Identity & Self-Belief

I. Valuing Students’ Cultures

II. Enabling Success

III. Highlighting Role Models

IV. The Essentials

Why Identity & Self-Belief Matters

In many of the countries where we work, a large proportion of children have not experienced how it feels to be successful at school. In Sub-Saharan Africa it is estimated that 89% of school-aged students are unable to read and understand a simple story. The same is true for most students joining the Luminos Fund program. Many have previously attended school, sometimes for over two years before they dropped out, and yet, the vast majority are still unable to read more than a few words. When students enter a Luminos classroom, “successful learner” is not part of their identity. Yet, research shows that students with higher levels of self-belief are much more likely to be successful at school. [1]


of school-aged students in Sub-Saharan Africa are unable to read and understand a simple story

This is our challenge: how can we help students change their perceptions of themselves, build their confidence, and enable students to see themselves as successful learners, well-equipped to return to government schools? How do we ensure our teachers are building our students’ sense of self-belief and sending a clear message that all children can learn?  

The Identity & Self-Belief element of the Luminos Method describes how we address these challenges by building self-belief among our students, helping to ensure that they can succeed within our program, and even more importantly, when they return to government schools and beyond. It also discusses some of the tensions and challenges related to these topics.

We believe that by valuing their cultures, providing opportunities for students to experience academic success, and highlighting role models from similar backgrounds, students can dramatically change how they view themselves and their own potential. As students start to experience small successes in their learning, their self-belief and motivation grows, in turn leading to further achievements.

Key Messages

We support students to build belief in their own potential and to develop conceptions of themselves as successful learners by:

This webpage includes an overview of our work in this area. For more detailed information, recommendations based on our experiences, and a discussion of some of the tensions and challenges involved, you can download this document.

Our Approach

I. Valuing Students’ Cultures

For many of our students, formal school culture can seem quite unfamiliar. Whether it’s using a different language or establishing different norms around behavior, students can have the impression that their way of being in their home life is somehow less valuable. This can send the message that to be successful at school would require a shift in the students’ identity and an adoption of a different kind of culture. In our programs we strive to reject this model, aiming for an environment where children feel that their identities are valued and accepted.

“Using children’s home languages is powerful for students as it validates their language and their existing knowledge.”

Emily Joof, Associate Director of Programs, the Luminos Fund

We seek to show the value and respect we have for local cultures and communities by:

  • Partnering with the community from the beginning of the program
    • Working to understand their needs from the outset
    • Getting their inputs on the school calendar and timetable 
    • Involving them in teacher recruitment 
  • Valuing students’ languages
    • Hiring teachers from students’ communities, who can speak their language 
    • Using the students’ home language in school to:
      • Clarify the lesson content 
      • Capture students’ attention with familiar songs and games
  • Learning from community members
    • Inviting family and community members into school to share about their occupations 
    • Giving students projects and homework that involves students talking to community members
  • Using culturally relevant materials and methods
    • Integrating locally created texts into our structured phonics program
    • Using familiar local materials in lessons
    • Using traditional games
    • Empowering teachers to contribute their knowledge to shape the program


A popular game called Oware in Liberia, and a similar one called Mancala/Kalaha in The Gambia are used to support learning in these countries. Students play these games during numeracy lessons to practice addition and subtraction skills as well as to develop logic and strategic thinking.

An overview of the game Oware: the objective is to capture more seeds than one's opponent.

To learn more about how we work to ensure students feel their culture and identity is valued, along with tips and lessons learned, download the full PDF!

II. Enabling Success

Alongside making students feel that their culture and identity is valued, we aim to build students’ sense of self-belief by providing opportunities where they can experience academic success. We believe that simply telling students that they are smart and capable is not going to change their perceptions of themselves, especially if they have experienced barriers and challenges in their learning previously. We need to start by demonstrating their potential in concrete ways they can see for themselves.  This is in line with international literature that suggests that providing opportunities for individuals to experience success is the most important source of self-efficacy. [2]

“When students see the progress they are making, they begin to believe in themselves.”

Caitlin Baron, CEO, the Luminos Fund

The development of learners who can read fluently is central to the creation of confident and resilient learners. Notably, positive learner identity and independence is closely linked to the articulation of letter names and words, with active, even joyful, involvement signifying progression and identity as someone who is capable of learning and who can demonstrate their learning to friends, families and community.

