- Define and describe sense of self for preschoolers.
- Reflect on the experiences, relationships, and perceptions that shaped your own sense of self and understand how this affects the work you do with children.
- Describe the importance of resilience 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.
Throughout our lives, we tend to have ideas or questions about who we are as a person (e.g., “I am a nature-lover,” or “Am I a good person?”), and who we are in different roles (e.g., "I am a Marine,” or “What is the right career for me?”). Take a moment to jot down a few words or phrases that describe who you are.
How did you describe yourself? As a friend? As a teacher or caregiver? Did you use words like smart, emotional, or energetic? Did you describe what you look like, such as tall or brown-eyed? Some of your responses likely reflect personality traits and some may be physical traits. You may have responded with reference to the many roles you assume in a day such as mom, son, friend, or teacher. Your interactions with others also shape how you define yourself. Your words may describe your association with groups and cultures, such as Muslim, Cuban, or Black. All of your descriptions offer a window into your sense of self.
You are a unique individual with thoughts, emotions, and behaviors independent of your family, friends, and coworkers. However, you did not become the person you are today all on your own. Most likely, there were others in your life that helped you to realize these abilities and strengths that you were developing. Maybe a teacher helped you see your artistic ability, or a grandparent encouraged you to try out for a team or enter a writing contest. Maybe a parent helped you when you made a mistake -- or maybe you helped them. You are an individual, but you have used your experiences and interactions with others to develop your unique sense of self.
This course will help you better understand the concept of sense of self and how it relates to your own competence, confidence, and well-being. It will also explain how a sense of self develops for children, and the critical role you play in helping them develop a healthy and positive sense of self.
What is a Sense of Self?
Our sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves, (Ylvisaker, 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. Our identities 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 confident in your abilities. But 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 their ability to perform a particular task or skill. Chances are this individual has received positive support from others, which helped to further the development of that ability 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.
Sense of self encompasses self-esteem, self-worth, identity, and self-image. It is a combination of the way we see ourselves, our experiences, our environments, and how we feel about ourselves. For children, a sense of self is linked to their developing identities, which become increasingly independent from their families.
Interactions with others also shape 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 more advanced culinary talents. In this example, your sense of self was altered, though your ability to cook remained the same. If you truly enjoy cooking, though, and gain satisfaction from it, you are less likely to need encouragement from others because you are motivated from within. Intrinsic motivation, or an individual’s desire to seek out opportunities and experiences for their own development and growth without need or external rewards (Di Domenico & Ryan, 2017), is most likely to be developed from experiences that result in a positive and healthy sense of self.
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 is a strong contributor to an individual’s sense of personal identity at all ages. Adults demonstrate respect for children through the expression of genuine care for children’s thoughts and interests as well as holding reasonably high standards for children’s behaviors and abilities. Nonjudgmental communication and positive regard for the children’s families are also important components of respect.
Success with meaningful tasks
A positive sense of self and self-esteem are ultimately derived from meaningful achievements. As a preschool teacher, you must therefore be intentional in identifying activities and tasks which can help children experience meaningful success, and ideally, a sense of contribution. This might be helping children to make muffins for snack, or planting grass in a bare spot on their playground.
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. For example, you might say, “Tammy, this toy truck broke! Can you be like your grandpa and help us put fix it?”
When giving feedback, it should be honest, respectful, and specific to the task at hand. Rather than saying, “Good job!” to a child who successfully completed a large puzzle, try saying, “Wow! You worked so hard to put that puzzle together. That took a long time, and you didn’t give up.”
Genuinely challenging and meaningful tasks
Creating experiences and opportunities that are meaningful and fitting to a child’s developmental level and that support daily routines can help contribute to a positive sense of self. Knowledge about each child and of developmentally appropriate practices will be essential when you plan your activities and experiences. For example, drilling children on their colors with pieces of colored paper would not be meaningful, but sitting at the art table and asking, “Why do you think the red marker and the red crayon look different on your paper?” would likely draw out a rich conversation.
Opportunities for meaningful peer interaction
Ongoing support from peers can help contribute to a child’s positive sense of self. In a classroom of preschoolers, you have opportunities every day to encourage positive peer interactions. For example, in the dramatic play area, you might say, “Oh, this is good cake! Roya, would you like to try Eric’s cake?”
Coping with defeats
Defeats are a part of everyday life. Learning how to deal with setbacks and turn them into opportunities for growth will help to build a positive sense of self. Managing frustration is important for children to learn, and they often need guidance to develop and practice this skill. Try acknowledging children’s feelings, while also encouraging a positive outlook. You might say, “I can tell you are frustrated you did not win. In this game there is always a winner and loser. That is part of what makes it exciting, but that can be disappointing too. Would you like to play again, or do you feel like taking a break?”
What is Self-Concept?
As you think about your own life, you may recall specific times when you experienced a strong feeling of who you are, or self-concept. Perhaps it was during a school or sports activity, a theatrical or musical performance, or another event when you felt proud and accomplished. Achieving goals and accomplishing challenging tasks helped you develop a positive self-concept. The relationships that you had with caring adults in your life (e.g., parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches) nurtured your self-concept as you learned about your unique abilities and talents. Conversely, a child who is put down, denied opportunities, and rejected will likely view themselves as incapable and unlikeable. 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 influenced the development of your self-concept, you are creating experiences that influence the children in your care as they learn about themselves.
