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Promoting a Sense Of Self: All Children

Children are learning who they are and forming a sense of identity during every stage of their development. Family child care providers have an important role in this process. This lesson will further describe what sense of self means for children at different ages and discuss how providers can promote acceptance of individual differences, address the needs of diverse learners, and encourage family participation in children’s development of self.

  • Describe a sense of self for children.
  • Discuss ways caregivers and families can promote and support the development of sense of self for all children.
  • Learn ways to address the needs of diverse learners and families.



As highlighted in Lesson One, a sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves (Ylvisaker, 2006). Many factors influence who we are, and may include our occupations, hobbies, affiliations, abilities, personality traits, and spiritual beliefs. How we identify ourselves is largely the result of our immediate surroundings and significant relationships, especially for children. As a family child care provider, you have significant influence on how young children think and feel about themselves each day, both while they are in your care and long after they leave.

Sense of Self—Infants and Toddlers

As you know, infants and toddlers are constantly moving their bodies and expressing themselves through their bodies. In fact, as their relationships develop with responsive, caring adults, infants use their bodies to connect to others through movement. Each experience they have has meaning and influences what happens next. As memories of experiences over time add up and come together, the infant begins to develop a sense of self, or an internal picture of who they are. “This is me when I feel safe and happy with my provider—they are holding me close and my face is smiling.” Developing a sense of self includes many things, such as the young child’s temperament, sensory and physical processing abilities, and the surrounding social, emotional, and physical environment. Donna S. Wittmer and Sandy Petersen note that, “the development of a sense of self is understood to occur during interactions with others through moment-by-moment experiences of emotional communication. Babies learn about themselves as they learn about the feelings of others” (2013, p. 120). How adults care for infants and children sets a foundation for the child’s long-term well-being. These interactions and the degree of security children feel early in their lives cannot be overstated. Early experiences influence a child’s “brain architecture,” with responsive caregiving serving as the “brick and mortar” for both social and emotional, as well as, cognitive and language capacities (Brain Architecture, n.d.).

As you can see, the earliest sense of self is formed as a result of interactions with our families and caregivers. In the Social & Emotional Development course, you will learn that infants use signals such as crying, smiling, cooing, or moving their bodies to let their caregivers know their needs. How caregivers respond to these cues sends messages to the infant such as, “You are safe, loved, and valued” or “You are unimportant.” These messages influence the infant’s future behaviors and attitudes. When families and providers are consistently responsive to an infant’s cues in a warm and caring manner, the infant becomes secure, confident, and happy, while the infant who receives consistently negative or mixed messages may become fearful and depressed (Marshall, 1989). This responsive process continues as the infant grows into a toddler and preschooler. It occurs moment-to-moment during interactions and influences how infants and toddlers expect others to be and how they expect to be treated.

Sense of Self and Preschool Children

Preschoolers are able to see themselves as separate and unique individuals, but they define themselves in very concrete terms that tend to be descriptive rather than evaluative. In general, their overall mental image of themselves is limited to their name, physical attributes, age, sex, possessions, and abilities (Berk, 2013). For example, on the playground, Henry encounters a new child and asks, "Who are you?" The child eagerly responds, "I’m Oren. I am 4 years old. I have a baby brother. And today, I got this train from the toy store." Young children typically use “this or that” labels to describe themselves and others (Oswalt, 1999). Categorizing everyone and everything with labels such as “boy or girl,” “child or adult,” and “big or small” helps them mentally organize the world around them. They have not cognitively developed to the point where they can understand people may possess opposing characteristics, such as good and bad, at the same time.

By 3½ years, children can generally describe themselves in terms of simple emotions and attitudes such as “I feel happy when mommy plays with me” or “I don’t like waiting in line to go outside” (Berk, 2013). While children may not be able to describe their specific personality traits until they are school age, they can typically respond consistently when asked what is true about them by age 3½. For example, a child may not be able to describe him or herself as “trustworthy,” but when asked a series of questions related to being trustworthy such as “Do you do what you are supposed to when no one is looking?” a child can answer as accurately as a parent or teacher would describe the child.

