YOU GOT THIS: 3 Habits Any Teacher Can Embrace to Build SELF-EFFICACY in Children

Think about a time when you saw someone complete a task that made an impact on your creative brain, 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 our ability is challenged are related to self-efficacy, or a person’s belief in his or her ability to succeed in a particular situation. In my own experience, when I am learning something new and I don’t believe that my hands and brain can accomplish the task, I am quite hesitant to try. Can you relate?

Have you ever witnessed a student doubt their ability before engaging in an art process? When I lead group discussions to introduce a new activity, students frequently ask the questions “What if I can’t do it?” and “What if I make a mistake?” These questions highlight a concern that is universal: our belief in our ability to complete a task and the repercussions of a possible failure. Students are so focused on the quality of their end product, that they lose trust in their ability to engage in the art process. How might our belief in our ability to engage in a process alter our art experience as well as our satisfaction with our end product?

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On Instagram I came across a post by @ArtCartKids that caught my attention through a series of questions about comfort zonesrisk taking and self-efficacy. The post involved an anecdote about how, while weaving a dreamcatcher with students, @ArtCartKids was surprised with 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 own hands. @ArtCartKids then ended the post with these three questions:

“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 risks shrink?”
“Are they more concerned with right and wrong?”

As an educator who believes that student success is grounded in self-efficacy, I have decided to be more mindful of how I bring attention to the way we work through the art process. I have noticed the times when my instructional behaviors are more focused on the end product, and realize how I too play a role in perpetuating the focus of product over process.

As educators, what if we strived to model how our expectations are grounded in student discovery and growth rather than our opinion of their finished product?

We can begin by creating an atmosphere that values the art process. By simply leading discussions around how we make art and sharing the feelings we have when we make a mistake, we model the importance of art process. We can invite children’s ideas and concerns by offering questions focused around strategies for working and problem solving before an activity, such as: “How might we weave this paper through the warp to make a pattern?” or “What might we do if we get stuck?” Asking for student input allows learners of all levels to exercise their problem-solving skills as well as discover how they, not only the instructor, have access to meaningful ideas that impact their artistic ability. Furthermore, offering opportunities throughout the class period for the group to share out struggles and successes allows students to witness how they are all working artists and that their peers share similar concerns. When we use our studio time together to engage in discussions that are focused on our work habits, we are emphasizing the importance of the art process over the finished product through our modeled actions, not just our verbal messages.

Let’s pause and reflect for a moment on these ideas.

-If we truly value PROCESS, how might we make that clearly visible within our learning spaces?

-What questions, discussions and activities might we invite into the studio space that will help our students understand what they are physically capable of and how they might work through a struggle?

-As model educators, how might our current habits and language choices be both helpful to and hindering the growth of our students?


By reflecting on the questions above, we will begin to understand they ways in which we can build self-efficacy in our students and, in turn, strengthen their ability to be risk takers, not just direction followers.

We can also embrace these 3 habits to build self-efficacy in our students and children:

    Beginning each learning experience with a discussion about the expectations you have for working on a specific task or creative challenge sets the bar for how students should be using their time and energy. This can be as simple as stating what you might consider to be a known fact, but would benefit all types of learners. As an example, consider a simple activity in mark making using a brush:
    “Today we want to discover all the possible types of marks a brush can make. We might act like a scientist or archaeologist 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 might make use of 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. Would anyone like to act out how they might use the brush? Let’s share two ways we can act as mindful artists today.”
    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. Note how students are asked to consider how they might choose the use the tool and are also encouraged to consider mindfulness and safety before starting. This exploratory activity might 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. Offering a simple preliminary exploration of the tools we use supported by reflective discussions about our shared findings, will allow students to feel more in control and capable 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 that was not what we suggested, 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 they might even share an extreme response: “Is this what you wanted?” or “Do you like it?” Before offering directions, reflect on what your desired expectations are. With your words, be specific to the artistic behaviors you wish to promote based on your values of your art program and what you wish for your students’ growth.


Before starting any activity, invite students to share their own concerns and/or goals. When we ask questions like “How might we choose to use these tools today?” and “What might we do if we get stuck?” or “How might we care for our mixing tray?” we are modeling to students that we value their ideas and that the teacher is not the owner of all necessary information. We send a message that our studio is a community made up of diverse ideas, all holding equal weight. We commit to making sure that everyone is heard, everyone is seen and everyone is valued. When students are half-way through a class period and are messy in the process, I will often invite a pause and offer the opportunity for 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 develop comfortability in messing up. By developing our comfortability in making a mistake, we increase our ability to reflect on it, unpack it and to learn from it. Learning from our mistakes leads to OWNING and BELIEVING in our ability which is the definition of self-efficacy! The more we name our struggles and mistakes, the more they will feel like common experiences and we will feel less avoidant when they happen.


