- Identify methods of promoting individual interests and sense of self through activities and experiences, including long-term projects.
- Define and understand anti-bias and character education and its role in the preschool learning environment, and in children’s development of a positive sense of self.
- Choose behaviors and actions that align with being a good model for children.
- Discuss ways your interactions and experiences with families can affect sense of self.
Think of the many experiences you have had that influence your life and outlook. You may have family traditions, customs, beliefs, and values that you developed growing up. Some families share cultural traditions that center on religion, holidays, or other beliefs. These traditions might be attending worship services, playing cultural games, gathering for specific events, or following a set of behaviors that adhere to one’s belief system. There are other factors beyond culture and religion that can be included when thinking about experiences that influence children. Perhaps a family prioritizes spending time in nature and takes their children camping and hiking. Athletics, political beliefs, and occupations are often woven through families and children’s experiences. For example, many families have long legacies of military service, teaching, or being fans of a particular sports team. What experiences from your childhood have influenced your identity?
Experiences and Activities that Promote Children’s Sense of Self
Preschoolers in your care need daily opportunities in a safe and supportive environment to participate in experiences and activities that allow them to explore and celebrate the person they are growing to be. As you meaningfully engage children in this process of self-discovery and identity, you should provide them with multiple, ongoing opportunities to explore their interests, interact with exciting materials, try out new things, and learn. You may already have an “All About Me,” or “My Family” corner in your classroom and you may have weeks in your program designated to exploring diversity, children’s interests, or unique talents. You should embed such opportunities for promoting a healthy sense of self and identity throughout every day and every school year in preschool.
Biographies of writers, athletes, musicians, or actors often indicate that they began their crafts as children. Whether children’s interests stick with them through adulthood or not, the activities and experiences that you plan for children are very important to the development of their sense of self. As children develop a sense of self, they are trying out new activities and experiences for the first time and learning how different experiences make them feel. According to the Council on Accreditation Standards for After School and Youth Development Programs, providers should:
- Recognize and support the range of interests and talents in children.
- Recognize and respond to the range of children’s feelings and temperaments.
- Demonstrate interest in and relate to children’s cultures and languages.
It is important to include the documented needs and observed interests of children when creating activity plans. Children will enjoy sharing their own ideas for activities and experiences and helping you create plans. You can help support children’s interests in a variety of ways:
- Include a variety of activities that are always available, such as art, writing, reading, building, dramatic play, and discovery. Keep these areas stocked with materials, and rotate supplemental materials to keep them fresh. Always allow for creative experiences to occur within the environment.
- Be flexible and attuned to the changing needs and interests of the children. Observe how children are using the materials, and encourage their creativity and imagination.
- Help children to become engaged and focused on an activity. Provide them with necessary time, space, materials, and direction to fully carry out their ideas.
- Watch and listen intentionally, and children will share their interests with you. Try to include the interests of the children whenever possible, even if they seem strange, too complicated, or boring to you.
- Let children showcase their talents and skills. Children can share a specific skill or interest they have with others.
Project-based learning helps to support children on their journeys of developing a positive sense of self. Projects encourage curiosity, cooperation, focus, determination, creativity, and the joy of discover. Projects can take a variety of forms. They can be child-led, where the children decide on the project and work to create the steps or phases needed to complete the goal. Projects can also be created and directed by family or community members. These types of projects might be creating and maintaining a garden or working together to solve problems that affect all the children in your care. Whether child- or adult-initiated, the children need to be invested in the project and the work surrounding it. Projects help support a positive sense of self and children’s overall development because they encourage:
- Intrinsic motivation: Whether the initial spark comes from the children or the adults, the children need to be interested and invested for the project to happen. Children are self-directed to plan and take the steps necessary, learn through the experience, enjoy the process, and feel pride in their work.
- Deep investigation: Projects allow children to think creatively and critically. They often require solving problems or overcoming challenges, either through the nature of the project (e.g., “How can I make a plane that flies really far?) or through the process (e.g., “How should we make a conveyer belt?”). Learning and growth comes from the process, not the product, and digging into these challenges allows children to discover, investigate, and collect valuable information and experiences.
- Child initiation: Projects allow children to decide on topics, phases, methods of documentation, and goals. You take on the role of coach and encourage children’s initiative, by providing the materials they need, asking questions, documenting their learning, and helping them learn the skills they need to achieve their goals.
- Curiosity: Children are born naturally curious about their world; it is the job of the adults around them to support and maintain it. Projects are a way to encourage this curiosity in a productive and creative way.
