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    • Describe a sense of self for infants and toddlers.
    • Identify ways caregivers and families can promote and support the development of sense of self for infants and toddlers.
    • Learn ways to address the needs of diverse learners and families.




    Sense of Self – Infants and Toddlers

    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 develop who we are, including 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 an infant and toddler caregiver, you have a significant influence on how infants and toddlers perceive and feel about themselves each day they are in your care and long after they depart for kindergarten.

    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 come closer and connect to others or to move away. Each experience they have and help create has meaning to it 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 herself or himself. “This is me when I feel safe and happy with my caregiver—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. 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 nurture an infant and toddler helps set a solid foundation for the growth to come and affects young children’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 learned 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 caregivers 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 then into a preschooler. It occurs moment to moment during interactions and influences how infants and toddlers expect others to be with and treat them. To learn more about responsive caregiving, you can review the Infant and Toddler Social-Emotional Course.

    Remembering the Brain

    As an infant and toddler caregiver, you recognize that nurturing adults and environments affect the way a young child’s brain is wired. When thinking about the development of a sense of self and its connection to relationships (with nurturing adults) and emotions, you may also find yourself thinking about brain development and the patterns that get set early in life. Responsiveness and emotional expression, for example, are interconnected with brain development. Therefore, conditions that affect the brain can affect emotional development and a sense of self. Autism, for example, “is often characterized by an inability to understand that other people exist with their own point of view, feelings, and experiences” (Wittmer & Petersen, 2013, p.127).

    It’s also clear that stress influences the development of the brain. Repeated negative experiences become strengthened and alter optimal development. Take a moment to learn more about stress, a young child’s brain and development of self by watching the following clip:

    InBrief: The Science of Neglect The Center of the Developing Child
    at Harvard University

    Diverse Learners and Families

    No two infants, toddlers or families will ever be the same in your care setting, and meeting the needs of each infant and toddler can seem like a daunting and impossible task. There isn’t one best practice to help children develop a healthy sense of self; it requires multiple experiences over time that are complimentary to the practices and what you do every day. A young child’s sense of self during these early years should always be viewed and thought about within the context of his or her important relationships. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you can support the diverse learners and families in your care by:

    • Providing infants and toddlers predictable routines that emphasize continuity between their home and the care setting
    • Using a young child’s home language within the care setting (for example, sing a familiar song to an infant or toddler who is experiencing distress)
    • Place photographs of families near the sleeping area of infants and toddlers
    • Learn words in the infant or toddler’s home language

    In the first lesson, 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 infants and toddlers, which in turn affects the early messages an infant or toddler receives and, in essence, helps define who young children are. Coupled with individual beliefs and values are needs of all young children 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

    As an infant and toddler caregiver, you are a great source of support and understanding for families.


    As you watch the first video, consider how you help support the diverse set of infants’ or toddlers’ in your setting.

    Supporting A Sense of Self: Diverse Learners And Families

    Caregivers demonstrate how they support diverse learners and families in their programs to aid in the development of infants’ and toddlers’ positive sense of self.

    Next, watch as these caregivers demonstrate and describe ways they use mirrors and pictures to support infants’ and toddlers’ self-knowledge.

    Supporting A Sense of Self: Mirrors

    Watch as these caregivers talk to and play with children in front of mirrors and use pictures to support infants’ and toddlers’ self-understanding.

    As a caregiver, consider how you could incorporate mirrors and pictures into your environment and daily interactions to support young children’s positive self-images. Mirrors and pictures can provide a wonderful medium to help infants’ and toddlers’ understand their bodies, skills and actions. As you talk with children about these concepts, remember to stay sensitive to the messages you give them; caregivers may sometimes unknowingly reinforce gender, ethnic, racial, or ability stereotypes unless they remain reflective about the language they use in these interactions. For example, the caregivers above let these female infants know they are “pretty girls” when looking in the mirror. Consider what other kinds of self-understanding you would want to help these girls develop. For example, could they also be strong, persistent, and smart girls?


    Below are some things you can do to support a developing sense of self for the infants and toddlers in your care:

    • Provide consistent, predictable experiences for infants and toddlers to support a sense of belonging.
    • Identify family strengths in support of their infant or toddler’s sense of self.
    • Focus on infants and toddlers within their cultural context.
    • Provide low-level mirrors and other reflective toys and describe what infants see to enable them to recognize their own reflection.
    • Help infants and toddlers identify body parts by pointing to, touching and naming them.



    Within the section Diverse Learners 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. Download and print the Reflecting on Irreducible Needs Activity. Choose one of the irreducible needs of children and discuss what would happen to an infant or toddler, from the child’s perspective, if this need is or is not met. Then, share and discuss your responses with a colleague, supervisor, trainer, or coach.



    As an infant toddler caregiver, you work with diverse children and families. Download and print 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 ones shared in the second Apply attachment, Promoting a sense of Self: Scenarios Activity Suggested Responses. When you are finished, share your responses with your supervisor, trainer, or coach.




    Finish this statement: An infant’s and toddler’s sense of self…


    True or False? Repeated, early stressful experiences can alter the development of a young child’s brain.


    Your co-worker asks you for suggestions of how to support the diverse children and families in her care. What do you say?

    References & Resources

    Marshall, H. H. (1989). The Development of Self-Concept. Young Children, 44(5), 44-51.

    Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S., with Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2011). Basics of Developmentally Appropriate Practice: An introduction for teachers of infants and toddlers. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

    Gopnik, A. (2010). The Philosophical Infant: What children’s minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life. New York: Picador Publishing.

    Gopnik, A. (2012). Nurturing Brain Development from Birth to 3. Zero to Three, 32(3), 12–17.

    Koralek, D., & Gillespie, L. G. (2011). Spotlight on Infants and Toddlers. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

    Brazelton T. B., & Greenspan, S. I, (2000).The Irreducible Needs of Children: What every child must have to grow, learn, and flourish. Cambridge, Mass: Perseus Pub.