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Competence vs challenge - What gives us confidence?

For many it’s the feeling we get when we do something and do it well. Competence often induces feelings of confidence. When we do things we know we can do and do them well, it makes us feel capable. But challenge is also important, without it we can become complacent and even apathetic. Challenge is what keeps us driven. If we only ever do things we know we’re good at, we fail to develop grit, resilience and a positive response to the idea of challenge.

Yet too much challenge can leave us low in self belief and confidence. So where does the balance between competence and challenge lie? When a child is learning to read, it’s helpful to provide them with material to read which they can do so independently for around 80% and that challenges them for 20%. This helps to build confidence, yet also develops and pushes their reading skills and ability.

kids on a ropes course

In order to help build our child’s confidence and self-efficacy, we instinctively know to put them in situations we know they will flourish in. This might include signing them up for an activity we know they can do with ease or allowing them to participate within a group where they are one of the most able as opposed to least able. Finding challenge moments for your child can sometimes be less obvious and harder to embrace as a parent! These could include the following;

  • encouraging your child or family as a whole to try an activity you anticipate they will likely struggle with initially. This forces them to experience the feeling of ‘challenge’ and learn to be ok with it
  • when your child resists change or an activity they’re finding hard, encourage them to continue at least until a natural break point (end of the programme/term) or until they’ve seen out their commitment
  • embrace the opportunities when your child finds themselves the least able at an activity as opposed to the most able. Rather than resist this and engineer the situation to readdress this balance, be ready to accept it and model to your child that this ‘discomfort’ is normal and not to be feared
  • celebrate the times your child embraces challenge and praise the attributes they demonstrate in their response rather than focusing purely on the success of the outcome: ‘You clearly found that tricky in places and you didn’t let that put you off, well done!’

The Inverted U Model (Yerkes-Dodson Law) explores the subtle relationship between pressure and performance. The right amount of challenge and pressure can often result in some of our best ever work, however too much challenge and we can crumble under the stress and anxiety. The model highlights that pressure can be positive, as we feel motivated, engaged and excited to do our best. But when the level of challenge causes us to feel out of control it can often be to the detriment of our performance and confidence.

Using this insight, we can support our children during those ‘challenge’ moments to find ways to help them feel more in control. This could include very simple things, such as allowing them some element of choice or control about the activity or situation, asking them how or when to do it, or what they would like to do after.

Think of that high we get as adults when we go through something tricky and come out the other side; capitalise on these moments for your child to help build their confidence and self-efficacy. Try and reflect on the balance you provide for them both intentionally and unintentionally between feeling competent and feeling challenged. Our resilience themed courses and online sessions help to build a healthy response to challenge and seek to develop a growth mindset.

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