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Accessing Novice-to-Mastery Experiences

Recalling and learning from mastery experiences promotes frustration tolerance.

Key points

  • Everyone, from neuro-developmentally atypical children to college undergraduates, has had novice-to-mastery experiences.
  • Accessing and using novice-to-mastery experiences is an important part of many therapies, including cognitive-behavioral and solution-focused.
  • Parents and teachers can also learn to enhance children's sense of self-efficacy by helping them access and use novice-to-mastery experiences.
  • Sense of self-efficacy helps people, including neuro-developmentally atypical children, attempt and persist at novel and challenging tasks.

The goals of almost every parent, teacher, or therapist raising or working with a neuro-developmentally atypical child include helping the child engage in, rather than avoid, and persist with, rather than give up on, new or challenging tasks. Experienced parents, teachers, and therapists know that neuro-developmentally children, more so than typical children, struggle to see themselves as capable and these kinds of tasks doable.

Novice-to-Mastery Experiences: My College Students

When teaching Cognitive-Behavior Therapy to (CBT) to college undergraduates I incorporate Beck’s (2020) recommendation to choose and describe a novice-to-mastery experience from their own lives. I ask them to identify what they might apply from this experience to learning something new and challenging (such as CBT). I ask them to focus on and highlight what this novice-to-mastery experience helped them believe about themselves and what they could say to themselves in the future when feeling intimidated or frustrated by an unfamiliar or challenging task or when learning a new and complex skill.

This year’s college undergraduate’s novice-to-mastery experiences included: learning to drive a car, play a musical instrument, swim dance, bake, paint, crochet, apply makeup, write using calligraphy, speak in public and participate in video game tournaments.

Associated beliefs and self-talk included: I have learned new things before and can do it again, I know I can go from crying in the bathroom to keeping my head up, relax and breathe, appreciate mistakes and learn from them, appreciate small improvements, accept the pace that works for me and don’t compare, it can be uncomfortable learning something new and that is OK, accept it takes time to master new things, even experts are beginners at first and it is OK to make mistakes.

Novice to Mastery Experiences: Children in My Practice

I also incorporate Beck’s focus on novice-to-mastery experiences when working with children in my practice. Their mastery experiences tend to be things like: building with Legos and playing Minecraft or Roblox (of course), becoming an expert in their strong (often narrow) interest, sports and musical instruments or riding a bike (sometimes), arts and crafts, and also more seemingly mundane things such as learning to tie their shoes, brush their teeth, swing on swings, play a simple board or card game. Even getting up and going to school (almost) every day when it is so hard to be there and remaining (mostly) calm and respectful when so much is frustrating can be useful mastery experiences.

Their beliefs and self -talk include: I played (Legos, video games) a lot (i.e., I kept trying, I practiced, I did not give up), I am good at/know a lot about these things (i.e., I am competent and knowledgeable), my parents were there to help me (i.e., I am not alone, I have support networks), I kept thinking about how much I wanted to learn/do that (i.e.; I set goals), I spent a lot of time reading and watching videos and learning about that (i.e.; I studied).

Sense of Self-Efficacy

While compiling and reviewing these lists, I found myself remembering Albert Bandura’s seminal research on self-efficacy, especially his conclusions that sense of self-efficacy (the extent to which we believe we are capable in general and/or skilled at something in particular) is one of the best, and often the best, predictor of our willingness to try a new task and persist at a task when frustrated or disappointed. Bandura’s research suggests our beliefs about our capabilities and skills can be important and sometimes better predictors of persistence and frustration tolerance than our actual abilities and skills.

Clinical Synthesis

I also found myself thinking about how using novice-to-mastery experiences to enhance sense of self-efficacy is an important component of many models of counseling and therapy that I use in my practice. For example:

(1) Martin Seligman’s (of ‘learned helplessness’ fame) book The Optimistic Child encourages teachers and parents to use verbal interventions and modeling to help children learn to attribute their successes to their own efforts and abilities and their struggles and setbacks to situational variables.

