Secondary tabs

    • To learn about the emergence of the self and self-concept across children’s age levels.
    • To learn about practices and environments that promote children’s healthy development of a sense of self.
    • To describe the importance of providing families with information about the ways children develop a positive sense of self and self-concept.
    • To describe self-care practices that children and adults may use to reduce stress and promote positive self-esteem.



    In Lesson One, you learned about how babies and toddlers grow from the "I-self" to the "me-self." The I-self (sense of self as actor and knower) and me-self (a sense of self as object of knowledge and evaluation). Dr. Laura Berk, developmental psychologist, states that, "…self -development begins with the dawning of self- awareness in infancy and gradually evolves into a rich, multifaceted, organized view of the self's characteristics and capacities during childhood and adolescence."

    Children encounter significant changes in the development of their self-concept from their early childhood years through adolescence. Children begin to think about themselves and develop a self-concept during the ages of 3 to 5 years old. They are apt to describe themselves using very specific and concrete terms (e.g., "I'm 3 years old. I have a dog."). During the early-childhood years children can also describe some emotions (e.g., "I'm happy at school"). At around age 4, children develop what is known as belief-desire theory of mind. This theory of mind is when a child can use beliefs and desires to determine behavior. The child understands that both beliefs and desires determine an individual's actions. This ability helps young children act more appropriately during social interactions with others.

    As children mature, they become able to use particular competencies to describe themselves (e.g., "I'm good at soccer. I also am a good student"). The ability to internalize what others have told them about themselves and compare their skills and qualities to others occurs as children mature during the elementary and middle school years.

    During adolescence, teens begin to place more emphasis on traits that show social virtues (e.g., being kind, considerate, fair). Teens also have a sense of personal identity that continues to develop into adulthood. Teens are more conscious of what is socially appropriate and may emphasize that in their descriptions of themselves. For a brief overview, you may want to review the handout, Milestones: Emergence of Self and Development of Self-Concept (see Learn section).

    Practices that Promote Children's Healthy Development of Sense of Self

    "Being sensitive and responsive to individual needs supports children's growing sense of self." — (Poole, Miller, & Church, 2014).

    Positive, loving adult-child attachment is at the heart of a healthy development of a sense of self. "Attachment is a strong emotional bond that grows between a child and an adult who is part of the child's everyday life" (Baker & Manfredi-Petit, 2004, p. 8). Research has shown that children who have secure attachments to consistent adult caregivers develop a positive self-concept. Very young children (younger than 36 months old) should be assigned a single caregiver to facilitate a strong, meaningful attachment. As the manager, you can promote secure attachments between children and adults by arranging the schedule to provide children continuity of care with their primary caregiver. You can also oversee the work environment to promote positive relationships among the adult caregivers. Your focus should be on enhancing relationship-based caregiving among the children, families, and staff.

    Remember that the development of self-concept does not always follow the same path in all cultures and ethnic groups. In the dominant U.S. culture, self-concept is supported by adults who allow children to make nonthreatening errors and learn from them. Adults raised in this culture also promote problem-solving skills that teach children to navigate interactions with other peers and adults. A healthy sense of self is supported by allowing children to try areas of interest (e.g., piano lessons, soccer, math club, etc.) in order to learn more about their passions and abilities. Older elementary age children raised in the U.S. dominant culture may describe themselves through social comparisons (e.g., "I'm a fast swimmer, but my friend Eli is a fast runner.").

    Our military installations are located throughout the U.S. and the world. As a program manager you may encounter how the promotion of self-concept may be quite different for individual families from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. You will need to learn about each family and share information with staff (including, for example, planning professional development events) about cultural and linguistic differences in the promotion of children's self-concept and sense of self.

    Communicating with Families about Their Children's Development of a Sense of Self

    Cultural practices deeply influence how adults support children's development of self and self-esteem. You will have important conversations with individual families to learn about their preferences for guiding the development of their children's self- concept and self-esteem. All children develop in the context of their cultural backgrounds and their familes' values. It is important that as a leader, you demonstrate respect for each family and child enrolled in the program.

    The program's family handbook must include information about how you and your staff nurture children's self-concept and self-esteem. Collaborating with parents is very important to reach an understanding about the intentional caregiving practices your staff uses to support children's self-concept. There may be difficult situations where you will need to explain to a parent why a staff member used a particular practice, such as allowing a 6-year-old to sit out during a large-group game because she chose not to play that afternoon. In some cultures, children are not allowed to refuse to participate in activities that an adult tells them to do. Having written policies in the family Handbook and prominently displaying classroom rules can assist parents in understanding the caregiving practices their children will encounter in your program.

    Demonstrating mutually respectful and trusting relationships for all families, staff, and children must always be your goal. Your positive leadership is critical to maintaining a warm, responsive environment where children feel safe to develop their sense of self.

    Military families have unique needs, and it is helpful to have materials and resources available to address those unique needs. You can work closely with agencies both on and off the installation to provide resources on supporting children's healthy self-concept. For very young children, there are resources available through the organization Zero to Three (see references).

