- 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.
As highlighted in Lesson One, a sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves (Ylvisaker, 2006). Many factors influence 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 significant influence on how young children think and feel about themselves each day, both while they are in your care and long after they leave.
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 evaluative. In general, their overall mental image of themselves is limited to their names, physical attributes, ages, sex, possessions, and abilities (Berk, 2012). 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 typically use “this or that” labels to describe themselves and others. 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 generally 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, 2012). 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 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.” Typically, children will not begin to compare themselves to others until after age 5 (Berk, 2012), 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. Statements like this are normal, healthy, and fully appropriate for children developing a positive sense of self. 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. For example, a responsive teacher who understands how preschoolers are developing their sense of self might say, “Wow, you ARE fast! Would you like me to count how long it takes you to run to the fence and back?”
The earliest sense of self is formed as a result of interactions with family members and caregivers. As discussed in the Preschool Social & Emotional course, 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). Responsive caregiving from family members and teachers continues to be important as an 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 and how they expect to be treated. To learn more about responsive caregiving, you can review the Preschool Social & Emotional course.
Remembering the Brain
Remember from Lesson One, that the adults and the environments young children encounter affect the way their brains are “wired.” While children and adults continue to learn and grow throughout their lives, 90% of brain growth occurs within the first five years of life (Brown & Jernigan, 2012). This makes your time with the preschoolers and families you serve incredibly valuable. The interactions and experiences that young children have with you and other important adults in their lives will shape how they interact with their world through adulthood. When caregivers are warm, responsive, and engage with children positively and consistently, young brains are able to learn and thrive. If the adults are disengaged and repeatedly respond to the children negatively, young brains will be prone to fear and anxiety.
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 daunting. There is not one best practice to ensure children develop a healthy sense of self; it requires many experiences over time. While you will need to pay special attention to helping children develop a positive and strong sense of self, this can be embedded naturally within many routines and best practices you do every day.
In the first lesson, you learned 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. In this way, culture shapes who young children are. While all children and youth need their families and caregivers to help them grow and develop, children may learn to express emotions and display behaviors in different and culturally appropriate ways. Likewise, though how it happens may vary, all children develop a sense of self and self-worth. Brazelton and Greenspan (2000) emphasize that when the following 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 with preschoolers, you can help families understand the significance of their participation in activities that foster their children’s sense of self and overall well-being. At the same time, it is also very important to be sensitive to families’ varying needs, circumstances, values, backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions. 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. 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.
When it comes to families of children with disabilities, communication is particularly essential. As a teacher, you should gather as much information as possible about the child, including accommodations that the family has used in the past. Be positive and convey confidence and readiness to learn and work with other professionals such as physical therapists and intervention specialists. 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 do not know or cannot 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.
Below are some steps you can take to support a positive, secure, and confident sense of self for the preschoolers in your care, and support their families’ ability to do the same.
- Provide encouragement as children try new things, take risks, and work towards a goal
- Be responsive to the emotional well-being of each child. Take time to talk to each child every day, listen to what they have to say and observe how they interact with others. Make sure that children know you are always available to listen if they need an adult to talk to
- Be kind, caring, and reassuring to children. Treat each child with respect and model kindness in the way you interact with families, children, and other adults
- Provide children with predictable routines that emphasize continuity between their home and child care settings
- Use young children’s home languages within the program (for example, sing a familiar song with a child who is having a hard time falling asleep during naptime)
- Place photographs of families throughout the learning environment where children can see them
- Provide consistent, predictable experiences for preschoolers to support a sense of belonging
- Identify family strengths in support of preschoolers’ sense of self.
- Focus on children within their cultural context
- Invite families to come to your classroom and share about their lives, home routines, cultures, and traditions
- Share positive comments and feedback with families when you observe positive interactions with their children
- Offer to connect families of children in your classroom
- Make resources available to families
In this lesson, you learned about the seven irreducible needs (Brazelton and Greenspan 2000) that children need met in order for them to feel safe and relate to others. Review the Reflecting on Irreducible Needs Activity. Choose one of the seven irreducible needs of children and reflect on how a preschooler may be impacted by the need being met or not met. Then, share and discuss your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.
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 suggested responses provided. When you are finished, share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.
Berk, L. E. (2012). Child development (9th ed.). Pearson.
Brazelton. T. B. & Greenspan, S. I. (2000). The irreducible needs of children: what every child must have to grow, learn, and flourish. Perseus.
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.
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.). 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.