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Sense Of Self: An Introduction

Infants and toddlers begin to learn about themselves at birth and develop a sense of self through their experiences, culture, and relationships with important adults. This lesson provides an introduction to the concept of sense of self, how it is developed in infants through adults, and how you can support a positive sense of self in infants and toddlers.

  • Define and describe sense of self for infants and toddlers.
  • Reflect on the experiences, relationships, and perceptions that shaped your own sense of self and understand how this affects the work you do with infants and toddlers.
  • Describe the importance of resilience to the work of an infant and toddler caregiver.
  • Identify ways culture and early experiences influence a sense of self for infants, toddlers, and their families.




 Throughout our lives, we tend to have ideas or questions about who we are as a person (e.g., “I am a nature-lover,” or “Am I a good person?”), and who we are in different roles (e.g., "I am a mother,” or “What is the right career for me?”). Take a moment to jot down a few words or phrases that describe who you are. 

How did you describe yourself? As a friend? As a teacher or caregiver? Did you use words like smart, emotional, or energetic? Did you describe what you look like, such as tall or brown-eyed? Some of your responses likely reflect particular 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 mom, son, friend, or caregiver. Your interactions with others also shape how you define yourself. Your words may describe your association with groups and cultures, such as Muslim, Cuban, or Black. All of your descriptions offer a window into your sense of self.

You are a unique individual with thoughts, emotions, and behaviors independent of your family, friends, and coworkers. However, you did not become the person you are today all on your own. Most likely, there were others in your life that helped you to realize these abilities and strengths that you were developing. Maybe a teacher helped you see your artistic ability, or a grandparent encouraged you to try out for a team or enter a writing contest. Maybe a parent helped you when you made a mistake -- or maybe you helped them. You are an individual, but you have used your experiences and interactions with others to develop your unique sense of self.

This course will help you better understand the concept of sense of self and how it relates to your own competence, confidence, and well-being. It will also explain how a sense of self develops for infants and toddlers, and the critical role you play in helping them develop a healthy, positive sense of self.

What is a Sense of Self?

Our sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves (Ylvisaker, 2006). Examples of things that help develop who we are as individuals include our occupations, hobbies, affiliations, abilities, personality traits, and spiritual beliefs. Our identities and how we feel about ourselves is largely the result of our environment and immediate surroundings. For example, if you are part of an encouraging and nurturing environment, you are more likely to feel accepted and 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 their ability to perform a particular task or skill. Chances are this individual has received positive support from others, which helped to further the development of that ability and foster a sense of identity. 

As we grow and mature, our identities can also change depending on time and place. Relationships, parenthood, and other life events can help shape our identities. Think back to who you were 10 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.

Sense of self encompasses self-esteem, self-worth, identity, and self-image. It is a combination of the way we see ourselves, our experiences, our environments, and how we feel about ourselves. For children, a sense of self is linked to their developing identities, which become increasingly independent from their families.

Interactions with others also shape 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 level remained the same. If you truly enjoy cooking, though, and gain satisfaction from it, you are less likely to need encouragement from others because you are motivated from within. Intrinsic motivation, or an individual’s desire to seek out opportunities and experiences for their own development and growth without need or external rewards (Di Domenico & Ryan, 2017), is most likely to be developed from experiences that result in a positive and healthy sense of self.

According to Ylvisaker (2006), there are seven experiences that contribute to the construction of a positive and productive sense of self: 

  1. Acceptance and respect:

    The level of acceptance and respect from relevant adults is a strong contributor to an individual’s sense of personal identity at all ages. Adults demonstrate respect for children through the expression of genuine care for children’s thoughts and interests as well as holding reasonably high standards for children’s behaviors and abilities. Nonjudgmental communication and positive regard for the children’s families are also important components of respect.

