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Sense Of Self: An Introduction

All children and youth develop a sense of self through their life experiences, knowledge and environment. This lesson provides an introduction into what factors play a role in the development of a sense of self and how you can support children and youth.

  • Reflect on your own sense of self and how it was developed.
  • Describe a sense of self.
  • Identify factors that play a role in the development of sense of self.



You are a unique individual with thoughts, emotions and behaviors independent of your family, friends and coworkers. You have the ability to see, understand, and know the world around you in a way only you can. You have the ability to grow, change, thrive, and set goals for yourself. You developed these abilities, strengths, and knowledge over your lifetime. Think back to when you were a school-age child. You didn’t become the person you are today all on your own. Most likely, there were adults 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 family member encouraged you to try out for a team or enter a writing contest. Cultural and family traditions and beliefs also played a role in the person you’ve become. You are an individual who has used your experiences to develop a sense of self.

As a school-age staff member, you will be responsible for encouraging and supporting children as they develop their own sense of self. You will do this by planning activities and experiences that are intentional and strive to help children become individuals with positive self-images and a healthy self-esteem.

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. How we identify 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 or nurturing environment you are more likely to feel accepted and self-confident in your abilities. Whereas if you are part of a non-supportive 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 feedback and support from others, which helped to further the development of these skills and foster a sense of identity.

As we grow and mature over our lifetimes our identities can also change depending on time and place. Relationships, parenthood, and other life events can help shape our identities. Think back on 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.

Your interactions with others can also shape your 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 similar or 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 some joy from it regardless of who else is in your presence, you are less likely to need encouragement from others because you are motivated from within.

A sense of self encompasses a child’s self-esteem, self-worth, identity, and self-image. It is a combination of the way children see themselves, their experiences, and their environment and how they feel about themselves. For school-age children, a sense of self is linked to their developing identities, which are becoming increasingly independent from their families.

According to Mark Ylvisaker, a researcher in communication disorders, 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 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 therefore be creative in identifying activities and tasks in which you 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

    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 of developmentally appropriate practices will be essential when you plan your activities and experiences.

  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.

  7. Coping with defeats

    Defeats are a part of everyday life. Sometimes, things do not work out or go as planned, and learning how to deal with these 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.

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).

You may recall specific times where you became aware of particular circumstances that reinforced your own self-concept. Perhaps it was during a school or sports activity, a theatrical or musical performance, or another event when you realized you had accomplished a goal (either alone or with others) that you had set for yourself. Achieving goals you set and accomplishing tasks that required you to stretch beyond your comfort zone 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, gifts, and talents. Multiple factors, including each child's cultural background, experiences, and most importantly their relationships with adults and peers impact the development of a child’s self-concept. Just as your own experiences and early relationships with family members and peers have influenced the development of your self-concept, you will create positive experiences that assist the school-age children in your care to learn about themselves.

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

According to sociologist Viktor Gecas (1982), adults are able to view themselves in numerous dimensions and can describe themselves in detail with many distinctions in ability and worth within these dimensions. Many years of life experiences have accumulated to shape a pronounced, unwavering, and realistic sense of self. As school-age children grow and develop into adolescents, their sense of self will grow in complexity and become increasingly established until adulthood.

According to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial stages, the developmental goal of school age children is to fulfill a sense of competency. Between ages 5-12, children shape their sense of self based 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 Tugade and Fredrickson (2004), there are individuals who seem to “bounce back” from negative events quite effectively, whereas others are caught in a rut, seemingly unable to get out of their struggling and negative streaks. Being able to move on despite negative stressors demonstrates a concept known as resilience. Someone who is said to be resilient is effective at coping and adaptation even when faced with loss, hardship, or adversity. That is not to say that they are blind to negativity or do not experience high levels of anxiety and frustration. Instead, someone who is resilient chooses to focus on positive aspects and emotions of the situation at a greater rate.

Every child has an opportunity to develop and enhance personal characteristics and other strengths that act as protective factors or help create a protective barrier to misfortune and change. These strengths, or protective factors, are developed within the context of important, safe and responsive relationships with caring adults. They can also be strengthened by protective factors found within the environments in which the child plays and lives, as well as within the child himself or herself. The within-self-protective factors are closely tied to the development of self and social and emotional well-being.

