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    • Define a sense of self.
    • Learn about the importance of fostering an environment that promotes a positive sense of self.
    • Reflect upon your sense of self.
    • Understand how culture and experiences influence an individual’s sense of self.


    “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” ~ Henry S. Haskins

    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 you can help children, families, and staff members build their competence, confidence, and well-being.

    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:

    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.

    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 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."

    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.

    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. 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.

    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, family, and staff member 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. They can also be strengthened by protective factors found within the environments in which individuals live and work, as well as within the individual himself or herself. The within-self protective factors are closely tied to the development of self and social and emotional well-being.

    Emotionally healthy adults have an inner, secure base. This secure base allows them to bounce back from difficulties they may encounter with others both in their work and personal relationships. Adults with a strong sense of self are resilient when faced with life challenges. They are secure in knowing that they can bounce back from difficult situations. An important part of your role as a manager is encouraging a positive sense of self in the staff you supervise as well as the children you care for.

    Influences of Culture and Experiences on Sense of Self

    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 as the program manager to acknowledge and understand that children and staff members may not develop a sense of self in the same manner. A family's cultural values shape the development of their child's self-concept. For example, some cultures prefer children to be quiet and respectful when around adults. This does not indicate that their 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 influence a child's self -concept. An individual's self-concept is formed by the cultural values imparted by the family. 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 their children are encouraged to learn to play an instrument. Each family influences its children's self-concept within its cultural context. Young children may describe themselves based upon their family's values (e.g., 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 caregivers given the important task of nurturing the children's sense of self, you and your staff must carefully observe and listen to each child. As the program leader, you demonstrate active listening to children and demonstrate respect for each child's individual gifts and talents.

    Thinking about the Sense of Self

    As a busy manager, you wear many hats. As a leader, your daily actions influence the climate in the center. You will intentionally create an atmosphere where children and staff are encouraged to learn about their special talents and feel safe when approaching you with concerns. As the leader, you will encourage your staff members as they explore their own gifts and talents and in turn provide the children with meaningful experiences that they need in order to develop their self-concept.

    Sense of Self: An Introduction

    Through genuinely responsive and personal interactions managers model how to facilitate a positive sense of self.

    Completing this Course

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

    To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:



    As the manager, you are attuned to many aspects of the child-care program (the physical appearance and possessions, social interactions among families, children, and staff, and the emotional environment of the workplace). You hold a great deal of responsibility in your role as a leader. Take time to reflect on the role you have as a leader who promotes a relationship-based, caring environment. You may want to use your journal to write answers to the following questions:

    • How does managing a child-care program contribute to your own sense of self?
    • What accomplishments in your work and personal life are you most proud of? 
    • What resources and supports have contributed to your own sense of self? 

    Draw upon your own experiences to facilitate supporting staff in their growth as self-confident caregivers. What do you need to learn about how staff members’ cultural or family backgrounds impact their beliefs about supporting children’s self-concept? How will you learn about these differences? Write down some of the ways you might use to learn about how to support individual staff members’ sense of competence and confidence.



    As a manager, you can play a significant role in helping staff members identify and define their sense of self. In so doing, you prepare them for the important work of helping infants, toddlers, children, and youth develop their own senses of self. Just like children and youth, adults learn in the context of relationships. Therefore, you should be planful and intentional in how you form relationships with each staff member.

    Use the attached Building Relationships with Staff guide to help you think about the individuals you supervise on a daily basis. Consider the questions in the guide and make a plan for learning about and acknowledging individual staff members’ sense of competence and confidence.


    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
    Social comparisonJudgments of one’s own abilities, behavior, and appearance in relation to those of others




    True or False? Your staff influence a child’s development of self by the way they react to an infant’s cues.


    Finish this statement: A family’s cultural values…


    The “I-self”develops in the first few months of an infant’s life and includes:

    References & Resources

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

    Baker, A. C., & Manfredi-Petit, L. A. (2004). Relationships, the heart of quality care: Creating community among adults in early care settings. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).