  2. Success with meaningful tasks:

    A positive sense of self and self-esteem are ultimately derived from meaningful achievements. As an infant/toddler caregiver, you must therefore be creative and intentional in identifying activities and tasks which can help children experience meaningful success, and ideally, a sense of contribution. This might be encouraging two toddlers to roll a large ball back and forth, or having a baby hold a fresh diaper while you change them.

  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. For example, you might say, “Your papa was so excited when he told me you took your shoes off all by yourself. Can you show me?”

  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 toddler stacking blocks, you might say, “You are being so careful to stack the blocks straight. Look how tall it’s getting!”

  5. Genuinely challenging and meaningful tasks:

    Creating experiences and opportunities that are meaningful and fitting to a young 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. For example, when babies are first learning to eat with a spoon, their teacher might provide yogurt alongside other finger foods.

  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 normal part of everyday life. Learning how to deal with setbacks and turn them into opportunities for growth will help to build a positive sense of self. Toddlers are discovering their independence and abilities, and this can be exciting and frustrating. You might say, “I know, you want to keep up with your friends, but they are so fast! Do you want to hold my hands and we will walk together?”

What is Self-Concept?

As you think about your own life, you may recall specific times when you experienced a strong feeling of who you are, or self-concept. Perhaps it was during a school or sports activity, a theatrical or musical performance, or another event when you felt proud and accomplished. Achieving goals and accomplishing challenging tasks 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) nurtured your self-concept as you learned about your unique abilities and talents. Conversely, a child who is put down, denied opportunities, and rejected will likely view themselves as incapable and unlikeable. 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 influenced the development of your self-concept, you are creating experiences that influence the infants and toddlers in your care as they begin to learn who they are.

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

The dance that plays out between a parent and infant that begins at birth provides a young child with an understanding of who they are, how they fit in their world, and what they can expect from those around them. 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,” and “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 an infant 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, 2018).

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, and struggle to manage their hurt, disappointment, or anger. The capacity to recover 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 immune to negativity or do not experience anxiety or frustration. Instead, someone who is resilient is able to focus on positive aspects and emotions of the situation at a greater rate.

Every infant and toddler 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 strengths, or protective factors, are developed within the context of important, safe, and responsive relationships with caring adults. When children are given encouragement to explore safe challenges, when their feelings are validated and they are helped to manage them productively, and when they are cared for and respected as unique and valuable human beings, children will have a secure foundation enabling them to be resilient when challenges arise (Center on the Developing Child, 2021). Put another way, those interactions with adults will help children develop a positive sense of self, so that when they do experience hurt or loss, they will be secure and supported to recover.

What Role Does Culture Play?

Culture is a complex but critical component of everyone’s sense of self. You, the children you care for, and their families may share some cultural affiliations and differ in others. An individual’s culture can change over time, and includes many components such as language, gender, religion, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and economic background (Selmi, Gallagher, & Mora-Flores, 2015). All of these work together to contribute to your sense of self. 

It is critical for you to respect others’ cultures and to acknowledge and understand that individuals may not develop a sense of self in the same manner as you. Culture shapes how we each see ourselves and others. For example, some cultures expect children to be quiet and respectful when around adults. This does not indicate that a quiet child lacks self-confidence or intelligence, but rather is a reminder that not all families reinforce the mainstream American cultural values of individualism, competition, and assertiveness. Some cultures value waiting until everyone is seated and served to begin eating, but for other cultures this may be unnecessary. Other children may expect to eat sitting on the floor, or to only use one hand to eat. It is important to remember that ways of being that differ from our own are neither “good” nor “bad,” but simply different from what we are used to. Shaming children for cultural differences can harm their self-concept and disconnect them from their system of cultural support. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you assume the important task of supporting young children’s sense of self, both as an individual, and as a member of a family and culture. 

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

According to developmental psychologist Catherine Raeff, culture can influence how you, staff members, and children 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 children choose whom to play with? Are children required to share? How are new children brought into the group?
  • Personality traits: Culture influences your personality and how it’s displayed, such as if 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 which feelings you show, when and how you share them, and whether you consider feelings public or private. 