The time between 3 and 5 years old is a period of considerable physical growth, and preschoolers are rapidly learning new skills and mastering old ones. As a result, they primarily characterize themselves in physical terms. When asked to describe themselves, preschoolers often reply with observable characteristics, specific abilities, or actions such as, “I’m Ella and I’m 3. I’m a big girl. I can carry my backpack all by myself.” Typically, children will not begin to compare themselves to others until after age 5 (Berk, 2013), and before this occurs, younger children tend to overestimate their abilities. For example, many preschoolers may believe they are the fastest runner in the world. Statements like this are normal, healthy, and appropriate for children developing a positive sense of self. They may or may not be bothered when given evidence contrary to these beliefs. At this age, young children primarily form judgments about themselves based on how the adults they value respond to what they do. For example, a responsive caregiver who understands how preschoolers are developing their sense of self might say, “Wow, you ARE fast!  Would you like me to count how long it takes you to run to the fence and back?”

Sense of Self and School-Age Children

School-age children are also developing their sense of self, but in a more sophisticated and reflective way. Children are now asking the question, who am I? During the school-age years, children think about themselves in a new way. They begin evaluating themselves, their performance and achievements, and comparing themselves to their peers. In this stage of development, children demonstrate characteristics, behaviors, and emotions that are unique to this age group, as well as coping with new pressures. The table below provides examples of characteristics that school-age children are developing, as well as the new challenges that accompany this time.


  • Children begin to see the relationship between hard work and a job well done.
  • Children become better at transitions and go between the worlds of home, neighborhood, and school with increasing ease.
  • Children master new skills and work towards new goals.
  • Children are capable of abstract thinking.
  • Children are capable of understanding others’ perspectives.


  • Children are navigating academics, group activities, and friends.
  • Children are often being compared or comparing themselves to others and risking failure.
  • Children see increased focus on grades and performance—academic, social, and athletic.

According to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial stages, the developmental goal of school-age children is to fulfill a sense of competency. Between ages 5 and 12, children shape their sense of self based on their abilities to perform and master skills that are valued by the important people in their lives or themselves. 

Early to Middle Childhood

During the preschool years, children are able to describe themselves by their physical actions (I can run fast) and traits (I have brown hair). Between five and seven years old, self-descriptions include proficiencies, most commonly in social skills and cognitive abilities. During this period, children begin to incorporate the cultural values and gender roles they’ve learned from their environment and others into how they describe themselves. 

Younger school-age children will typically continue to see themselves in a positive way and will overestimate their abilities. While their perspective-taking skills have increased considerably since the preschool years, they do not yet frequently evaluate themselves or compare themselves to others. At this age, when children compare themselves to others the purpose is often to determine if they are being treated fairly (“His half is bigger than mine!”) and to see how others complete a task to help their own performance. They are much more likely to compare their current self with their past self, which contributes greatly to their enthusiastically positive and sometimes unrealistic sense of self. Before 8 years old, children see themselves and others in all-or-none ways. While children at this age are able to understand the concept of opposites, they may struggle to understand that it is possible to be both “good” and “bad” at the same time. Their logic tells them “I’m good, therefore I can’t be bad.” They may acknowledge that people can switch qualities on occasion or in the future (“He was mean at the beginning of the story, but now he is nice.”).

Younger school-age children are able to take the lead when telling their autobiographical story and begin to include their personal experiences, yet they will still allow important adults to modify what they are saying (e.g., “What about T-ball? Do you like doing that?”). As they grow, they are more likely to add intentions and future plans to their accounts. These children also recognize they are the same person in spite of the many developmental changes that are happening to them. When describing himself, a 5-year-old may say “I’m getting bigger and I know more stuff, but I’m still me. I still have brown hair and I still have the same name.”

Middle to Late Childhood

Between ages 8 and 11, children’s self-descriptions reach a significant milestone and they begin to identify their own capabilities and personality traits. They move beyond seeing themselves in a this-or-that perspective, and increasingly recognize that they may possess positive and negative characteristics and feel conflicting emotions at the same time. At the beginning of this age range, children are much more likely to accurately describe themselves based on personal experiences with traits such as “smart,” “nice,” “helpful,” or “popular.” During late childhood, friendships and interactions with others become a large part of how children define themselves; self-descriptions reflect this by including many social characteristics. At this age, some children prefer friends of the same sex and may avoid or even express disdain when interacting with children of another sex.

Around this age, children begin to compare themselves to others around them and evaluate themselves. They start to see themselves in a more realistic way, especially as their social world further expands and they learn more about others. Children will adopt cultural and societal values and standards as their own and they will judge how they measure up to these ideals. For example, at around 8 years old, a child will understand if they meet the standards that make someone conventionally attractive in their culture. Looking, dressing, and behaving a particular way may be very important to the child.

All throughout the school-age years, significant relationships will continue to have the most influence on a child’s sense of self. Every interaction you have with each child and the guidance you provide are very important to how children see themselves. For example, when you help with homework, you not only help a child learn the content, but also influence their perception of themselves as a learner and a hard worker. This is an excellent opportunity to build resilience and help children learn the importance of perseverance and effort.

Promoting Positive Self-Concepts

Family, cultural, social, environmental, and other factors all play a role in children’s concept of themselves. As a family child care provider, you have a role in this, too. You will be helping to promote positive self-concepts in children.

Developing a strong, positive self-concept takes time and experience. Think about what it takes to make you feel confident and secure in a new skill or situation. Usually, the feeling of accomplishment comes after success with a challenge. This gives you the confidence to try new things, take risks, and feel good about your abilities. The same is true for children and their self-concepts. Children and youth need to build up a track record of experiences and interactions that make them feel good about themselves in order to develop a positive self-concept. Children are working to build their track record each day. This is seen in the way children make choices, experience accomplishments, and establish relationships:

  • When children and youth make positive choices, they feel good about themselves. As children grow and have new and varied experiences, their understanding of safe and ethical behavior increases. When presented with choices, they are learning which decisions will likely lead to positive outcomes, and which may lead to negative outcomes. When children experience the benefits of their positive choices and experience the consequences and learn from their negative choices, they begin to trust themselves. This highlights the need for children to have safe opportunities to make choices, and to learn from their mistakes.
  • When children are successful and experience accomplishments, they feel good about themselves. As with making positive choices, children need to have opportunities to be successful and experience a feeling of accomplishment. It is important to note that the tasks must be challenging for children in order to develop that confidence and willingness to try new things. When a child completes a job that is easy for them, it doesn’t build their confidence. However, when children must put effort toward a goal and then are successful in achieving it, they will feel the pride of accomplishment, and be more likely to try it again. This experience will also encourage them to try other new challenges, too.  The experiences that are at the right level of challenge will differ for children of the same age. One child’s success might be introducing herself to a new child in the group, but another child’s success might be counting up the blocks in his tower.
  • When children and youth develop and maintain healthy relationships, they feel good about themselves. Healthy relationships help children to feel secure and loved. When children have established positive relationships with family, friends, teachers, and caregivers, they feel accepted and safe. They know that they will be supported as they try new things, take risks, make mistakes, and learn. Children also need to know they have a support system for when they need to ask questions or seek guidance.

A positive self-concept and healthy self-esteem are necessary for children to establish their independence as they grow. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are several key characteristics that help children develop a healthy self-esteem, listed on the chart below. On the right, you will find how you can support these characteristics within the learning environment.


How to support

Sense of security

  • Maintain a safe and healthy learning environment by following safety procedures and addressing bullying and harmful behaviors.
  • Show all children you care about their well-being by talking to them each day and learning about their lives.
  • Be consistent and follow through on your promises.

Sense of belonging

  • Establish and continually support a sense of belonging and community for all children and adults.
  • Celebrate all children as individuals.
  • Promote kindness, teach empathy, and encourage children to reflect on words, actions, and behaviors.

