- Define and describe a sense of self for infants and toddlers.
- Reflect on your experiences, relationships and perceptions that shaped your own sense of self and understand how this affects the work you do with infants and toddlers.
- Define resilience and its importance 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.
As we grow older, we tend to have thoughts and draw conclusions about who we are as a person and who we are in a specific role (e.g., as a parent or at work). Take a moment to write down eight to ten words or phrases that describe the kind of person you are. How did you describe yourself? Funny? Smart? Energetic? Flexible? Emotional? It’s likely that some of your answers reflect particular personality traits, yet 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. It will also help explain how a sense of self develops for infants and toddlers and what it means for you as an infant and toddler caregiver.
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. Examples of things that help develop who we are as individuals 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 part of an encouraging or nurturing environment, you are more likely to feel accepted and self-confident in your abilities. Whereas 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 her or his 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 over our lifetimes, our identities can also change depending on time and place. Relationships, parenthood, and other life events can help shape our identities. Think back on 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.
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 similar or more advanced culinary talents. In this example, your sense of self was altered, though your ability level 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 some 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.
According to Ylvisaker (2006), there are seven experiences that contribute to the construction of a positive and productive sense of self:
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.
Success with meaningful tasks:
A positive sense of self and self-esteem are ultimately derived from meaningful achievements.
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.
When giving feedback, it should be honest, respectful, and specific to the task at hand. Rather than saying, “Good job!” to a co-worker who successfully diffuses a situation with an angry parent, saying something like, “You did a great job listening to that parent and helping them understand our policies and procedures. It means a lot that she left with a smile on her face.”
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.
Opportunities for meaningful peer interaction:
Finding opportunities that can contribute to ongoing support from peers can help contribute to a positive sense of self.
Coping with defeats:
Defeats are a normal 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 grown will help to build a positive sense of self.
Sense of Self 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 she or he is, how she or he fits in her world, and what she or he can expect from those around. 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.” Or, 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 he or she sees himself or herself. 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 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 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. They can also be strengthened by protective factors found within the environments in which the infant or toddler plays and lives, as well as within the child himself or herself. The within-self protective factors 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 your sense of self.
It is important for you 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 its 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 that 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, some families may value academics over playing sports while another family may value the arts and learning to play a musical instrument. Each family influences a child’s self-concept within their cultural context. Young children may describe themselves based upon 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 as “kind” while another child from a culture that stresses individualism may describe herself as “a good runner”). As an infant and toddler caregiver, you assume the important task 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, 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 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.
What Does This Mean For You?
As an infant and toddler caregiver you are likely to encounter coworkers 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 very different needs from 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 the toddler is capable of doing on his or her own, while another parent may choose to take on tasks the toddler is capable of doing for himself or herself. Depending on how often a young child experiences these different approaches, he or she may be confused about his own abilities to control and influence his world.
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 and toddlers need the support of nurturing and responsive adults to help them grow and develop! Below are some things you can do to support a developing sense of self for the infants and toddlers in your care:
- Respond to infants’ and toddlers’ cries and other cues, such as picking him up when he needs comfort.
- Acknowledge and show excitement in infants’ and toddlers’ discoveries. “Look at what you found! You crawled over to the shelf and found your favorite ball!”
- Understand and sensitively respond to infants’ and toddler’s temperaments and preferences.
- Pay attention to infants’ responses to different sounds, textures, sights, etc.
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 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 supervisor, trainer, or coach.
As an infant and toddler caregiver, you can play a significant role in helping young children develop a sense of self. Infants and toddlers learn from nurturing and supportive adults who 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 to help you build positive relationships with young children in your care.
Raeff, C. (2010). Independence and interdependence in children’s developmental experiences. Child Development Perspectives, 4(1), 31-36.
Santrock, J.W. (2008) Life-Span Development. New York: 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). Self-Coaching: A context-sensitive, person-centered approach to social communication after traumatic brain injury. Brain Impairment, 7(3) 246-258.
Ylvisaker, M. (2006). What is Sense of Self? Learnet. Retrieved from http://www.projectlearnet.org/tutorials/sense_of_self_personal_identity.html