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Promoting A Sense Of Self: Preschool Children

Preschool children are beginning to learn who they are and to form a sense of identity. Teachers have an important role in this process. This lesson will further describe what sense of self means for preschoolers and discuss how teachers can promote acceptance of individual differences, address the needs of diverse learners, and encourage family participation in children’s development of self.

  •  Describe a sense of self for preschoolers.
  •  Discuss ways teachers and families can promote and support the development of sense of self for children in preschool.
  •  Learn ways to address the needs of diverse learners and families.



Highlighted in Lesson One was that a sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves, according to researcher Mark Ylvisaker (2006). Many factors help to develop who we are and may include 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 a preschool teacher, you have a significant influence on how young children think and feel about themselves each day they are in your care and long after they depart for kindergarten.

Sense of Self and Preschool Children

Preschoolers are able to see themselves as separate and unique individuals, but they define themselves in very concrete terms that tend to be descriptive rather than judgmental. Their overall mental image of themselves is limited to their names, physical attributes, ages, sexes, possessions, and abilities (Berk, 2013). For example, on the playground, Henry encounters a new student and asks, "Who are you?" The boy eagerly responds, "I’m Oren. I am 4 years old. I have a baby brother. And today, I got this train from the toy store." Young children use “this or that” labels to describe themselves and others (Oswalt, 1999). Categorizing everyone and everything with labels such as “boy or girl,” “child or adult,” and “big or small” helps them mentally organize the world around them. They have not cognitively developed to the point where they can understand people may possess opposing characteristics, such as good and bad, at the same time.

By 3½, children can describe themselves in terms of simple emotions and attitudes such as ‘I feel happy when mommy plays with me” or “I don’t like waiting in line to go outside” (Berk, 2013). While children may not be able to describe their specific personality traits until they are school age, they can respond consistently when asked what is true about them by 3½. For example, a child may not be able to describe him or herself as trustworthy, but when asked a series of questions related to being trustworthy such as “Do you do what you are supposed to when no one is looking?” a child can answer as accurately as parent and teacher surveys describing the child.

The time between 3 and 5 years old is a period of considerable physical growth, and preschoolers are rapidly learning new skills and mastering old ones. As a result, they primarily characterize themselves in physical terms. When asked to describe themselves, preschoolers often reply with observable characteristics, specific abilities, or actions such as, “I’m Ella and I’m 3. I’m a big girl. I can carry my backpack all by myself” (Berk, 2013; Marshall, 1989). Typically, children will not begin to compare themselves to others until after age 5 (Berk, 2013), and before this occurs, younger children tend to overestimate their abilities. For example, many preschoolers may believe they are the fastest runner in the world. They may or may not be bothered when given evidence contrary to these beliefs. At this age, young children primarily form judgments about themselves based on how the adults they value respond to what they do.

Our earliest sense of self is formed as a result of interactions with our family members and caregivers. As discussed in the course on Social-Emotional Development, 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 infants such as, “You are safe, loved and valued” or “You are unimportant.” These messages influence the infants’ future behaviors and attitudes. When family members 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 preschoolers expect others to be with and treat them. To learn more about responsive caregiving, you can review the Preschool Social-Emotional Course.

Remembering the Brain

As a preschool teacher, 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:

Promoting a Sense of Self for Preschool Children

According to Ylvisaker, 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. Non-judgmental communication and view of families are also an important component of respect.

  2. Success with meaningful tasks

    A positive sense of self and self-esteem are ultimately derived from meaningful achievements. As a preschool-age teacher, you must therefore be creative in identifying activities and tasks in which your students can experience meaningful success and, ideally, a sense of contribution.

  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 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.”

  5. Genuinely challenging and meaningful tasks

    Individuals feel a greater sense of accomplishment when they complete a challenging task that required hard work and effort than when they quickly succeed at something too easy or when they fail repeatedly at a task too difficult for their current abilities. Individuals also have more motivation when they care about completing the task. As a preschool teacher, you will need to be effective at presenting expectations that are appropriate for your students’ current level of ability and sense of self. Knowledge about each student and of developmentally appropriate practices will be essential when you plan your activities and curriculum.

  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. As a teacher, you will have great influence in how children socialize with each other in your classroom.

