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    • Reflect on your experiences, relationships, and perceptions that shaped your own sense of self and understand how this affects the work you do with children.
    • Define resilience and its importance to the work of a family child care provider.
    • Identify ways culture and early experiences influence a sense of self for children and their families.




    As we think about our lives, we tend to have ideas or questions about who we are as a person and who we are in a specific role (e.g., as a member of a family, as a worker, etc.). Take a moment to jot down a few words or phrases that describe the kind of person you are.

    How did you describe yourself? Funny? Smart? Emotional? Energetic? Tall? Brown-eyed? Some of your responses likely reflect personality traits and some may be physical traits. You may have responded with reference to the many roles you assume in a day, such as mother or father, daughter or son, provider, friend, community member. Your interactions with other individuals may also shape how you define yourself. All of your descriptions offer a window into your sense of self.

    This course will help you better understand the concept of self and how it relates to your own competence, confidence, and well-being. This course will also help you learn how a sense of self develops for children and what that means to you as a family child care provider.

    What is a Sense of Self?

    Our sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves, according to Mark Ylvisaker, a researcher in communication disorders (2006). Examples of things that help to develop who we are as individuals can include our occupations, hobbies, affiliations, abilities, personality traits, and spiritual beliefs. How we identify and how we feel about ourselves is largely the result of our environment and immediate surroundings. For example, if you are a member of an encouraging or nurturing environment, you are more likely to feel accepted and self-confident in your abilities. But if you are part of an unsupportive or negative environment, you may have difficulty discovering who you are due to a lack of acceptance and encouragement to explore your interests and positive attributes. Think of a person you know who is confident in his or her ability to perform a particular task or skill. Chances are this individual has received positive feedback and support from others, which helped to further the development of these skills and foster a sense of identity.

    As we grow and mature, our identities can also change depending on time and place. Relationships, parenthood, and life events can help shape our identities. Think back to who you were ten years ago. Do you feel like the same person now? Whether you were 19 or 59 a decade ago, it is likely that your concept of who you are has changed in some way. Perhaps you have accomplished major goals like earning a degree or starting a family and these events have changed how you see yourself. Perhaps experiences like caring for an aging parent or ending a long-term relationship have called into question things you thought you knew about yourself.

    Your interactions with others can also shape your sense of self. For example, if your family praises your cooking ability, you may come to believe that you are a good cook. However, if you were to enroll in a cooking class, your perception of your abilities may change when you are in the company of others with more advanced culinary talents. In this example, your sense of self was altered, though your ability to cook remained the same. Your sense of self was not judged to be true or false, but rather good enough or not good enough because of the situation. If you truly enjoy cooking, though, and gain joy from it regardless of who else is in your presence, you are less likely to need encouragement from others because you are motivated from within.

    A sense of self encompasses a child’s self-esteem, self-worth, identity, and self-image. It is a combination of the way children see themselves, their experiences, their environments, and how they feel about themselves. For children, a sense of self is linked to their developing identities, which become increasingly independent from their families.

    Mark Ylvisaker, a researcher in communication disorders, has identified seven experiences that contribute to a positive and productive sense of self:

    1. Acceptance and respect:

      The level of acceptance and respect from relevant adults remains a strong contributor to an individual's sense of personal identity at all ages. Respect for others is communicated through the expression of genuine thoughts and interests as well as holding reasonably high standards for their behaviors and ability levels.

    2. Success with meaningful tasks:

      A positive sense of self and self-esteem are ultimately derived from meaningful achievements. As a family child care provider, you must therefore be creative in identifying activities and tasks in which you can help children experience meaningful success and ideally a sense of contribution.

    3. Association of positive role models

      People who are reminded of someone with strong values or great inner strength prior to beginning a difficult task tend to put more effort into the task and achieve at higher levels than if they had not had the positive association before beginning the task.

    4. Honest feedback:

      When giving feedback, it should be honest, respectful, and specific to the task at hand. Rather than saying, “Good job!” to a child who successfully completed a large puzzle, try saying, “Wow! You worked so hard to put that puzzle together. That took a long time and you didn’t give up.”

    5. Genuinely challenging and meaningful tasks:

      Creating experiences and opportunities that are meaningful and fitting to a child’s developmental level and that support daily routines can help contribute to a positive sense of self. Knowledge about each child and of developmentally appropriate practices will be essential when you plan your activities and experiences.

    6. Opportunities for meaningful peer interaction:

      Finding opportunities that can contribute to ongoing support from peers can help contribute to a positive sense of self.

    7. Coping with defeats:

      Defeats are a part of everyday life. Sometimes, things do not work out or go as planned, and learning how to deal with these setbacks and turn them into opportunities for growth will help to build a positive sense of self. Managing frustration is important for children to learn, and they often need guidance to develop and practice this skill.

    What is Self-Concept?

    “As children develop an appreciation of their inner mental world, they think more intently about themselves. During early childhood, ... children begin to construct a self-concept which is the set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is” (Berk, 2003, p. 444).

    As you think about your own life, you may recall specific times when you became aware of particular circumstances that reinforced your own self-concept. Perhaps it was during a school or sports activity, a theatrical or musical performance, or another event when you realized you had accomplished a goal (either alone or with others) that you had set for yourself. Achieving goals you set and accomplishing tasks that required you to stretch beyond your comfort zone helped you develop a positive self-concept. The relationships that you had with caring adults in your life (e.g., parents, grandparents, child care providers, teachers, coaches, etc.) nurtured your self-concept as you learned about your unique abilities, gifts, and talents. Multiple factors, including cultural background, experiences, and, most importantly, relationships with adults and peers affect the development of a child’s self-concept. Just as your own experiences and early relationships with family members and peers have influenced the development of your self-concept, so, too, will you create positive experiences that help the children in your care learn about themselves.

    What does a Sense of Self Mean for Infants and Toddlers?

    The dance that plays out between parents and infants that begins at birth provides young children with an understanding of who they are, how they fit in the world, and what they can expect from those nearby. These early experiences come to shape what child psychologist John Bowlby refers to as the “internal working model.” Bowlby, who is best known for developing attachment theory, argued that infants develop an internal working model through attachment with a primary caregiver. The internal working model provides a framework for understanding and approaching ongoing relationships and an understanding of self and others. Through safe, nurturing and responsive relationships, an infant may develop a sense of self and self-confidence that says, “I matter,” “I am deserving,” “I can make things happen.” In contrast, with unpredictable, less-responsive early interactions, an infant may come to feel fearful and anxious while seeing the world as unsafe.

    With a heavy reliance on the care of responsive adults and limited verbal communication skills, it is difficult for infants to identify and describe how they see themselves. According to behavioral scientist John Santrock: “Late in the second year and early in the third year, toddlers show other emerging forms of self-awareness that reflect a sense of ‘me.’ For example, they refer to themselves by saying “Me big”; they label internal experiences such as emotions; they monitor themselves, as when a toddler says, “Do it myself”; and they say that things are theirs” (Santrock, 2008).

    What does a Sense of Self Mean for Preschoolers?

    Adults are able to view themselves in numerous dimensions and can describe themselves in detail with many distinctions in ability and worth within these dimensions, according to sociologist Viktor Gecas (1982). But young children are still developing, and their sense of self is not as complex or established as an adult’s.

    Preschoolers are just beginning to understand their own unique characteristics and their place in the world. They view themselves in broad terms across a few dimensions, specifically, physical terms (Marshall, 1989), physical abilities, academic abilities, social competence, and social acceptance (Marsh, 2002; Measelle, 1998). When asked to describe themselves they will most often reply with physical actions such as, “I can run fast” and “I am a big kid. I can go potty all by myself” or physical traits such as “I am a girl and I have brown hair.” Occasionally preschoolers may go on to list their likes and dislikes (Marshall, 1989). Preschoolers see themselves and others in a “this or that” perspective, such as entirely good or bad and do not understand a person may be both at the same time.

    The experiences that occur during the early years lay the foundation for an individual’s sense of self, and once a perception is established it can be enduring (Marsh, 2002). Children whose culminating experiences cause them to view themselves as good or capable will likely carry on this confidence throughout their lives, whereas children who are consistently made to feel bad or inept early in life may have a difficult time seeing themselves as anything else later on.

    What does a Sense of Self Mean for School-Age Children?

    For older children, many years of life experience have accumulated to shape a pronounced, unwavering, and realistic sense of self. As school-age children grow and develop into adolescents, their sense of self will grow in complexity and become increasingly established until adulthood.

    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 ability to perform and master skills that are valued by the important people in their lives or themselves. 

    Significant relationships will have the most influence on a child’s sense of self, typically beginning with the family members, and later including teachers and peers. A teacher may be the first person to influence how a child feels about his or her academic abilities. And a provider can have a tremendous impact on how children engage in social interactions with each other.

    What is Resilience?

    According to Michele Tugade and Barbara Fredrickson (2004), there are individuals who seem to bounce back from negative events quite effectively, whereas others are caught in a rut, seemingly unable to get out of their struggling and negative streaks. Being able to move on despite negative stressors demonstrates a concept known as resilience. Someone who is said to be resilient is effective at coping and adapting even when faced with loss, hardship, or adversity. That is not to say that they are blind to negativity or do not experience high levels of anxiety and frustration. Instead, someone who is resilient chooses to focus on positive aspects and emotions of the situation at a greater rate.

    Every child has an opportunity to develop and enhance personal characteristics and other strengths that act as protective factors or help create a protective barrier to misfortune and change. These protective factors are developed within the context of important, safe, and responsive relationships with caring adults. They can also be strengthened by protective factors found within the environments in which the child plays and lives, as well as within the child. The self-protective factors within each person are closely tied to the development of self and social and emotional well-being.

    What Role does Culture Play?

    Culture helps define how individuals see themselves and how they relate to others. Remember that individuals differ in many ways: language diversity, cultural diversity, gender diversity, religious diversity, and economic diversity (Selmi, Gallagher, & Mora-Flores, 2015). All of these aspects of diversity work together to form a sense of self.

    It is important for you to respect others’ cultures and to acknowledge and understand that individuals may not develop a sense of self in the same manner. A family’s cultural values shape the development of a child’s self-concept: Culture shapes how we each see ourselves and others. For example, some cultures prefer children to be quiet and respectful when around adults. This does not indicate that a quiet child lacks self-confidence. It is important to remember that not all families reinforce the mainstream American cultural values of individualism, competition, and assertiveness.

    Young children learn and absorb the stories told to them, which often emphasize a family’s values and affect a child’s self-concept. As children grow older and attend school and spend leisure time with their peers, they learn that others may not have the same values as their family. For instance, a family may value academics over playing sports while another family may value the arts and playing a musical instrument. Each family influences a child’s self-concept within their cultural context. Young children may describe themselves based on their family’s values. For example, a young child from a culture that stresses fitting in with others as a strong value may describe herself or himself as “kind” while another child from a culture that stresses individualism may describe herself or himself as “a good runner.” As a family child care provider, you assume the important role of nurturing young children’s sense of self, and you must carefully observe and listen to each child.

    Two of the most studied aspects of culture related to the sense of self are independence and interdependence. Independence views individuals as separate from one another, and ideas such as self-esteem, individual choices, and assertiveness are valued. Interdependence means more value is placed on the group, and ideas like conformity, concern for others, and group decision-making are valued. Children come from families and cultures that value independence and interdependence in different ways at different times.

    According to developmental psychologist Catherine Raeff (2010), culture can influence how you and the families you serve view:

    • Relationships: Culture influences how you enter into and maintain relationships. For example, relationships may be seen as voluntary or as duty-based. This influences how adults encourage children to form relationships: Do they choose whom to play with, or are children encouraged to play in certain ways to promote group welfare?
    • Personality traits: Culture influences whether and how you value traits like humility, self-esteem, politeness, and assertiveness. Culture also influences how you perceive hardship and how you feel about relying on others.
    • Achievement: Culture influences how you define success and whether you value certain types of individual and group achievements.
    • Expressing emotions: Culture influences how and whether you consider feelings public or private.

    Take a moment to reflect on the influence your culture has had on your sense of self. How might this influence your teaching philosophy and expectations in your family child care program?

    What Does this Mean for You?

    As a family child care provider, you are likely to encounter children and family members from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. It is important for you to understand the complexity of culture’s influence on identity, but it is also important for you to understand individual differences. For example, a parent who has had a lifetime of encouragement, praise, and support may have a very different parenting style or needs from a parent who has experienced extensive criticism, self-doubt, and isolation. One parent may recognize and celebrate a young child’s growing abilities and all she or he is capable of doing, while another parent may choose to take on tasks a child is already capable of doing. Depending on how often a young child experiences these different approaches, he or she may come to doubt his or her abilities to control and influence his or her world. As a family child care provider, you will need to be able to provide young children and their families with culturally and developmentally sensitive care to help them be successful in life now and in the years ahead. 


    Watch this video as family child care providers reflect on their own and sense of self and the importance of self-understanding for children.

    Sense of Self: An Introduction

    Family child care providers reflect on their sense of self.


    As a family child care provider, you can play a significant role in helping children develop a sense of self. Children learn from nurturing and supportive adults that encourage them to explore their environment and grow. Here are some things you can do to foster children’s developing sense of self:

    • Establish and nurture a sense of community in your program.
    • Respond to young children’s comments, questions, feelings, or concerns.
    • Acknowledge and show excitement in young children’s discoveries.
    • Be sensitive to children’s unique backgrounds and needs.

    Reach out to families of children in your program and learn about their lives.

    Completing this Course

    For more information on what to expect in this course, the Self & Cultural Understanding Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Family Child Care Self & Cultural Understanding Course Guide

    Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.



    As you think about helping children develop a healthy sense of self, it is important to reflect on your own early experiences that shaped your own self-concept and resilience. Download and print the Self-Reflection Activity. Take a few minutes to respond to the questions as you think about your own sense of self. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.



    Children learn from nurturing and supportive adults that encourage them to explore their environment and grow. Building positive relationships with young children is crucial for their development and in doing so, you should be planful and intentional. Use the attached resources from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) to help you build positive relationships with children in your care.


    Internal working modelFramework for understanding and approaching ongoing relationships and an understanding of self and others
    Self-conceptThe set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is
    Self-esteemThe aspect of self-concept that involves judgments about one’s own worth and the feelings associated with those judgments
    Self-identityWho a person is, including their perception of their self-concept, worth, abilities, and personalities, especially in a social context
    Self-imageA mental picture of our own abilities, appearance and personality
    Self-worthAnother term for self-esteem




    True or false? Feedback such as, “Great job!” effectively contributes to a child’s positive sense of self


    Which of the following statements are true about resilience?


    You are having a family conference with Davinia’s parents. After sharing that you would like to encourage Davinia to be more assertive and feel empowered to make more individual choices in your program, Davinia’s parents express their concern. They say this is not the way they are raising Davinia. What could be the most likely cause for their concern?

    References & Resources

    Berk, L. E. (2003). Child Development (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

    Davidson, H. H. & Lang, G. (1960). Children’s Perceptions of Their Teachers’ Feelings Toward Them Related to Self-Perception, School Achievement and Behavior. The Journal of Experimental Education, 29(2), 107-118.

    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.

    Measelle, J. R., Ablow, J. C., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (1998). Assessing Young Children’s Views of Their Academic, Social, and Emotional Lives: An evaluation of the self-perception scales of the Berkeley puppet interview. Child Development, 69(6), 1556-1576.

    Raeff, C. (2010). Independence and Interdependence in Children’s Developmental Experiences. Child Development Perspectives, 4(1), 31-36.

    Selmi, A. M., Gallagher, R. J., & Mora-Flores, E. R. (2015). Early Childhood Curriculum for All Learners: Integrating play and literacy activities. SAGE Publications.


    Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back from Negative Emotional Experiences. Journal of personality and social psychology, 86(2), 320.

    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.

    Ylvisaker, M. (2006). What is Sense of Self? Learnet. Retrieved from