    Embracing Family Experiences: Considerations for Programs Serving Military Families

    Think about the military families you know or serve. How are their identities shaped by the experience of being military families? For many families, military service and personal identity can be intertwined. Consider these potential reasons:

    • Living on a military installation: Many families, military and civilian alike, base their identities in some part on where they live. Where a family lives sends messages about their lifestyles, preferences, and experiences. For military families, living on an installation can build a strong sense of community. This helps shape how the family sees itself in relation to others.
    • Deployment: Deployment is one of the most stressful events a family can experience. Families must learn to adapt to changing circumstances before, during, and after a deployment. The service member's sense of self may change drastically as a result of experiences during deployment. The family members, particularly the spouse, can also experience changes in how they perceive themselves after long periods of independence or single parenthood.
    • Frequent moves: A Permanent Change of Station (PCS) can cause a great deal of stress for families as children adjust to new schools, programs, and friends. Children or family members may reinvent themselves in a new location, or they may struggle to define themselves in a new school or community.
    • Work hours: Military family members may also work unconventional or long hours when they are home.
    • Retirement and return to civilian life: Many individuals who retire from military service are young and find themselves ready for a second career. This can be a difficult transition. Service members may have a difficult time finding new employment that values their skills. They may feel a sense of loss as they leave the active-duty community and may struggle to develop their civilian identity.
    • Remember that issues that affect civilian families affect military families, too; divorce or marital conflict, unemployment for a spouse or partner, and health care needs are just a few of the events that can shape a family's identity.

    Military life is not all about challenges, though. Military families have a variety of supports that you can help families maximize. Military families are often part of a strong military community. They may live on an installation with other military families, and they may have a group of friends in similar circumstances. They also have access to health-care, mental-health, and advocacy resources through their service or installation. These can be valuable assets for families as they work to define themselves. Finally, they have access to you - military child care. You understand the families' contexts and can be a valuable source of social support.

    Here are some additional ways to support military families, based on recommendations from families surveyed in the National Military Family Association Report on the Cycles of Deployment (2006):

    • Help a family to be realistic in their expectations of themselves and of each other. This applies to deployment, station changes, retirement, and other major life transitions. Help families open lines of communication with one another about their expectations, fears, and excitement.
    • Provide families with information about what they can expect before, during, and after deployment or other transitions. Recognize that every child's response may be different on the basis of age, developmental stage, and temperament.
    • Offer ongoing discussions and support to families with regard to return and reunion challenges.
    • Remember that families-even those with experience-do not always have the information and support they need.

    Defining Self-Care Practices for Children and Adults

    Another aspect of developing a strong self-concept and self-esteem is learning to use self-care practices. Caregivers who are aware of self-care practices can model them for children.

    Self-care is an active choice to engage in the activities that are required to gain or maintain an optimal level of overall health. This includes not just the physical, but the psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual components of an individual's well-being. In your role as the manager you can create an environment that supports the staff and children to engage in self-care. Your own self-care practices can be a starting place to demonstrate the importance of self-care for staff and children.

    Self Care Strategies

    The environments in which we work can have a significant influence on our well-being and on our level of self-care.

    Children love to imitate the caring adults in their lives. You and the staff can serve as models and teach the children self-care practices. These are just a few examples:

    1. Eating healthy and nutritious foods and snacks
    2. Engaging in physical exercise (including calming activities such as yoga)
    3. Learning to use deep breathing and stretching to calm anxiety

    Self-care practices can bring staff and families together, too. Parents may want to teach a cooking class or help with the program's garden and point out to the children how cooking and gardening are ways to relax and manage stressful events. Seek out resources in your community to bring self-care practices to your center. You may find some wonderful volunteers who are eager to share their expertise.



    How does your self-concept fit with your role as a program leader? What are your strengths and weaknesses as a leader? Learning about your leadership skills may allow you to set goals and develop an action plan for improving those leadership skills for which you feel less confident and competent. The attached questionnaire is included for you to explore your strengths and challenges as a leader. You may want to share your results with your supervisor and set goals for changes or improvement.



    The attachment below contains a series of 12 posters that describe activities that may be helpful to you and your staff as you focus on specific self-care practices. You may want to print the posters to display in your center. As you review the 12 posters ask yourself these questions:

    • Which self-care practices would you try teaching youth? Or younger children?
    • How would you teach the practices you selected?
    • How might you obtain access to a curriculum or employee program that includes self-care practices?
    • What training would staff members need to carry out self-care activities with the children?
    • What resources are available either through your installation or in the larger community to assist you in embedding self-care activities for children and staff into your center?
    • How can you as the program leader assist staff in learning to value self-care practices?
    • How might you encourage individual staff members to take a leadership role in implementing self-care practices within your program?


    Self-careThe World Health Organization defines this as "activities individuals, families, and communities undertake with the intention of enhancing health, preventing disease, limiting illness, and restoring health”
    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




    True or False? As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that children younger than 36 months have a variety of caregivers on a daily basis.


    You are in the process of revising your program’s family handbook. Which of the following should you include in the revised handbook?


    As a manager, you believe that you play an important role in supporting a sense of self and self-care in all staff members. Which of the following strategies can help you promote a sense of self and self-care in staff?

    References & Resources

    Baker, A. C., & Manfredi/Petitt 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.

    Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

    Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development. Retrieved from

    Johnson, J. (2007). Finding Your Smile Again: A child care professional’s guide to reducing stress and avoiding burnout. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

    Poole, C., Miller, S. A., & Church, E. B. (2014). Ages & Stages: How children develop self-concept. Early Childhood Today. Retrieved from:

    Zero to Three: Military Family Projects. Retrieved from