Embracing Culturally Responsive Experiences
Culturally responsive experiences are those that help children see both themselves and others represented in your program. This can mean opportunities for self-reflection and expression, as well as broad exposure to people, ideas, and experiences from around the country and world. Exposure to the many different ways to “be” sparks healthy curiosity and empathy in children. This includes racial and ethnic identity, religion, language, gender identity and expression, ability/disability, and family structure, but it can also include important life experiences such as living on a military installation, being an only child, or transitioning to kindergarten.
Embracing Anti-Bias Education
To understand anti-bias education, it may be helpful to reflect on the impact of an anti-bias classroom. In the words of Louise Derman-Sparks (2010, p. 1), “In the anti-bias classroom, children learn to be proud of themselves and their families, to respect human differences, to recognize bias, and to speak up for what is right.” These are outcomes that most educators would agree are important, but it takes a great deal of intentionality and self-reflection to make them a reality. Anti-bias educators work every day to be thoughtful about the subtle ways bias is embedded into systems and experiences. They are mindful of the impact that media, classroom materials, and their own word choice have on children’s development of self. They plan experiences around four main goals of anti-bias education (Derman-Sparks & Edwards,2010):
- Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities. This is the foundation of anti-bias education and must be addressed prior to the other goals. Programs do this by making sure (a) all families and family structures are visible and respected in the program, (b) children see themselves in the materials and curriculum, and (c) children have experiences that let them explore race, culture, language, and economic differences.
- Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity, accurate language for human differences, and deep, caring human connections. Programs do this by embracing and exploring the similarities and differences within each child’s classroom, program, and—eventually—community. They help children learn about people as unique individuals, while also respecting the shared cultures and identities that are important to each individual.
- Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts. Children are well-attuned to what is fair or unfair. They feel the injustice and hurt when a toy is taken away, or they get pushed down. How caregivers respond to and help children to speak up for themselves and others, influences the degree of agency children feel about responding to unfairness in circumstances beyond their learning environment.
- Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice or discriminatory actions. This final goal is where anti-bias education “gets to work.” If children are to truly respect and care for themselves and others, we need to help them respond when they or someone else is hurt or mistreated. Young children might demonstrate this when they say, “Boys can too be teachers!” or “Don’t touch my hair.”
We encourage you to explore the readings in the References and Resources section for practical ideas and reflection on anti-bias education.
Embracing Multiple Social Identities
Preschoolers are beginning to develop a complex sense of self and learn that they can have multiple social identities. Each child in your program is much more than their gender, age, race, family income, or physical features. While some children may be encouraged to strongly identify with these parts of their identities, it’s important to remember that all children have multiple identities, and identities can shift with time. For example, you may have a child in your program who thinks of herself as Black, a girl, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an artist, and dog-lover. Another child may think of himself as a big brother, a really good runner, and an almost-kindergartener.
You can support and expand how children see themselves by pointing out their positive traits and interests. Encouraging children to embrace their multiple social identities develops their sense of self and helps them become more flexible when thinking about both who they are and who others are. Teachers do this when they say, “Look at that ‘M’! You’re getting to be a really good writer!” and “You saw how sad Millie was and knew her rabbit would help her feel better. You are so thoughtful and caring.”
Children who recognize their multiple identities may develop better problem-solving skills and a better ability to collaborate with others. This helps them come up with more creative solutions to everyday problems. For example, a child who is a flexible and creative problem-solver may recognize that there are no more aprons in the dramatic play area and instead may fashion an “apron” out of a baby blanket. When children see themselves as having multiple and flexible identities, they will feel more equipped and confident to respond to a variety of challenges.
As highlighted in Lesson One, our sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves (Ylvisaker, 2006). Character and personality traits influence who we are as individuals; these are cultivated and nurtured through our interactions with others and shape our current and future lives.
Your program may use a formal character education curriculum, such as Character Counts (The Six Pillars, 2021). This curriculum proposes six pillars of character. Whether you use this or any character education curriculum, consider how witnessing and demonstrating these six pillars would influence children’s positive sense of self, healthy relationships, and pride in their identities and culture:
- Be honest in your words and actions
- Be reliable
- Have the courage to do the right thing
- Be loyal to your values
- Treat others the way you want to be treated Be accepting of differences
- Use manners and kind language
- Be considerate of other’s feelings
- Deal with anger and disagreements peacefully
- Do what you are supposed to do Persevere
- Always do your best
- Use self-control
- Think before you act
- Be accountable
- Choose a positive attitude
- Make healthy choices
- Follow the rules
- Take turns and share
- Be open-minded; listen to others
- Do not blame others carelessly
- Treat all people fairly
- Be kind
- Show compassion, empathy, and gratitude
- Help others
- Do your share to make your home, school, community and world better
- Improve the well-being of others
- Make choices that protect the environment, and the safety and rights of others
Character can be taught in both formal and informal ways. You can plan activities and experiences that are purposeful and intend to teach a specific trait. You may do this, for example, if you notice children are having difficulty being responsible for materials and their personal items. You could plan an activity to teach responsibility and care for materials to help children with everyday routines and transitions. Another idea is organizing a civic-minded project for children to participate in, like a playground clean-up or working together to make blankets for a homeless shelter. Finding a way for children to be a part of their community by volunteering can be powerful and effective ways to build character.
