within a family system and social links to many extrafamilial social systems including educational, recreational, medical, and caregiving facilities. Parents who are secure in their parenting efficacy shepherd their children adequately through the various phases of development without serious problems or severe strain on the marital relationship. But it can be a trying period for those who lack a sense of efficacy to manage the expanded familial demands. They are highly vulnerable to stress and depression.

Increasing numbers of mothers are joining the work force either by economic necessity or personal preference. Combining family and career has now become the normative pattern. This requires management of the demands of both familial and occupational roles. Because of the cultural lag between societal practices and the changing status of women, they continue to bear the major share of the homemaking responsibility. Women who have a strong sense of efficacy to manage the multiple demands of family and work and to enlist their husbands’ aid with childcare experience a positive sense of well-being. But those who are beset by self-doubts in their ability to combine the dual roles suffer physical and emotional strain.

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By the middle years, people settle into established routines that stabilize their sense of personal efficacy in the major areas of functioning. However, the stability is a shaky one because life does not remain static. Rapid technological and social changes constantly require adaptations calling for self-reappraisals of capabilities. In their occupations, the middle-aged find themselves pressured by younger challengers. Situations in which people must compete for promotions, status, and even work itself, force constant self-appraisals of capabilities by means of social comparison with younger competitors.

Reappraisals of Self-Efficacy With Advancing Age

The self-efficacy issues of the elderly center on reappraisals and mis-appraisals of their capabilities. Biological conceptions of aging focus extensively on declining abilities. Many physical capacities do decrease as people grow older, thus, requiring reappraisals of self-efficacy for activities in which the biological functions have been significantly affected. However, gains in knowledge, skills, and expertise compensate some loss in physical reserve capacity. When the elderly is taught to use their intellectual capabilities, their improvement in cognitive functioning more than offsets the average decrement in performance over two decades. Because people rarely exploit their full potential, elderly persons who invest the necessary effort can function at the higher levels of younger adults. By affecting level of involvement in activities, perceived self- efficacy can contribute to the maintenance of social, physical and intellectual functioning over the adult life span.

Older people tend to judge changes in their intellectual capabilities largely in terms of their memory performance. Lapses and difficulties in memory that young adults dismiss are inclined to be interpreted by older adults as indicators of declining cognitive capabilities. Those who regard memory as a biologically shrinking capacity with aging have low faith in their memory capabilities and enlist little effort to remember things. Older adults who have a stronger sense of memory efficacy exert greater cognitive effort to aid their recall and, as a result, achieve better memory.

Much variability exists across behavioral domains and educational and socioeconomic levels, and there is no uniform decline in beliefs in personal efficacy in old age. The persons against whom the elderly compare themselves contribute much to the variability in perceived self-efficacy. Those who measure their capabilities against people their age are less likely to view themselves as declining in capabilities than if younger cohorts are used in comparative self-appraisal. Perceived cognitive inefficacy is accompanied by lowered intellectual performances. A declining sense of self-efficacy, which often may stem more from disuse and negative cultural expectations than from biological aging, can thus set in motion self-perpetuating processes that result in declining cognitive and behavioral functioning. People who are beset with uncertainties about their personal efficacy not only curtail the range of their activities but undermine their efforts in those they undertake. The result is a progressive loss of interest and skill.

Major life changes in later years are brought about by retirement, relocation, and loss of friends or spouses. Such changes place demands on interpersonal skills to cultivate new social relationships that can contribute to positive functioning and personal well-being. Perceived social inefficacy increases older person’s vulnerability to stress and depression both directly and indirectly by impeding development of social supports which serve as a buffer against life stressors.

The roles into which older adults are cast impose sociocultural constraints on the cultivation and maintenance of perceived self-efficacy. As people move to older-age phases most suffer losses of resources, productive roles, access to opportunities and challenging activities. Monotonous environments that require little thought or independent judgment diminish the quality of functioning, intellectually challenging ones enhance it. Some of the declines in functioning with age result from sociocultural dispossession of the environmental support for it. It requires a strong sense of personal efficacy to reshape and maintain a productive life in cultures that cast their elderly in powerless roles devoid of purpose. In societies that emphasize the potential for self-development throughout the lifespan, rather than psychophysical decline with aging, the elderly tend to lead productive and purposeful lives.

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