Skip to main content

Sense Of Self: An Introduction

Children and youth develop a sense of self through their life experiences, culture, and relationships with important adults and peers. This lesson provides an introduction to the concept of sense of self, how it is developed, and how you can support children’s positive sense of self.

  • Define and describe sense of self for children and youth.
  • 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 school-age staff member. 
  • Identify ways culture and early experience influence a sense of self for children 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 and nurturing environment you are more likely to feel accepted and confident in your abilities. But if you are part of a 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 other 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 our 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. Your sense of self was not judged to be true or false, but rather, good enough or not good enough because of the situation. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. Success with meaningful tasks

    A positive sense of self and self-esteem are ultimately derived from meaningful achievements. As a school-age staff member, you must be intentional in identifying activities and tasks which can help children experience meaningful success, and ideally, a sense of contribution. This might be helping to set out snack or stacking chairs at the end of the day.

  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. For example, you might say, “We’re going to need some persistence with this puzzle. Who do you know who’s persistent?”

  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

    Creating experiences and opportunities that are meaningful and fitting to a school-age child’s developmental level and that support daily routines can help contribute to a positive sense of self. Knowledge about each child and developmentally appropriate practices will be essential when you plan your activities and experiences. For example, it may be reasonable to encourage 3rd graders to work on homework for 30 minutes, but not kindergarteners.

  6. Opportunities for meaningful peer interaction

    Ongoing support from peers can help contribute to a positive sense of self. As a school-age staff member, you have frequent opportunities to encourage positive peer interactions. For example, you might say, “I’m not available to read right now, but why don’t you ask Arielle or Ashiko to read it to you?”

  7. 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 school-age 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’re frustrated you didn’t win. In this game there’s always a winner and loser. That's 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 children develop an appreciation of their inner mental world, they think more intently about themselves. During early childhood . . . children begin to construct a self-concept which is the set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is.” (Berk, 2003, p. 444).

As you think about your own life, you may recall specific times where 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 school-age children in your care as they to learn about themselves.

What Does a Sense of Self Mean for School-Age Children?

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. As school-age children grow and develop into adolescents and adults, their sense of self will grow in complexity.

According to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial stages, the developmental goal of school-age children is to fulfill a sense of competency. Between ages 5 and 12, children base their sense of self on their ability to perform and master skills that are valued by the important people in their life or themselves.  We will discuss what sense of self means and looks like for school-age children in Lesson Two.

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. Though definitions vary, generally culture includes the belief systems, social norms, customs, and shared identities and memories developed and held by members of a social group that give meaning to their social environments and interactions (American Sociological Association, n.d.). Culture helps define how individuals see themselves and how they relate to others. 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 et al., 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. Some cultures frown on burping, or chewing with their mouth open, but these are complimentary or neutral to others. 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’re used to. Shaming children for cultural differences can harm their self-concept and disconnect them from their system of cultural support. 

Young children learn the messages and stories told to them that often emphasize a family’s values and affect a child’s self-concept. As children grow older, attend school, and spend time with their peers, they learn that others may not have the same values as their family. For instance, one family may place great value on sports while another family may value the arts and learning to play a musical instrument. Each family influences a child’s self-concept within their cultural context. Young children may describe themselves based upon their family’s values. For example, a young child from a culture that stresses fitting in with others may describe himself as “kind” while another child from a culture that stresses individualism may describe herself as “a good runner.” As a school-age staff member, you assume the important task of supporting each child’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 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 (2010), 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’s 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 program? 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 school-age staff member 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 their child’s growing abilities and all she is capable of doing on her own, while another parent may choose to take on tasks the child 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 school-age staff member, you will need to provide children and youth with culturally sensitive and developmentally appropriate care to help them be successful now and in the years ahead. 


Watch this video as school-age staff members reflect on their own and sense of self and the importance of self-understanding for school-age children and youth.

Sense of Self: An Introduction

Staff members provide their views on the importance of sense of self and how it is developed over time.

Next, this video focuses on how school-age staff members can promote a positive sense of self in their programs. As you watch, reflect on the way you help incorporate children’s family and cultural lives in your program.

Developing a Sense of Self

Staff members reflect on the ways they support school-age children’s developing sense of self in their programs.


As a school-age staff member, you have the opportunity to support children as they grow, learn who they are, and further develop their sense of self. School-age children are in a time of their lives when they are assessing new experiences and risks and reflecting on how they align or differ from their families. Here are some things you can do to support their healthy, positive sense of self:

  • Model behaviors that support a healthy self-image and self-esteem
  • Plan experiences and activities intentionally, taking into account the interests of the children and youth  you work with.
  • Create an environment that encourages children to share and be proud of who they are.
  • Develop a sense of community among the children/youth and staff by stating your shared values routinely and living them out, and addressing any type of bullying or negative behaviors among children promptly.
  • Be positive and sensitive to children's unique backgrounds and needs.
  • Welcome and learn about the lives of children and their families.

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 School-Age 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.


Our sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves. Examples of things that help to develop who we are as individuals can include our occupations, hobbies, affiliations, abilities, personality traits, and spiritual beliefs. How we identify and how we feel about ourselves is largely the result of our interactions with important people in our lives, immediate surroundings, and our culture.   

View the Defining Your Sense of Self activity, using the eight experiences that Mark Ylvisaker highlights, think about defining moments in your life that helped you develop into the person you are today. Think about how experiences, environments, and relationships played a role in your experiences. When you are finished, share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


A complex system of beliefs, customs, identities, history, and ways of being that are held by members of the same social group that give meaning to their social environment
The ability to adapt healthfully in response to trauma, stress, and other adverse events
The set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is
The aspect of self-concept that involves judgments about one’s own worth and the feelings associated with those judgments
Who a person is, including their perception of their self-concept, worth, abilities, and personalities, especially in a social context
A mental picture of our own abilities, appearance and personality
Another term for self-esteem
Sense of self:
The roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that make us ourselves; a broad and evolving identity that is influenced by our unique being, interactions with people around us, our broader community, and culture


True or False? Children who have experienced adversity cannot bounce back or develop traits that may act as protective factors.
Finish this statement: A family’s cultural values...
You have a conference with a child’s parents and share with them how you would like to encourage their child to be more assertive.  The parents are concerned and ask you not to do this. They say this is not the way they are raising their child. What might be the issue?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2012). Child development. (9th ed.). Pearson.

Center on the Developing Child. (2021). Resilience. Harvard University.

Culture. (n.d.). American Sociological Association.

Davidson, H. H. & Lang, G. (1960). Children’s perceptions of their teachers’ feelings toward them related to self-perception, school achievement and behavior. The Journal of Experimental Education, 29(2), 107-118.

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.

Gecas, V. (1982). The self-concept. Annual Review of Sociology, 8, 1-33.

Harter, Susan (2012). Construction of the self: Developmental and sociocultural foundations (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

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.