  7. Coping with defeats

    Defeats are a normal part of life. Sometimes, things do not work out or go as planned, and 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 preschoolers to learn, and they often need a lot of guidance to develop and practice this skill.

Addressing the Needs of All Children and Families

No two children or families will ever be the same in your classroom, and meeting the needs of every individual can seem challenging. There isn’t one best practice to help children develop a healthy sense of self; it requires many experiences over time. While you will need to pay special attention to accomplishing this goal, the tasks necessary to accomplish this will coincide with many of the best practices you engage in every day.

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 young children, which affects the messages young children receive, 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

Promoting Family Participation in Children’s Development of Self

Considering that families have the largest impact on young children’s development, it is critical that they are actively involved in program efforts that promote their children’s sense of self and overall development.

In your work at preschool, it is important to help families understand the significance of children’s participation in activities that foster the development of their sense of self and overall well-being. At the same time, it is also very important to be sensitive to families’ values, backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions as they relate to young children’s skill development and independence. While you may have certain opinions about what children should or should not do in preschool to develop a sense of self, it is important to be considerate of families and try to understand and honor a point of view that may be different from yours. For example, while you may highly value independence in young children and therefore think that it is important to let children eat on their own so they can become independent, families of children in your care may value interdependence and, in turn, favor adults helping children with eating, which helps establish and promote relationships. As a caring and resourceful professional, you need to be flexible and think of alternative ways to positively engage with all families in your classroom.

Establishing and maintaining collaborative relationships between home and school promotes children’s optimum learning and growth. When it comes to families of children with special learning needs, communication is particularly essential. As a child-care provider, you should gather as much information as possible about the child and his or her particular needs, including accommodations that the family has used in the past. You should invite the family to share concerns or ask questions.

Challenge yourself to get to know every family in your care. You cannot appreciate what you don’t know or can’t see. Reach out to children’s families and find out about their priorities. Focus on their strengths and support them in their struggles. Instead of judging, be sensitive about why family members believe or act the way they do.


Supporting Young Children’s Sense of Self

Watch this video to learn about experiences that help children develop a healthy sense of self.

Understanding and Honoring Differences

Watch this video to learn about honoring individual differences in children and families in your classroom and program.


As a preschool teacher, you can support the diverse learners and families in your care by:

  • Providing young children with predictable routines that emphasize continuity between their home and school setting.
  • Using young children’s home languages within the classroom and school setting (for example, sing a familiar song with a preschooler who is having a hard time falling asleep during naptime).
  • Placing photographs of families in the classroom.
  • Learning words in preschoolers’ native languages.
  • Labeling areas and materials in your classroom in preschoolers’ native languages.
  • Providing consistent, predictable experiences for preschoolers to support a sense of belonging.
  • Identifying family strengths in support of preschoolers’ sense of self.
  • Focusing on children within their cultural context.
  • Inviting families to come to your classroom and share about their lives, home routines, cultures, and traditions.
  • Sharing positive comments and feedback with families when you observe them doing things with their children.
  • Offering to connect families of children in your classroom.
  • Making resources available to families.


Within the section Addressing the Needs of All Children 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 the Reflecting on Irreducible Needs Activity. Choose one of the irreducible needs of children and discuss what would happen to a preschooler, from the child’s perspective, if this need is or is not met. Then, share and discuss your responses with a colleague, administrator, trainer, or coach.


As a preschool teacher, 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.


True or False? Feedback such as, “Great job!” contributes to a preschool child’s positive sense of self.
Which of the following strategies are effective ways to promote preschoolers’ sense of self?
Four-year-old Tasha insists at nap time that you sing a lullaby in her home language that her parents sing to her at home. How do you respond?
References & Resources

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

Brazelton. T. B. & Greenspan, S. I. (2000). The irreducible needs of children: what every child must have to grow, learn, and flourish. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

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.

Oswalt, A. (2008). Early childhood emotional and social development: Identity and self-esteem. Available from

Selmi, A. M., Gallagher, R. J., & Mora-Flores, E. R. (2015). Early Childhood Curriculum for All Learners: Integrating play and literacy activities. SAGE Publications.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A multicultural perspective, (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N J: Pearson Education Inc.

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