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Sense Of Self: An Introduction

Children develop a sense of self through their life experiences, knowledge, and environment. This lesson provides an introduction to the concept of self and how it is developed in adults and children. Additionally, the lesson highlights the influence of culture on the sense of self.

  •  Define and describe the sense of self for preschoolers.
  •  Reflect on your experiences, relationships and perceptions that shaped your own sense of self and understand how this affects the work you do with children.
  •  Define resilience and its importance to the work of a preschool teacher.
  •  Identify ways culture and early experiences influence a sense of self for children in preschool and their families.



As we think about our lives, we tend to have ideas or question ourselves about who we are as a person and who we are in a specific role (e.g., a member of a family, a worker, etc.). Take a moment to jot down a few words or phrases that describe the kind of person you are.

How did you describe yourself? Funny? Smart? Emotional? Energetic? Tall? Brown-eyed? It is likely that some of your responses reflect some of your personality traits as well as some of your physical traits. You may have responded with reference to some of the many roles you assume in a day such as mother or father, daughter or son, teacher, friend, community member. Your interactions with other individuals may also shape how you define yourself. 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. Additionally, this course will help you learn how a sense of self develops for children in preschool and what that means to you as a preschool teacher.

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 (2006). Examples of things that help to develop who we are as individuals can 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 a member 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 a 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 his or her 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, our identities can also change depending on time and place. Relationships, parenthood, and 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.

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 to cook 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 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.

What is Self-Concept?

“As children develop an appreciation of their inner mental world, they think more intently about themselves. During early childhood . . . children begin to construct a self-concept which is the set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is.” (Berk, 2003, p. 444).

As you think about your own life, you may recall specific times when you became aware of particular circumstances that reinforced your own self-concept. Perhaps it was during a school or sports activity, a theatrical or musical performance, or another event when you realized you had accomplished a goal (either alone or with others) that you had set for yourself. Achieving goals you set and accomplishing tasks that required you to stretch beyond your comfort zone helped you develop a positive self-concept. The relationships that you had with caring adults in your life (e.g., parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, etc.) nurtured your self-concept as you learned about your unique abilities, gifts, and talents. 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 have influenced the development of your self-concept, so, too, will you and your staff create positive experiences that assist the children in your care to learn about themselves.

What does a Sense of Self Mean for Preschoolers?

Adults are able to view themselves in numerous dimensions and can describe themselves in detail with many distinctions in ability and worth within these dimensions, according to sociologist Viktor Gecas (1982). Many years of life experiences have accumulated to shape a pronounced, unwavering, and realistic sense of self. Young children are still developing and their sense of self is not as complex or established as an adult’s. Preschoolers are just beginning to understand their own unique characteristics and their place in the world. They view themselves in broad terms across a few dimensions, specifically, physical abilities, academic abilities, social competence, and social acceptance (Marsh, 2002; Measelle, 1998). Preschool children see and define themselves primarily in physical terms (Marshall, 1989). When asked to describe themselves they will most often reply with physical actions such as, “I can run fast” and “I am a big kid. I can go potty all by myself” or physical traits such as “I am a girl and I have brown hair.” Occasionally preschoolers may go on to list their likes and dislikes (Marshall, 1989). Preschoolers see themselves and others in a “this or that” perspective, such as entirely good or bad and do not understand a person may be both at the same time.

The experiences that occur during the early years lay the foundation for an individual’s sense of self, and once a perception is established it can be enduring (Marsh, 2002). A child whose culminating experiences cause him to view herself or himself as good or capable will likely carry on this confidence throughout her or his life, whereas a child who is consistently made to feel bad or inept early in life may have a difficult time seeing herself or himself as anything else later on.

Significant relationships will have the most influence on a child’s sense of self, typically beginning with the family members, and later including teachers and peers. A teacher may be the first person to influence how a child feels about his or her academic abilities. A teacher can also have tremendous impact on how children engage in social interactions with each other.

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 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 child 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 respect others' cultures and 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, a family 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 a preschool teacher, 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 (2010), culture can influence how you, your coworkers, and the families you serve 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.

Take a moment to reflect on the influence your culture has had on your sense of self. How might this influence your teaching philosophy and expectations in your classroom?

What Does this Mean for You?

As a preschool teacher, 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 or needs from a parent who has experienced extensive criticism, self-doubt, and isolation. In addition, one parent may recognize and celebrate a young child’s growing abilities and all she or he is capable of doing on her own, while another parent may choose to take on tasks the preschooler is capable of doing for himself or herself. Depending on how often a young child experiences these different approaches, he or she may come to doubt his or her abilities to control and influence his or her world. As a preschool teacher, you will need to be able to provide young children and their families with culturally and developmentally sensitive care and help them be successful in the classroom now and in the years ahead.


Sense of Self: An Introduction

Watch preschool teachers reflect on their sense of self.


As a preschool teacher, you can play a significant role in helping young children develop a sense of self. Preschoolers learn from nurturing and supportive adults that encourage them to explore their environment and grow. Here are some things you can do to foster preschoolers’ developing sense of self:

  • Establish and nurture a sense of community in your classroom and program.
  • Respond to young children’s comments, questions, feelings, or concerns.
  • Acknowledge and show excitement in young children’s discoveries.
  • Be sensitive to children’s unique backgrounds and needs.
  • Reach out to families of children in your program and learn about their lives.

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 Preschool 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 preschool children develop a healthy sense of self, it is important to reflect on 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 a preschool teacher, you can play a significant role in helping young children develop a sense of self. Preschoolers learn from nurturing and supportive adults that 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 children in your care.


The set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is


True or False? Preschool children primarily see and define themselves in terms of their academic skills.
Which of the following statements are true about resilience?
You have a conference with Mia’s parents and share with them how you would like to encourage Mia to be more assertive. Her parents are concerned and ask you not to do this. What might be the issue?
References & Resources

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

Davidson, H. H. & Lang, G. (1960). Children’s Perceptions of Their Teachers’ Feelings Toward Them Related to Self-Perception, School Achievement and Behavior. The Journal of Experimental Education, 29(2), 107-118.

Gecas, V. (1982). The Self-Concept. Annual Review of Sociology, 1-33.

Marsh, H. W., Ellis, L. A., & Craven, R. G. (2002). How Do Preschool Children Feel About Themselves? Unraveling measurement and multidimensional self-concept structure. Developmental Psychology, 38(3), 376.

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

Measelle, J. R., Ablow, J. C., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (1998). Assessing Young Children’s Views of Their Academic, Social, and Emotional Lives: An evaluation of the self-perception scales of the Berkeley puppet interview. Child Development, 69(6), 1556-1576.

Raeff, C. (2010). Independence and Interdependence in Children’s Developmental Experiences. Child Development Perspectives, 4(1), 31-36.

Selmi, A. M., Gallagher, R. J., & Mora-Flores, E. R. (2015). 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.

Verschuerena, K., Doumena, S., & Buyse, E. (2012). Relationships With Mother, Teacher, and Peers: Unique and joint effects on young children’s self-concept. Attachment & Human Development, 14(3), 233–248.

Ylvisaker, M. (2006). What is Sense of Self? Learnet. Retrieved from