Westbrook & Higgins, 2019

We do this by: 

  • Focusing on foundational literacy and numeracy so students can frequently experience success 
    • Moving in small steps to ensure students master the essential skills 
    • Providing plenty of opportunities to review and practice new skills with familiar activities
    • Setting achievable targets and regularly assessing students to highlight their progress
  • Utilizing pedagogy that empowers students and builds confidence
    • Encourage participation, asking and answering questions, and group tasks where students can support one another
    • Provide frequent opportunities for review and reflection so students recognize how much they have learned
    • Promote responsibility and leadership
  • Sharing students’ successes with their families
    • Regular family engagement group meetings with demonstrations and presentations from students

Building Confidence Through Play

Students in the Luminos program have multiple opportunities every day to practice new skills they are learning in playful, non-threatening ways which build their confidence, as seen in this example documented by Dr. Susan Rauchwerk from Lesley University: 

“Kkalama helps the other children in her group draw the hop-scotch spaces using only multiples of three as the teacher instructed. She hums the counting song she learned yesterday and tosses her rock which lands on the number 12. She hops while her group excitedly shouts 3, 6, 9, 12! Firew, the student recorder, asks how many spaces it took to get to 12. Together they count 4, and Firew scratches 3×4=12 in the dirt. Simhal is next, it lands on 21, and they start the process over. In the distance Kkalama hears her brother Abush count 5, 10, 15, 20 as he jumps rope with another group across the yard. She helped him practice at home last night, will he make it to 100?”

Dr. Susan Rauchwerk, Learning Through Play

To learn more about how we ensure our students are able to experience success, along with tips and lessons learned, download the full PDF!

III. Highlighting Role Models

The literature on self-efficacy also emphasizes the importance of students seeing others, who they perceive to be similar to themselves, achieve success.[2] In our programs, these student roles models include:

  • Teachers
    • From students’ communities
    • With similar ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds
    • Better placed to understand and empathize with students
    • Are examples of people from their community who are successful and respected
  • Family and community members
    • Invited into the classroom to share knowledge and experiences
    • Engaged as resources for assignments and homework
  • Peers 
    • Demonstrate their skills during whole-class activities and group work
    • Support other students in paired tasks

To learn more about how we ensure our students are able to experience success at school, along with tips and lessons learned, download the full PDF!

Meet a Teacher: Mohammed

IV. Identity & Self-Belief Essentials

The path to the virtuous cycle of increased self-belief and further successes for students.

Our mission is not just to ensure that students are able to succeed during the Luminos program, we need to build their belief in themselves so that they continue to excel in government schools and beyond. We do this by:

1. Valuing local cultures 

  • Making school feel like an accepting environment, one that values the child’s cultural identity rather than seeking to change it
  • For students who have previously attended government schools, and may have found that formal school culture alienating, this can be very powerful

2. Providing students with frequent opportunities to experience academic success, encouragement and praise 

  • Our focused foundational literacy and numeracy curriculum ensures that students master the basics and start to see themselves as successful learners
  • This progress is also powerful in shaping how parents and teachers perceive the students

3. Highlighting role models from similar backgrounds

  • Engaging teachers and other adults from students’ own communities, and maximizing opportunities for peer learning, allows students to see others from similar backgrounds succeeding
  • This is crucial for children who are often the first generation in their family to attend school

All of these elements contribute to increased self-belief, and this increased self-belief in turn supports further successes and a virtuous circle that can continue throughout the students’ school career and beyond. 

Footnotes & References

[1] Self-efficacy, that is the belief one’s own capability to attain a specific outcome (Bandura, 1977; 1986; 1997), is correlated with greater levels of effort and perseverance (Klassen & Usher, 2010). Differences in self-efficacy can help to explain why two students of similar cognitive ability can have very different academic outcomes (Pajares, 1997; Klassen & Usher, 2010).

[2] Pajares, 1997.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co.

Pajares, F. (1997). Current directions in self-efficacy research. Advances in Motivation and Achievement, 10(149), 1-49.

Klassen, R. M., & Usher, E. L. (2010). Self-efficacy in educational settings: Recent research and emerging directions. in Karabenick, S., & Urdan, T. C. (Eds.). (2010). Decade Ahead: Theoretical Perspectives on Motivation and Achievement. Emerald Group Publishing.

Catch up with Luminos!

Subscribe to our quarterly Spotlight newsletter and get the latest news, blogs, and more.

71 Commercial Street, #232 | Boston, MA 02109 |  USA
+1 781 333 8317

The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

Privacy Policy

We use cookies in order to give you the best possible experience on our website. By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies.