- 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.
Highlighted in Lesson One was that a sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves. Many factors help to develop 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 young children. As a family child care provider, you have a significant influence on how young children think and feel about themselves each day they are in your care.
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 by moving closer or moving away. 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 their self. “This is me when I feel safe and happy with my provider—she is holding me close and my face is smiling.” Developing a sense of self is a blending of many things, such as the young child’s temperament and sensory and physical processing abilities combined with the surrounding social, emotional, and physical environment. Wittmer and 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” (Wittmer & Petersen, 2013). How adults nurture an infant or toddler sets a solid foundation for the young child’s brain growth.
As you can see, the earliest sense of self is formed as a result of interactions with our families and caregivers. In the course on Social & Emotional Development, 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 it influences how infants and toddlers expect others to be with them and treat them.
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 judgmental. 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 student and asks, "Who are you?" The boy 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 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 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 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 a as 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” (Berk, 2013; Marshall, 1989). 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. 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.
Sense of Self and School-Age Children
School-age children are also developing their sense of self, but in a more mature and sophisticated way. For the first time, children ask 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 their achievements, and they make comparisons to their peers. In this stage of development, children demonstrate characteristics, behaviors, and emotions that are unique to this age group, and they cope with new pressures. The table below provides examples of characteristics that school-age children begin to develop, as well as the new pressures that they bring.
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 in physical terms, such as actions (I can run fast) and traits (I am a girl and I have brown hair). Between 5 and 7 years old, self-descriptions highlight proficiencies, most commonly in social skills and cognitive abilities. During this period, children become aware of cultural values and gender roles and begin to incorporate these views into how they describe themselves.
Young school-age children continue to see themselves in an overly positive way and will overestimate their abilities. While their perspective-taking skills have increased considerably since the preschool years, they do not yet actively evaluate themselves or compare themselves to others. At this age, when children compare themselves to others the purpose is 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 believe it is impossible to be both good and bad at the same time. Their logic tells them “I’m good, therefore I can’t be bad;” although at this age they may acknowledge that people can switch qualities on occasion or in the future (“He was such a bad man 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 still allow important adults to modify what they are saying. 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 or herself, 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 children 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 a child defines him or herself; 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.
Another milestone at this stage is 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 he or she meets the standards that make someone conventionally attractive in their culture. Looking, dressing or 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 the children see themselves. For example, when you help with homework, you not only help a child learn the content, but can also influence their perception of themselves as successful academically. This is an excellent opportunity to build resilience and help children learn the importance of perseverance and hard work to success.
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. Think about what it takes to make you feel confident and secure in a new skill or situation. Usually, the feeling of success and accomplishment gives you the sense of confidence in yourself 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 things 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 develop, so does their understanding of right and wrong. When presented with choices, actions and decisions, they are beginning to learn what path will be the positive and successful one and which may face negative consequences. As children learn to choose the positive path and accept and learn from mistakes, they begin to trust themselves.
- 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. When children work toward a goal and are successful in achieving it, they will feel confident that they can do it again, try new things, and take risks.
- 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, 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 key characteristics that help children establish healthy self-esteem. These key characteristics are detailed on the chart below. On the right side of the chart, you will find examples on how to support these characteristics within the learning environment to encourage autonomy.
How to support
Sense of security
Sense of belonging
Sense of purpose, responsibility and contribution
Sense of personal competence and pride
Sense of trust
Sense of making real choices and decisions
Sense of self-discipline and self-control
Sense of encouragement, support and reward
Sense of accepting mistakes and failures
Sense of family self-esteem
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 challenging. There isn’t one best practice to help children develop a healthy sense of self; it requires many experiences over time. While you will need to pay special attention to accomplishing this goal, the tasks necessary to accomplish this will coincide with many of the best practices you engage in every day.
In Lesson One, you had a chance to learn more 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 young children, which affects the messages young children receive, and, in essence, helps define who young children are. All young children need their families and caregivers to help them grow, develop, express emotions and display behaviors in culturally appropriate ways, and 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 program efforts that promote their children’s sense of self and overall development.
In your work in family child care, it is important to help families understand the significance of children’s participation in activities that foster the development of their sense of self and overall well-being. At the same time, it is also very important to be sensitive to families’ values, backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions as they relate to young children’s skill development and independence. While you may have certain opinions about what children should or should not do to develop a sense of self, it is important to be considerate of families and try to understand and honor a point of view that may be different from yours. For example, while you may highly value independence in young children and therefore think that it is important to let children eat on their own so they can become independent, families of children in your care may value interdependence and, in turn, favor adults helping children with eating, which helps establish and promote relationships. 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.
Establishing and maintaining collaborative relationships between home and school promotes children’s optimum learning and growth. When it comes to families of children with special learning needs, communication is particularly essential. As a family child care provider, you should gather as much information as possible about the child and his or her particular needs, including accommodations that the family has used in the past. You should 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 in the diverse group of children in your program.
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 family and cultural lives in your program.
As a family child care provider, you can support the diverse learners and families in your care by:
- Providing young children with predictable routines that emphasize continuity between their home and child care settings
- Using 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)
- Placing photographs of families throughout the learning environment where children can see them
- Learning words in children’s native languages
- Labeling areas and materials in your program in families’ native languages
- Providing consistent, predictable experiences for children to support a sense of belonging
- Identifying family strengths in support of child’s sense of self
- Focusing on children within their cultural context
- Inviting families to come to your program and share about their lives, home routines, cultures, and traditions
- Sharing positive comments and feedback with families when you observe them doing things with their children
- Offering to connect families of children in your program
- Making resources available to families
Within the section Addressing the Needs of All Children and Families in this lesson, you read about seven irreducible needs (Brazelton and Greenspan 2000) for children to be able to feel safe and relate to others. Read and review the Reflecting on Irreducible Needs of Children activity. Choose one of the irreducible needs of children and discuss what would happen to a child, from the child’s perspective, if this need is or is not met. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.
As a family child care provider, you work with diverse children and families. Read and review the Promoting a Sense of Self: Scenarios activity. After you read each of the scenarios, reflect on the child and family’s sense of self, and address how you would promote a positive sense of self. Compare your responses with the suggested answers included. When you are finished, share your responses with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.
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Brazelton, T. B. & Greenspan, S. I. (2000). The Irreducible Needs of Children: What every child must have to grow, learn, and flourish. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
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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. Early Childhood Emotional and Social Development: Identity and self-esteem. Retrieved from http://www.wtcmhmr.org/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=12766&cn=462.
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.). Upper Saddle River, N J: Pearson Education Inc.
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Wittmer, D. S., & Petersen, S. H. (2013). Infant and Toddler Development and Responsive Program Planning—A relationship-based approach (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall (p. 120).
Ylvisaker, M. (2006). What is Sense of Self? Learnet. Retrieved from http://www.projectlearnet.org/tutorials/sense_of_self_personal_identity.html.