What does a Sense of Self Mean for Preschoolers?
Adults are able to view themselves from different perspectives – as a mother, as an artist, as they are with friends, as they are with strangers, and so on -- and can describe themselves in detail with distinctions in ability and worth within these dimensions. But 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 such as, physical appearance, physical abilities, academic abilities, social competence, and social acceptance. 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.” 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. Preschoolers see themselves and others in a “this or that” perspective, such as entirely good or bad. They are beginning to learn that a person may be both at the same time.
The interactions and 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 et al., 2002). Children whose culminating experiences cause them to view themselves as good or capable will likely carry on this confidence throughout their lives, whereas children who are consistently made to feel bad or inept early in life may have a difficult time seeing themselves as anything else later on. As their teacher, then, it is essential that you show support for their interests and ideas and convey your confidence in their abilities.
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, and struggle to manage their hurt, disappointment, or anger. The capacity to recover 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 immune to negativity or do not experience anxiety or frustration. Instead, someone who is resilient is able to focus on positive aspects and emotions of the situation at a greater rate.
Importantly, every child can develop resilience with the support of caring adults like you. Resilience is developed within the context of important, safe, and responsive relationships with caring adults. When children are given encouragement to explore safe challenges, when their feelings are validated and they are helped to manage them productively, and when they are cared for and respected as unique and valuable human beings, children will have a secure foundation enabling them to be resilient when challenges arise (Center on the Developing Child, 2021). Put another way, those interactions with adults will help children develop a positive sense of self, so that when they do experience hurt or loss, they will be secure and supported enough to recover.
What Role does Culture Play?
Culture is a complex but critical component of everyone’s sense of self. You, the children you care for, and their families may share some cultural affiliations and differ in others. An individual’s culture can change over time, and includes many components such as language, gender, religion, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and economic diversity (Selmi, Gallagher, & Mora-Flores, 2015). All of these work together to contribute to a sense of self.
It is critical for you to respect others’ cultures and to acknowledge and understand that individuals may not develop a sense of self in the same manner as you. Culture shapes how we each see ourselves and others. For example, some cultures expect children to be quiet and respectful when around adults. This does not indicate that a quiet child lacks self-confidence or intelligence, but rather is a reminder that not all families reinforce the mainstream American cultural values of individualism, competition, and assertiveness. Some cultures value waiting until everyone is seated and served to begin eating, but for other cultures this may be unnecessary. Other children may expect to eat sitting on the floor, or to only use one hand to eat. It is important to remember that ways of being that differ from our own are neither “good” nor “bad,” but simply different from what we are used to. Shaming children for cultural differences can harm their self-concept and disconnect them from their system of cultural support. As a preschool teacher, you assume the important task of supporting young children’s sense of self, both as an individual, and as a member of a family and culture.
Two of the most studied aspects of culture related to sense of self are independence and interdependence. Independence views individuals as separate from one another, and values ideas such as self-esteem, individual choices, and assertiveness. Interdependence means more value is placed on the group than the individuals in it, and prioritizes ideas like conformity, concern for others, and group decision-making. 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, 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 children choose whom to play with? Are children required to share? How are new children brought into the group?
- Personality traits: Culture influences your personality and how it is displayed, such as if 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 which feelings you show, when and how you share them, and whether you consider feelings public or private.
Take a moment to reflect on the hundreds of ways culture has influenced your sense of self. How do your experiences, sense of self, and culture influence your teaching practices and expectations in your classroom? Which practices and expectations are you proud of? Which would you like to change to better align to your values?
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 than 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 independently. Children’s experiences with the important adults in their lives will influence how they perceive their abilities, their self-worth, and how they face challenges. As a preschool teacher, you will need to provide young children with culturally sensitive and developmentally appropriate care and to help them be successful in the classroom now and in the years ahead.
As a preschool teacher, you can play a significant role in helping young children develop a positive and healthy sense of self. Preschoolers learn from caring, responsive adults who support their feelings and ideas, and encourage them to explore their environment and grow. Here are some things you can do to foster preschoolers’ developing sense of self:
- Acknowledge and show genuine enthusiasm in children’s ideas and discoveries
- Model healthy behaviors that support healthy self-image and self-esteem
- Encourage and respond to young children’s comments, questions, feelings, and concerns
- Establish and nurture a sense of community among the children and adults in your program by stating your shared values routinely and living them out, and addressing hurtful behavior among children promptly
- Be positive and sensitive to children’s unique backgrounds and needs
- Welcome and learn about the families of children in your classroom
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.
Think about your own self-concept and resiliency as you complete 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 trainer, coach, or administrator.
As a preschool teacher, you can play a significant role in helping young children develop a positive sense of self. Preschoolers learn from caring and supportive adults that encourage them to explore their environment and grow. Positive relationships are a crucial foundation for learning and development, and require you to be planful and intentional.
Read the attached resources from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. From these, identify 2-4 specific actions you can take to improve your relationships and interactions with the children in your care. Share your plans with your trainer, coach, or administrator. Make a plan to follow up on how it went.
Building Positive Teacher-Child Relationships
Berk, L. E. (2012). Child Development (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Center on the Developing Child. (2021). Resilience. Harvard University. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/resilience/
Di Domenico, S. I. & Ryan, R. M. (2017). The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 145. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00145
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 http://www.projectlearnet.org/tutorials/sense_of_self_personal_identity.html