If you currently work with children, you are already aware of how capable children are. When we offer children the opportunity to be independent with a given task, they often go above and beyond our expectations. Now, consider the parent who is constantly tying their child’s shoes because they feel rushed and don’t want to spend the extra time waiting for a beginner to do the task. Or consider the teacher who tends to collect materials because they want them to be organized in a specific way. The message they are sending is clear: “You are not capable and efficient so please move aside and let me take over.” This action might just sneak up on us in a negative way when we wonder: “Why is ____ so incapable and lacking awareness? Why won’t____ unpack their bag or put away their laundry on their own?” These behaviors arise not because a child is uncaring, but because they simply have not been given the opportunity to practice! Furthermore, they might not even be aware of what to do or know of a successful way to problem solve due to a lack of opportunity.
What we can do as teachers and parents, is make a list of every single task that our children CAN do. There is no job too small. By offering children the opportunity to take on these tasks, it is quite possible that the parent or teacher will need to do some “elf work”, or offer adjustments behind the scenes afterwards. These adjustments are just a tiny task compared to the personal empowerment that is strengthened through practice in independence. In our school’s 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, collecting and organizing art on the drying rack and much more. Children want to be heard and seen and feel that they are capable. When I pose the opportunity as “Who would like to care for the studio?” All hands stretch high. 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 could be using my time to do___”. Now, consider how it might sound if someone asked: “Who would like to use a special towel to care for the tables?” or if you heard: “Who would like to save the unused papers from the trash?” What if we gave special treatment to our tools and asked: ” Who would like to give the brushes a bath?” or “Who would like to save the glue from drying out by making sure all the caps are on tight?”
Do you hear a tone of care and a bit of novelty in these questions? The next time you are about to speak aloud: “time to clean up!” pause and redirect your language to something that might specify the job at hand and incorporate a bit of humor and care. Imagine the ways you can use your language to transform a simple task into a meaningful rescue.

Let’s pause and reflect for another moment.

If you asked any educator “How do you want your students to benefit from your program?” What might they say? What might you say?

Consider how your classroom environment, instruction and the types of learning experiences you offer will support the growth of your students. Building self-efficacy will help students to be successful in all learning spaces and beyond. Holding true to our pedagogical values and being mindful of how these values are communicated in all we do, we can remember to:

and then

By leaning into to each new opportunity with these ideals in mind, we maintain a learning space that celebrates the potential in everyone. Every day we have the opportunity to encourage students to practice life skills that will support them in each new challenge they face. Let’s put children in the driver’s seat of their learning and give them the tools they need to look adversity in the face and say “I GOT THIS”.



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FACE YOURSELF: The Programmable Portrait Portal

Have you ever been inspired to do something far beyond your comfort zone? Like taking a wild chance or using your body in a way that is just not common for you?
I have.
Lately, I have been curious about human communication and connectedness and all that stuff that makes up the way we interact and the way we feel about interacting. You know, like our interpersonal intelligence.

I am also deeply intrigued by the idea of the mask. The way a disguise can offer you a special power that your body just can’t fulfill on its own. I am convinced that if we walked around being aware of our best selves, we would all be superheroes. Everyday.

cubist in red

I want to feel more comfortable in my own skin. I want others to see themselves as beautiful. So, I decided to bring myself out of my comfort zone and draw people who are willing to sit with me. This would force me to be myself and talk to strangers. This would allow me to create art that will, hopefully, help you SEE your natural beauty.

My friend, Joy, introduced me to videos of the Face-O-Mat. It was built by artist, Tobias Gutmann as a portrait making machine. Tobias’ machine was created to comment on how we are obsessed with machines. The videos on his website inspired me to do something with my own twist.

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With Tobias’ blessing: “Go for it and Go WILD!”, I built one. A programmable portrait portal, that is.
We named it: FACE YOURSELF.

Here are some photos of Day One:

That’s me, drawing with my glasses on so I see everyone’s face with clarity.



Here are a few goddesses who accepted fame on this post. Thank you to all who shared their beauty with me and were open to a new experience.

warm cubist goddess

Are you intrigued about how it works? Well, then you will need to stop by Stony Brook University on Wednesday, August 26. Visit again to find out where FACE YOURSELF with be in the future.

Stay Tuned.

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Hand Built with Nature and Love


Do textures and patterns make you grateful for your eyes and hands? These hand-built ceramic bowls enhance the textures that surround us from woven fabrics to living things. Nature and woven burlap are carefully pressed into clay to reveal the delicate textures patterns that live around us. Send a message to Mary Jo via if you would like to make purchase for the holiday season. Prices range from $20-$25 and can be shipped for an additional charge.

What other patterns and textures could live a beautiful life pressed in clay?

Happy Giving Season,

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“Yes, and…” How Improv and Design Thinking Set Me Free

“So how do I just let it all be, bear witness and get into the swing? I love Ellington’s tune, “It don’t mean thing (if it ain’t got that swing).” Just let it be. Bear witness to the voices and the instruments–whether it’s a jazz band or life–and then move with them, flow with them. If you can do that, then you’ll be a lot happier because in life you’re always in a band and you’re always swinging. You’re not forcing anything and you’re not being forced.” 

How does this paragraph make you feel?
Because I feel alright. Like all is well and as it should be and my only human task is to ride the wave of life, be aware of what is and react in a positive way that supports the humans, animals and earth around me. That may seem a bit far out there to you at first, but let me put it into context: I work as a Visual Arts teacher of young children, so I can’t help but relate this idea to the ways of the educator and the way we manage our learning space.