(2) Judith Beck (and her father Aaron Beck, one of the founders of cognitive therapy) recommend using a suite of cognitive and behavioral strategies to shift negative or maladaptive beliefs about effectiveness and worthiness (I am not good enough, I am incompetent, I am a failure, I am worthless, I am stupid/not smart enough, I am unacceptable, I should have known better, I am not in control) to more positive and adaptive beliefs (I am good enough, I am competent at some/many things, I am worthy, I can succeed at some/many things, I am able to learn some/many things, I am OK as I am, I am doing the best I can, I am adequate, I am strong).

(3) Francine Shapiro’s (2018) Adaptive Information Processing model emphasizes ‘cognitive interweave’ strategies similar to and consistent with Beck’s treatment approach. Shapiro’s treatment model also emphasizes ‘resource instillation’ and increasing patients’ access to ‘adaptive memory networks’, including past experiences of mastery and previous coping responses to challenging situations, that may be associated with ‘positive affect states’ such as confidence, self-compassion, and pride.

(4) Solution-focused therapy approaches, such as those described by Bannink (2006), encourage therapists to focus on ‘exceptions’ to problems (times when problems do not occur or occur less frequently or intensely) rather than problems. Bannink and other solution-focused therapists suggest doing this, at least in part, by asking 'competency questions' such as “How did you previously manage to ...," “How do you think you did that ...," What gave you the strength to ...," “What gave you the courage to ...,“ “How did you manage to stay on/get back on track ...," “What are your talents/skills/specialties at work/best subjects in school?” and even “How come things did not go worse ...,“ and “How did you keep going/trying when ..."

Applications to Neuro-developmentally Atypical Children

Perhaps, first, practice yourself. Remember and think about some of your own novice-to-mastery experiences and what you learned from them. Try to keep these experiences and what you learned in mind when becoming frustrated or discouraged (perhaps even when becoming frustrated with or discouraged by your child).

Talk to your child about their interests and talents. Admire their Lego building, their Minecraft worlds, their encyclopedic knowledge of science or history and find out more about how they do or know that. Notice their ‘super-powers’ (even if their super-power is being insistent/stubborn or arguing a lot or noticing when things are unfair or unjust). Look for and pay attention to even small or partial successes and ask competency questions such as ‘how did you do that ‘.

Attribute your child’s successes to their efforts and persistence (the process, not just the outcome) and perhaps suggest “you are becoming a person who can . . .". Admire their strength and courage when they keep trying, keep going to school, return to their homework, want to be good at something. Pay more attention to the ‘exceptions’ to the problem, when things go well or at least better than usual, and explore what happened and what was different.

Help your child identify and practice coping self-talk, or even simply code words associated with their prior mastery experiences and use these when tasks are new or hard. Role-play situations and use of self-talk/code words. Have your child draw a picture or write a summary of the mastery experience or the self-talk/code words and keep the picture or summary nearby.

Look for and discuss role models that are connected to your child’s interests and lives. These can be real-life heroes but also characters from books, stories, cartoons, movies, TV, or even (and part of me can’t believe I am saying this) video games. An example I have used is Brandon Brooks, an Philadelphia Eagles football player, who overcame anxiety and panic attacks (about playing football) to become an All-Pro and win a Super Bowl.


I invite you to try, the best you are able, for two to four weeks, to notice your child’s competencies, help your child learn from their novice-to-mastery experiences, and focus on promoting your child’s sense of self-efficacy. Observe and see what happens. Any changes? Even small changes upon which you and your child can build?

Does doing this, at first glance, seem unfamiliar and hard to do? Do you doubt you can do it consistently for two-four weeks? Then, perhaps, try accessing your own history of novice-to-mastery experiences.


Bandura, Albert (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist. 37 (2): 122–147.

Bannink, F. (2006). 1001 solution-focused questions: Handbook for solution-focused interviewing (revised 2nd edition). New York: W. W. Norton.

Beck, J. S. (2020). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond 3nd Ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2007). The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience. Boston: Mariner Books

Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures (3rd Edition). New York: The Guilford Press.

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