How do these pillars guide or shape your work? How do they guide or shape your personal life? Take a few minutes to think about how these six pillars can shape your decision-making, your interactions with children, and your work broadly.
Families are critical partners in your programs. By serving children and families, you have a commitment to respect families and to help each child feel proud of their identities and culture. Recall these family-centered practices that were introduced in the Family Engagement course:
Family-Centered Practices - Family-centered practices are a set of beliefs and actions that influence how preschool teachers engage families.
Families are the most important decision-makers in a child's life.
Families are unique and their differences enrich our programs.
Families are resilient.
Families are central to development and learning.
Families are our partners.
These practices help families feel respected and valued. They also help families gain confidence and a sense of purpose in your program.
Families everywhere go through times when they need help accessing information to help them navigate challenging circumstances, and you may be just the person to help. A family member may have a question or concern, and you may be asked to provide information, suggestions, or recommendations about a variety of topics, such as child development, challenging behavior, literacy, in- and out-of-school activities, community connections, healthcare providers, and so forth. Sometimes you may have answers and sometimes you may have to look for answers. When a family member shares a need or concern with you, always respect their privacy.
Cultural practices deeply influence how adults support children’s development of self. All children develop in the context of their cultural background and their family’s values. It is important that you demonstrate respect for each family and child enrolled in your classroom and program even if their ways are unfamiliar to you or contrast with your practices.
You will need to build relationships with each family to understand their values, beliefs, and circumstances. Likewise, having written policies and classroom rules posted can assist family members in understanding the caregiving practices their children will encounter in your classroom and program. Make sure this information is accessible to all families by making it available in multiple languages and formats.
Demonstrating mutually respectful and trusting relationships for all children and families must always be your goal. Your role is critical to maintaining a warm, responsive environment where children feel safe to develop their sense of self.
Supporting Yourself by Reducing Stress: Taking Care of Yourself while Taking Care of Others
As highlighted in Lesson Three, taking care of your own self and thinking about your own wellness is as significant as taking care and providing for those around you. Many of us are accustomed to saying “yes” to everything that is asked of us for fear of appearing weak or uncooperative. Learning how to say “no” is a good skill to cultivate and it shows you know your limits and are able to prioritize your needs. It is also important that you learn to let go of stress. Here are a few tips:
- Consider keeping a journal. It can be therapeutic to write the day’s events and your perspectives on paper. You might also consider keeping a gratitude journal to help you be mindful about the positive aspects of your life.
- Make connections. Reach out to friends, family, and acquaintances. Go out for lunch or a cup of coffee with a friend. Speak to the person in front of you in line at the grocery store. These small moments can help you feel connected and supported.
- Even a little regular exercise can help you feel better, sleep better, and cope better with life’s daily stressors. Healthful eating can make a difference, too.
- Finally, remember to breathe. As we get stressed out, we tend to breathe shallower. By taking a moment to take a few deep breaths we are not only taking time for ourselves, but helping to lower our stress levels.
It is important to be able to acknowledge signs of stress in yourself or others. The table below identifies signs of stress in adults.
Common Signs of Stress in adults
- Aches and pains (headaches, neck or back pain, etc.)
- More colds or illnesses
- Rapid heartbeat
- Lack of concentration
- Short temper
- Increase in alcohol or drug use
- Eating more or less than usual
- Overeating “comfort foods”
When you see signs of stress in yourself, take action. You will find “stress busting” resources in the Apply section.