Take for example “you’re not forcing anything and you’re not being forced” from the passage above. Traditionally, classrooms have been spaces that have a full-plated agenda and many tasks that must be followed to meet the goals of that set agenda. Maybe your state mandates a set of benchmarks, hence being “forced” and the teacher must “force” this agenda on her students. I have led many activities that begin with a step-by-step demonstration and follow with students forcing those same steps in the exact order to produce a product that looks quite similar to the one I made in the introduction of the activity. This type of teaching does have great success, if a specific product is what your are wishing to achieve. I am not undermining the need for goals, but I am challenging the way we go about achieving our goals with students. Recently, I have tasted something that has opened me up to who my students really are, what they are capable of and how I can be the one who can “move with them, flow with them”. I can be the adult who meets them where they are and supports them on a personal and more meaningful path of learning.


Don Buckley gave me my first taste of how leaning into what is can help teachers become more aware of where problems begin and therefore more successful at solving them. This process has a name. It is simply: Design Thinking. Don taught me that my students already have the answers; that they are holders of an endless amount of innovative ideas and that they are capable of fulfilling tasks that I may have already pre-fabricated for them. During a one-day workshop, Don encouraged participants to roam the campus asking students about the qualities of their best teachers. These simple interviews would later be used as data to inform a new product to benefit teachers and students. It’s so simple, right? If you want to know what students are getting out of their school experience, then gee, why not ASK THEM?! And this is why I have given myself over to the question. That curvy and confident open-ended interrogative clause that screams “I can be anything”. But these questions are not confined. They do not ask: “What color is this?”, insinuating a proper answer. Rather, they curiously wonder: “What do you notice about this color?” These questions leave so much space for creativity. They value risk taking and they thrive on possibility.

If you are an educator, you may be thinking: “Oh that’s totally Inquiry-Based Learning !”, and you are right on. Leading a learning experience with guiding questions, or a Query if you’re teaching at a Quaker school, puts students’ questions at the center of a curriculum. But my story does not end here, rather it just begins. Because inquiry has led me to feel comfortable with “moving and flowing and swinging” with what is. Using Inquiry-Based ideas to guide my teaching has enabled me to accept what is happening in my studio, ask questions that further dissect a situation and decide where to go next rather than take control and drive it where I think it should move to. Bernie Glassman comments on swinging with what is: “You’ll get more done because you are allowing the creativity to flow”.
Which brings us to the intersection of Inquiry and Improv. The first rule of Improvisational Theater leaves no space for contradictions and praises the phrase “Yes, and…”. It asks you to accept where you are, notice the temperature, and make a helpful move to support the group. Can you think of a more clear mirror image of what teaching offers to us each day? Have you ever felt a pain in your chest when you direct a student to a place where they were not naturally headed to just because you had a deadline? Or tried to manipulate the environment in a way that just was not mean to be? That is a clear sign that you are trying to control rather than accepting reality.
So I gave up my need to control every minute of instruction time, took up improv, and have been using a Design Thinking approach to empowering my students and building their self-efficacy.

Here is how I began:

At the start of every school year, all artists in grades 2-5 construct a portfolio, a 24” x 36” paper folded in half and taped at the two shorter sides. In the past, I have demonstrated where to fold, how to tape, where to place your name, etc. This past year I stopped controlling the framework and simply began by asking students a few guiding questions: “What is a portfolio? Why do we need it and what do we use it for? How can we make it more fun to use? stronger, easier to navigate through? interactive?” No more forcing for me, I was putting it all on my young artists because they CAN handle it.

And so they blew my mind with ideas. I was fueled by “Yes, and I have these tiny envelopes that will be a great size” andYes, and you can attach it easier with this tab”. The ideas belonged to THEM and I was a supportive figure offering materials and simple skills to help manifest their innovative ideas.

Don’s courses on Design Thinking have also helped me ask thoughtful questions to achieve the juicy answers I really want but didn’t know how to get. Take end of the year assessments, for instance. In the past I have utilized a questionnaire or a one on one interview but never found out deeper ideas about my students as artists.


Until I asked my fourth graders what it was like to be a fourth grade artist. And this is an example of what I got back. Look at these complex illustrations of what happens in a young artists brain. Pure Brilliance. There is so much information there in pictures that I can use for a juicy discussion. And now I have a deeper awareness how capable my students are and can use this data when designing future assignments.


So I attribute my new insights to the genius that is Don Buckley, an understanding of improvisational theater and its ability to lead me on my path to freedom from constant control. And lastly, Bernie Glassman on going with the flow of things:
“In life you’re always in a band and you’re always swinging”.

The passage at the top is from The Dude and the Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman. If you are a fan of The Dude and dig anything Zen, it is a joyful ride. 

I’ll leave you with a few wall spreads of encouraging playing cards that my fifth grade artists designed in September to fuel a year of creative thinking and risk taking.

I challenge you to begin your units with curious questions. Remember what it feels like to be in charge of your learning adventure and what types of steps spark your sense of wonder and generate pure excitement and motivation.
And then please tell me about it!


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