Take a moment to reflect on the hundreds of ways culture has influenced your sense of self. How do your experiences, sense of self, and culture influence your teaching practices and expectations in your family child care program? Which practices and expectations are you proud of? Which would you like to change to better align to your values?

What Does This Mean For You?

As an infant and toddler caregiver, you are likely to encounter coworkers, 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 than a parent who has experienced extensive criticism, self-doubt, and isolation. In addition, one parent may recognize and celebrate a young toddler’s growing abilities and all they are capable of doing, while another parent may choose to take on tasks the toddler is capable of doing independently. Children’s experiences with the important adults in their lives will influence how they perceive their abilities, their self-worth, and how they face challenges. As an infant-toddler caregiver, you will need to provide them with culturally sensitive and developmentally appropriate care to help them be secure and happy, now and in the years ahead.


Watch this video and reflect on your own sense of self, and how your life experiences and interactions have helped you formed your self-image. Consider all the aspects that influence children’s developing sense of self and think about how you, as a caregiver, contribute to children’s positive self-image.

Infants & Toddlers: An Introduction To Self

Watch and listen for all the ways you can contribute to infants’ and toddler’s positive sense of self in your program.


A healthy and positive sense of self begins in infancy. Caring and responsive adults like you help babies and young children to learn, “I am valued,” “I am capable,” and “I am safe to explore and learn.” Below are some things you can do to support a developing sense of self for the infants and toddlers in your care:

  • Always respond to infants’ and toddlers’ cries and other cues
  • Acknowledge and show excitement in infants’ and toddlers’ discoveries.
  • Understand and sensitively respond to infants’ and toddlers’ temperaments and preferences.
  • Welcome and learn about the lives of children and their families.

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 Infant & Toddler 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 infants and toddlers develop a healthy sense of self, it is important to think about your own early experiences that shaped your 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 administrator.


As an infant and toddler caregiver, you play a significant role in helping young children develop a positive sense of self. Infants and toddlers learn from caring and supportive adults who encourage them to explore their environment and grow. Positive relationships are a crucial foundation for learning and development, and require you to be planful and intentional.

Read the attached resources from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. From these, identify 2-4 specific actions you can take to improve your relationships and interactions with the children in your care. Share your plans with your trainer, coach, or administrator. Make a plan to follow up on how it went.


A complex system of beliefs, customs, identities, history, and ways of being that are held by members of the same social group that give meaning to their social environment
Framework for understanding and approaching ongoing relationships and an understanding of self and others
The ability to adapt or respond to trauma, stress, or other adverse events in a healthy way
The set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is
The aspect of self-concept that involves judgments about one’s own worth and the feelings associated with those judgments
A mental picture of our own abilities, appearance, and personality
Another term for self-esteem
The roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that that make us ourselves; a broad and evolving identity that is influenced by our unique being, interactions with people around us, our broader community, and culture


True or False? Early interactions with caregivers may influence an infant’s sense of self.
Finish this statement: Becoming resilient in your work as an infant-toddler caregiver…
You meet with a toddler’s parents for a family conference and share with them that you would like to encourage their child to become more independent. You have observed since their second birthday that they seem ready to take on more self-care tasks such as feeding themself. The parents express their concern and ask you not to encourage their child this way. What might be the reason for their concern?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2012). Child development (9th ed.). Pearson.

Center on the Developing Child. (2021). Resilience. Harvard University.

Di Domenico, S. I., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). The emerging neuroscience of intrinsic motivation: A new frontier in self-determination research. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 145.

Raeff, C. (2010). Independence and interdependence in children’s developmental experiences. Child Development Perspectives, 4(1), 31-36.

Santrock, J.W. (2018). Life-span development (17th ed.). McGraw Hill.

Selmi, A. M., Gallagher, R. J., & Mora-Flores, E. R. (2014). 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.

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