What Role Does Culture Play?

Culture helps define how individuals see themselves and how they relate to others. Remember that individuals differ in many ways: language diversity, cultural diversity, gender diversity, religious diversity, and economic diversity (Selmi, Gallagher, & Mora-Flores, 2015). All of these aspects of diversity work together to form your sense of self.

It is important for you to acknowledge and understand that individuals may not develop a sense of self in the same manner. A family’s cultural values shape the development of its child’s self-concept: Culture shapes how we each see ourselves and others. For example, some cultures prefer children to be quiet and respectful when around adults. This does not indicate that a quiet child lacks self-confidence. It is important to remember that not all families reinforce the mainstream American cultural values of individualism, competition, and assertiveness. Young children learn and absorb the stories told to them that often emphasize a family’s values and affect a child’s self-concept. As children grow older and attend school and spend leisure time with their peers, they learn that others may not have the same values as their family. For instance, some families may value academics over playing 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 as a strong value may describe herself 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 nurturing children’s sense of self, and you must carefully observe and listen to each child.

Two of the most studied aspects of culture related to the sense of self are independence and interdependence. Independence views individuals as separate from one another, and values ideas such as self-esteem, individual choices, and assertiveness. Interdependence means more value is placed on the group, and ideas like conformity, concern for others, and group decision-making are valued. 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 they choose whom to play with or are children encouraged to play in certain ways to promote group welfare?
  • Personality traits: Culture influences whether 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 how and whether you consider feelings public or private.

Take a moment to reflect on the influence your culture has had on your sense of self. How might this influence your teaching philosophy and expectations in your program?

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 or needs from 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 for himself or herself. Depending on how often a child experiences these different approaches, he or she may come to doubt his or her own abilities to control and influence his or her world. As a school-age staff member, you will need to understand these differences between children and their families to be able to provide them with culturally and developmentally sensitive care and help them be successful in the classroom 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 are growing, learning and becoming individuals. School-age children are in a time of their lives when they are learning to take risks and developing and recognizing their own identity. You can support this through your thoughtful planning of experiences and activities for the learning environment. You can also help children by:

  • Modeling healthy behaviors that support a healthy self-image and self-esteem
  • Creating an environment that encourages children to be individuals—showcase their talents, interests and spark their creativity
  • Developing a sense of community within the learning environment, one where children feel safe to take risks, share their thoughts and try new things; this includes having zero tolerance for any type of bullying or negative behaviors toward each another

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 sense of self and resiliency as you complete the following handout, Self-Reflection. Understanding ourselves and our own resilience can help us better recognize and support children’s strengths and perseverance. Share and discuss your responses with a colleague, administrator, trainer, or coach.


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 environment and immediate surroundings.

View the Defining Your Sense of Self Activity and 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, administrator, or coach.


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
Another term for self-esteem
A mental picture of our own abilities, appearance and personality
Who a person is, including their perception of their self-concept, worth, abilities, and personalities, especially in a social context


True or False? Children who have experienced adversity cannot bounce back and develop traits that may act as protective factors.
Finish this statement: A family’s cultural values...
You are having a family conference with Davinia’s parents. After sharing how you would like to encourage Davinia to be more assertive and feel empowered to make more individual choices in your program, Davinia’s parents express their concerns. They say that is not the way they are raising Davinia. What might be the reason for their concerns?
References & Resources

Berk, L.E. (2003). Child Development. (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

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 Edition). New York, NY. Guilford Press.

Raeff, C. (2010). Independence and Interdependence in Children’s Developmental Experiences. Child Development Perspectives. 4(1), 31-36.

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.

Selmi, A. M., Gallagher, R. J., & Mora-Flores, E. R. (2014). Early Childhood Curriculum for All Learners: Integrating Play and Literacy Activities. SAGE Publications.

Ylvisaker, M. (2006). Self-Coaching: A context-sensitive, person-centered approach to social communication after traumatic brain injury. Brain Impairment, 7(3) 246-258.