As you develop your skill at managing your own stress, you should also observe the children in your classroom and program for signs of stress. The first steps in responding to stress are to recognize when there is a problem and to help access resources. Look for these signs of stress in children:
Common signs of Stress in Children
- Child seems less interested in activities they used to enjoy
- Child has difficulty:
- Joining a group
- Keeping a friend
- Dealing with others
- Responding to failure or success
- Signs of depression
- Child seems uncommunicative
- Child seems withdrawn or quiet
- Child becomes more dependent and shows signs of regressing to young, childlike behaviors
- General disrespect or resisting authority
- Temper tantrums
- Aggressive behaviors
- Lying, stealing, cheating
- Changes in school work or grades
- Child seems unable to focus
- Drastic changes in appearance
- Drastic changes in eating habits
As you’ve learned throughout this course, relationships with important adults are the key to children’s sense of self and their social/emotional well-being, which in turn is the foundation for their long-term success in relationships, school, and beyond. As a preschool teacher, you have the opportunity to help children learn how to establish and maintain healthy relationships. You do this through modeling, encouragement, and positive guidance. You can support preschoolers by engaging and interacting with them in positive ways:
- Help children feel welcome, comfortable, and supported
- Stay close to young children in your care, reassure them, and let them know you are there as they move away and explore
- Recognize positive accomplishments
- Treat all children with respect
- Listen to what children say and respond to them with interest and acceptance
- Help children put strong emotions into words
- Encourage children to use their words to express their wants and needs with you and their peers
- Be consistent and follow through on what you say you will do
- Let children know when you are leaving and when you are coming back
- Provide simple explanations for stressful experiences using a calm, soothing voice. "You miss your daddy. He is thinking about you and will come after nap to pick you up. Let's look at his photograph together."
- Offer assistance in a way that supports initiative, without taking control
- Give children opportunities to choose what they will do, how they will do it, and with whom
- Assist children in making informed and responsible choices
Use the Supporting a Positive Self-Concept attachment to brainstorm ways you can support children to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem within your preschool learning environment. Refer back to the guidance and examples in this lesson. When finished, share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.
It is important to offer learning experiences and activities that are appropriate, engaging and supportive of children’s learning and development across various developmental domains including cognitive, social-emotional, physical, language and literacy, and creative development. Staff members working toward their CDA credential should use the CDA Self Concept Activity Plan handout to develop a self concept learning experience from your curriculum (or a new activity you plan on implementing).
Supporting a Positive Self-Concept Activity
Use the attached resources to help you take steps to promote your own wellness. The first attachment includes a list of resources about stress management. Spend some time exploring the different websites for information and ideas about reducing stress and promoting wellness in your life. The second attachment shares ideas you can use when setting boundaries and preserving time for the people and events that fulfill you by learning to say “No.”
10 simple steps to help destress. (April 24, 2012). Harvard Health Publishing.
Bisson, J. (1997). Celebrate! An anti-bias guide to enjoying holidays in early childhood programs. Redleaf Press.
Carter, C. (November 13, 2014). 21 ways to ‘give good no.’ Mind and Body.
Derman-Sparks, L. & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Derman-Sparks, L., & Ramsey, P. G. (2011). What if all the kids are white?: Anti-bias multicultural education with young children and families. Teachers College Press.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.
Egertson, H. (2006). In Praise of butterflies: Linking self-esteem and learning.Young Children,61(6), 58-60.
Fox, L., & Lentini, R. H. (2006) "You got it!" Teaching social and emotional skills. Young Children, 61(6), 36-42.
Gaither, S.E., Fan, S.P., Kinzler, K.D. (2019). Thinking about multiple identities boosts children’s flexible thinking. Developmental Science. doi: 10.1111/desc.12871
Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106-116.
Johnson, J. (2007). Finding your smile again: A child care professional's guide to reducing stress and avoiding burnout. Redleaf Press.
Johnson, J. (2010). Keeping your smile: Caring for children with joy, love, and intention. Redleaf Press.
Jones, V. L., Higgins, K., Brandon, R. R., Cote, D. L., & Dobbins, N. (2013). A focus on resiliency: Young children with disabilities. Young Exceptional Children, 16, 3-16.
Managing stress: Create calm in your career. (n.d.). Mind Tools.
Mayo clinic staff. (March 18, 2021). Stress relievers: Tips to tame stress. Mayo Clinic.
Pawlina, S., Stanford, C. (2011). Preschoolers Grow Their Brains: Shifting Mindsets for Greater Resiliency and Better Problem Solving. Young Children 66(5), 30-35. Abstract available at
Rath, T., & Clifton, D. (2011). How full is your bucket? Gallup Press.
Relaxation exercises (n.d.).Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. https://www.ecmhc.org/relaxation_exercises.html
Relaxation Techniques. (September 2020). Relaxation techniques for stress relief. Help Guide.
Skovholt, T. M., & Trotter-Mathison, M. J. (2014). The resilient practitioner: Burnout prevention and self-care strategies for counselors, therapists, teachers, and health professionals. Routledge.
Ylvisaker, M. (2006). What is sense of self? LEARNet