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Promoting A Sense Of Self: Experiences And Activities

Throughout the Virtual Lab School, you have learned about the importance of high-quality experiences, environments, curricula, and programming. These are critical to development and learning, and they help children develop a sense of self. This lesson will focus on how you can engage children in meaningful experiences that promote and support their sense of self.

  •  Describe experiences and activities that promote a sense of self.
  •  Discuss ways your interactions with families can affect sense of self.
  •  Describe how to promote care and wellness for your own 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 ongoing, multiple 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 your day and school year in preschool.

Experiences and Activities that Promote Preschool Children’s Sense of Self

Embracing Diversity

To understand anti-bias education, it may be helpful to reflect on how children learn to see themselves and others in an anti-bias classroom or program. 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 to make them a reality. Anti-bias educators are thoughtful every day of the subtle ways bias is embedded into systems and experiences. They are mindful of the impact that media messages, choices of classroom materials, and responses to questions have on children’s development of self. They plan experiences around four main goals of anti-bias education (Derman-Sparks & Edwards, 2010):

  1. 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.
  2. 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 individuals.
  3. Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.
  4. Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice or discriminatory actions.

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, or physical features. While some children may be encouraged to strongly identify with these parts of their identities, it’s also important to remind all children that they have many different identities. For example, you may have a child in your program who thinks of herself as a daughter, sister, friend, helper, and dog-lover. Others may think of themselves as painters, singers, and future firefighters.

You can influence and expand how children see themselves by pointing out, in a positive and encouraging way, that they have many traits and interests. Encouraging children to embrace their multiple social identities develops their sense of self and helps them become more flexible in their thinking about others’ identities. For example, flexible thinking about others could be observing a group of boys playing with trains and thinking of them as children who like to play with trains rather than thinking that only boys like to play with trains. Flexible thinking about others allows children to be more open and accepting of others’ interests and attributes.

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 and creative solutions to everyday problems. You likely have pretend play home living items such as dishes and food in your classroom, and it is likely that pieces go missing from time to time. A child who is a flexible and creative problem-solver may recognize that there are no more aprons in the kitchen and instead may fashion an “apron” out of a baby blanket.

Embracing Character

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 are examples of elements that help us develop 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. One example is the Character Counts curriculum by the Josephson Institute. This curriculum proposes six pillars of character. Whether you use this (or any other) character education curriculum, consider how these six pillars may influence the sense of self, positive relationships, and pride in one’s identity and culture:

  • Trustworthiness. Be honest, loyal, and keep your promises.
  • Respect. Act courteously. Accept others.
  • Responsibility. Follow through on your actions and complete your tasks.
  • Fairness. Treat people equitably.
  • Caring. Show compassion and gratitude.
  • Citizenship. Improve the well-being of others.

You can learn more about the six pillars at

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 embracing these six pillars can shape the work you do with staff members around promoting a sense of self.

Embracing Culturally Responsive Experiences

Culturally responsive experiences are those that help children see themselves represented in your program. This may mean opportunities for self-reflection and expression. It may also mean broad exposure to people, ideas, and experiences from around the world. Exposure to the world around them sparks curiosity and creative thinking in children. You should provide experiences that help children define a sense of self and a sense of the world around them. This may include racial or ethnic identity, but it can also include identities related to family values, beliefs, or experiences. For example, children may explore the culture of living on a military installation, being an only child, or transitioning to kindergarten.

Strengthening Families

Families are critical partners in your programs. You have a commitment to respect families and to help each family feel proud of its identity and culture. Recall these family-centered practices that were introduced in the Families course:

Family-Centered Practice - Family-centered practice is a set of beliefs and actions that influence how we engage families.



Families are the most important decision-makers in a child's life.

  • We learn about families' ideas and preferences.
  • We provide choices in programming.
  • We involve families in program leadership.
  • We involve families in decision-making.

Families are unique and their differences enrich our programs.

  • We honor and respect diversity.
  • We involve all the important people in a child's life.
  • We engage and involve families.
  • We develop responsive and reciprocal relationships.
  • We represent families in our programs.

Families are resilient.

  • We learn about families' strengths, needs, and circumstances.
  • We connect families with resources.
  • We build families' strengths.

Families are central to development and learning.

  • We share information with families.
  • We listen to families.
  • We view families as their child's first teacher.
  • We respect families' expertise about their child.

Families are our partners.

  • We use respectful, responsive, and two-way communication.
  • We reach out to families.
  • We involve families in all aspects of our program.

These practices help families feel respected and valued. They also help families gain confidence and a sense of their role in your program.

Families everywhere go through times in their lives when they need help accessing information to help them navigate the circumstances they are dealing with. And you may be just the person they come to for 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. Above all, if a family member shares a need or concern with you, respect his or her privacy.

Communicating with Families about Their Child’s Development of a Sense of Self

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.

Collaborating with family members is a very significant aspect of your work in preschool. You will need to build relationships with each family to understand their values and beliefs. 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.

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.

Signs of Stress

  • Aches and pains (headaches, neck or back pain, etc.)
  • Sleeplessness
  • Fatigue
  • More colds or illnesses
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Irritability
  • Lack of concentration
  • Anger
  • 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 Stress Indicators

  • 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
  • Outbursts
  • 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


Preschool Teachers’ Sense of Self: Self-Care Practices

Learn how a preschool teacher practices self-care.


Young children experience stress as a normal part of development and learning. Stress can result from different experiences, positive and negative. While you cannot shield all children from stressful experiences, your caring, safe, and predictable relationship with a young child can help protect them from the effects of stress. Consider the following strategies as you support preschoolers experiencing stress:

  • Stay close to young children in your care, reassure them, and let them know you are there as they move away and explore.
  • 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 and his job is done. Let’s look at his photograph together.”
  • Let children know when you are leaving and when you are coming back.
  • Help children put strong emotions into words.
  • Encourage children to use their words to express their wants and needs with you and with their peers.
  • Engage with children’s families and learn about what is going on in their lives.


Download and print the Supporting a Positive Self-Concept Activity. Read the American Academy of Pediatrics’ key characteristics that are important to developing a healthy sense of self-esteem. Then, brainstorm ways you can support children develop a healthy sense of self-esteem within your preschool learning environment. When finished, share your responses with your trainer, supervisor, or coach.


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”.


What are some ways you can take care of your sense of self and release stress?
True or False? Embracing diversity occurs naturally in the preschool classroom; you do not need to be intentional about this.
Finish this statement: Embracing character in the preschool classroom…
References & Resources

Bisson, J. (1997). Celebrate! An Anti-Bias Guide to Enjoying Holidays in Early Childhood Programs. Redleaf Press, Division of Resources for Child Caring, 450 N. Syndicate, Suite 5, St. Paul, MN 55104-4125.

Derman-Sparks, L. & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. Washington, DC: 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 . New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

Egertson, H. (2006). In Praise of Butterflies: Linking Self-Esteem and Learning. YC 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. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Johnson, J. (2010). Keeping Your Smile: Caring for children with joy, love, and intention. St. Paul, MN: 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.

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

Ramsey, P. G. (2004). Teaching and Learning in a Diverse World: Multicultural education for young children (Vol. 93). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Rath, T., & Clifton, D. (2011). How Full is Your Bucket? Washington, D.C.: Gallup Press.

Skovholt, T. M., & Trotter-Mathison, M. J. (2014). The Resilient Practitioner: Burnout prevention and self-care strategies for counselors, therapists, teachers, and health professionals. New York, NY: Routledge.

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