Sense of purpose, responsibility, and contribution

  • Give children meaningful responsibilities in the environment.
  • Ask for input from children when creating activity plans and planning projects and use their ideas.

Sense of personal competence and pride

  • Give children opportunities for challenge and success.
  • Provide a variety of activities and materials that can be used in multiple ways so children of different ages, abilities, and interestes can be challenged in a safe way.

Sense of trust

  • Gain the trust of children by creating an atmosphere based on mutual respect and kindness.
  • Set boundaries that give children opportunities for safe risk taking.
  • Be consistent and follow through on your promises.

Sense of making real choices and decisions

  • Give children the opportunity to choose their activities, field trips, etc.
  • Take their suggestions seriously even if they seem unconventional at first, and use them to develop activity plans.

Sense of self-discipline and self-control

  • Use positive guidance methods that support children and their ability to regulate their own behavior.
  • Help children develop self-control by teaching them coping techniques.

Sense of encouragement, support, and reward

  • Provide guidance, encouragement, specific feedback, and validation when children are working hard towards any goal (big or small).

Sense of accepting mistakes and failures

  • Turn mistakes, setbacks, or failures into learning opportunities by talking to children about what happened. Discuss with them the choices, steps, or decisions that could have changed the outcome.
  • Talk about how a child could do something differently in the future, and express confidence in their ability to do so. This helps them to apply their current situation to future events.

Sense of family self-esteem

  • Families are a child’s first and most important caregiver, teacher, and advocate. Children need to feel comfortable, loved, and safe within their family unit.
  • Work with families to support their needs.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics (2015). Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12. Available at:

Addressing the Needs of All Children and Families

No two children or families will ever be the same in your family child care program, and meeting the needs of every individual can seem daunting. There isn’t one best practice to ensure children develop a healthy sense of self; it requires many experiences over time. While you will need to pay special attention to helping children develop a positive and strong sense of self, this can be embedded naturally within the many routines and best practices you do every day.

In the first lesson, you learned about the ways families and caregiving practices are influenced by culture. For example, one family may value a quiet demeanor in a young child, whereas in another family, assertiveness and speaking-up is valued. These values and beliefs guide the ways adults respond to children, which affects the messages children receive. In this way, culture shapes who young children are. While all children need their families and caregivers to help them grow and develop, children may learn to express emotions and display behaviors in different and culturally appropriate ways. Likewise, though how it happens may vary, all children develop a sense of self and self-worth. Brazelton and Greenspan (2000) emphasize that when seven irreducible needs (fundamental requirements of a healthy early childhood) are met, young children are able to feel safe and relate to others:

  • Ongoing nurturing relationships
  • Physical protection, safety, and regulation
  • Experiences tailored to individual differences
  • Developmentally appropriate experiences
  • Limit-setting, structure, and expectations
  • Stable communities and cultural continuity
  • Adults to protect the future

Promoting Family Participation in Children’s Development of Self

Considering that families have the largest impact on young children’s development, it is critical that they are actively involved in efforts that promote their children’s sense of self and overall development.

In your work in family child care, you can help families understand the significance of their participation in activities that foster their children’s sense of self and overall well-being. At the same time, it is also very important to be sensitive to families’ varying needs, circumstances, values, backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions. While you may have certain opinions about what children should or should not do, it is important to be considerate of families and try to understand and honor experiences or points of view that may be different from yours. For example, while you may think it is important for children to feed themselves, families of children in your care may favor adults helping children with eating, which helps establish and promote relationships. You may suspect a child watches too much television at home, but that may be the only way for a parent who works at night to rest. As a caring and resourceful professional, you need to be flexible and think of alternative ways to positively engage with all families in your program.

When it comes to families of children with special needs, communication is particularly essential. As a family child care provider, you should gather as much information as possible about the child, including accommodations that the family has used in the past and what the family’s desires are for their child. Equip yourself with credible resources on the disability so you have a better understanding of what it means for the child and their care. Be positive and convey confidence and readiness to learn and work with other professionals such as physical therapists. Invite the family to share concerns or ask questions.

Challenge yourself to get to know every family in your care. You cannot appreciate what you don’t know or can’t see. Reach out to children’s families and find out about their priorities. Focus on their strengths and support them in their struggles. Instead of judging, be sensitive about why family members believe or act the way they do.


As you watch the first video, consider how you can help support a healthy sense of self for the diverse group of children in your program.

Supporting a Sense of Self at All Stages of Development

Watch this video to learn about experiences that help children develop a healthy sense of self.

Next, this video focuses on how family child care providers can promote a positive sense of self in their programs. As you watch, reflect on the way you help incorporate children’s families and cultural lives in your program.

Honoring Differences

Watch this video to learn about honoring individual differences in children and families in your program.


Below are some steps you can take to support a positive, secure, and confident sense of self for the children in your care and support their families’ ability to do the same.

  • Provide encouragement as children try new things, take risks, and work towards a goal.
  • Be responsive to the emotional well-being of each child. Take time to talk to each child every day, listen to what they have to say and observe how they interact with others. Make sure that children know you are always available to listen if they need an adult to talk to.
  • Be kind, caring, and reassuring to children. Treat each child with respect and model kindness in the way you interact with families, children, and other adults.
  • Provide children with predictable routines that emphasize continuity between their home and child care settings.
  • Use young children’s home languages within the family child care setting (for example, sing a familiar song with a child who is having a hard time falling asleep during naptime).
  • Place photographs of families throughout the learning environment where children can see them.
  • Provide consistent, predictable experiences for children to support a sense of belonging.
  • Identify family strengths in support of child’s sense of self.
  • Focus on children within their cultural context.
  • Invite families to come to your program and share about their lives, home routines, cultures, and traditions.
  • Share positive comments and feedback with families when you observe positive interactions with their children.
  • Offer to connect families of children in your program.
  • Make resources available to all families.


In the Supporting a Positive Self-Concept activity, read the American Academy of Pediatrics’ key characteristics that are important to developing a healthy sense of self-esteem. Then, brainstorm ways you can support children in developing a healthy sense of self-esteem in your home. When finished, share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Read the Promoting a Sense of Self: Scenarios activity. In each scenario, reflect on the child and family member’s sense of self, and consider how you would promote a positive sense of self. Refer back to the concepts and examples in this lesson as needed. Then look at the suggestions provided. Which ones would you try? What else might you try to support this child and family? When you are finished, share your responses with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


The ability to self-govern or self-regulate; to manage one’s own self and make decisions, especially with regard to moral choices


True or false? Early interactions with caregivers may influence an infant’s sense of self.
Which of the following strategies are effective ways to promote a child’s sense of self?
At naptime, 3-year-old Tasha insists that you sing a lullaby in her home language that her parents sing to her at home. How do you respond?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed.). Pearson.

Brain architecture. (n.d.) Center on the Developing Child. Harvard University.

Gecas, V. (1982). The self-concept. Annual Review of Sociology, 1-33.

Marsh, H. W., Ellis, L. A., & Craven, R. G. (2002). How do preschool children feel about themselves? Unraveling measurement and multidimensional self-concept structure. Developmental Psychology, 38(3), 376.

Marshall, H. H. (1989). The development of self-concept. Young Children, 44(5), 44-51.

Oswalt, A. (2008). Early childhood emotional and social development: Identity and self-esteem.

Selmi, A. M., Gallagher, R. J., & Mora-Flores, E. R. (2015). Early childhood curriculum for all learners: Integrating play and literacy activities. SAGE Publications.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective (6th ed.). Pearson Education Inc.

Verschuerena, K., Doumena, S., & Buyse, E. (2012). Relationships with mother, teacher, and peers: Unique and joint effects on young children’s self-concept. Attachment & Human Development, 14(3), 233–248.

Wittmer, D. S., & Petersen, S. H. (2013). Infant and toddler development and responsive program planning: A relationship-based approach (2nd ed.).  Merrill Prentice-Hall.

Ylvisaker, M. (2006). What is sense of self? Learnet.