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Promoting A Sense Of Self: School-Age Children

School-age children are working hard to establish positive self-concepts and increase their autonomy. This lesson will provide information on what you will see as a staff member working with school-age children and how you can support them through this stage of development.

  • Describe a sense of self for school-age children.
  • Define different aspects of positive self-concept.
  • Reflect on ways you and families influence the development of self and how you can work with families to support the development of school-age children’s positive self-concepts.



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.

Sense of Self and School-Age Children

Although sense of self first starts to develop at birth, school-age children are still very much developing their sense of self, just in a more sophisticated and reflective way. Children are now asking the question, Who am I? During the school-age years, children are thinking about themselves in a new way. They begin evaluating themselves, their performance and achievements, and comparing themselves to their peers. In this stage of development, children are demonstrating characteristics, behaviors, and emotions that are unique to this age group as well as coping with new pressures. The table below provides examples of characteristics that school-age children are developing as well as the new pressures that they bring.


  • Children begin to see the relationship between hard work and a job well done.
  • Children become better at transitions and go between the worlds of home, neighborhood, and school with increasing ease.
  • Children are mastering new skills and working towards new goals.
  • Children are capable of abstract thinking.
  • Children are capable of understanding others’ perspectives.


  • Children are navigating academics, group activities, and friends.
  • Children are often being compared or comparing themselves to others and risking failure.
  • Children see increased focus on grades and performance—academic, social, and athletic.

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.

Early to Middle Childhood

During the preschool years, children are able to describe themselves by their physical actions (I can run fast) and traits (I have brown hair.). Between five and seven years old, self-descriptions include proficiencies, most commonly in social skills and cognitive abilities. During this period, children begin to incorporate the cultural values and gender roles they’ve learned from their environment and others into how they describe themselves. 

Younger school-age children will typically continue to see themselves in a positive way and will overestimate their abilities. While their perspective taking skills have increased considerably since the preschool years, they do not yet actively evaluate themselves or compare themselves to others. At this age, when children compare themselves to others, the purpose is often to determine if they are being treated fairly (“His half is bigger than mine!”) and to see how others complete a task to help their own performance. They are much more likely to compare their current self with their past self, which contributes greatly to their enthusiastically positive, and sometimes unrealistic, sense of self. Before eight years old, children see themselves and others in all-or-none ways. While children at this age are able to understand the concept of opposites, they may struggle to understand that it is possible to be both "good” and “bad” at the same time. Their logic tells them “I’m good, therefore I can’t be bad.” They may acknowledge that people can switch qualities on occasion or in the future (“He was mean at the beginning of the story, but now he is nice.”). 

Younger school-age children are able to take the lead when telling their autobiographical story and begin to include their own personal experiences, yet they will still allow important adults to modify what they are saying (e.g., “What about T-ball? Do you like doing that?”). As they grow, they are more likely to add intentions and future plans to their accounts. These children also recognize they are the same person in spite of the many developmental changes that are happening to them. When describing himself, a 5-year-old may say “I’m getting bigger and I know more stuff, but I’m still me. I still have brown hair and I still have the same name.”

Middle to Late Childhood

Between ages 8 and 11, children’s self-descriptions reach a significant milestone, and they begin to identify their own capabilities and personality traits. They move beyond seeing themselves in a this-or-that perspective, and increasingly recognize that they may possess positive and negative characteristics and feel conflicting emotions at the same time. At the beginning of this age range children are much more likely to accurately describe themselves based on personal experiences with traits such as “smart,” “nice,” “helpful,” or “popular.” During late childhood, friendships and interactions with others become a large part of how children define themselves; self-descriptions reflect this by including many social characteristics. At this age, some children prefer friends of the same sex and may avoid or even express disdain when interacting with the opposite sex.

Around this age, children begin to compare themselves to others around them and evaluate themselves. They start to see themselves in a more realistic way, especially as their social world further expands and they learn more about others. Children will adopt cultural and societal values and standards as their own and they will judge how they measure up to these ideals. For example, around 8 years old, a child will understand if they meet the standards that make someone conventionally attractive in their culture. Looking, dressing, and behaving a particular way may be very important to the child.

All throughout the school-age years significant relationships will continue to have the most influence on a child’s sense of self. As a school-age staff member, every interaction you have with each child and the guidance you provide are very important to how the children see themselves. For example, when you help with math homework, you not only help a child learn the content, but can also influence their perception of themselves as successful academically. This is an excellent opportunity to build resilience and help children learn the importance of perseverance and effort.

Promoting Positive Self-Concepts

Family, cultural, social, environmental, and other factors all play a role in children’s concept of themselves. As a school-age staff member, you have a role in this too by helping to promote positive self-concepts in the children in your care.

Developing a strong, positive self-concept takes time and experience. Think about what it takes to make you feel confident and secure in a new skill or situation. Usually, the feeling of accomplishment comes after success with a challenge. This gives you the confidence to try new things, take risks, and feel good about your abilities. The same is true for children and their self-concepts. Children and youth need to build up a track record of experiences and interactions that make them feel good about themselves in order to develop a positive self-concept, which is something they work on daily. This is seen in the way children make choices, experience accomplishments, and establish relationships:

  • When children and youth make positive choices, they feel good about themselves. As children grow and have new and varied experiences, so does their understanding of safe and ethical behavior. When presented with choices, they are learning what decisions will likely lead to positive outcomes, and which may lead to negative outcomes. When children experience the benefits of their positive choices, and they experience the consequences and learn from their negative choices, they begin to trust themselves. This highlights the need for children to have safe opportunities to make choices, and to learn from their mistakes.
  • When children and youth are successful and experience accomplishments, they feel good about themselves. As with making positive choices, children need to have opportunities to be successful and experience a feeling of accomplishment. It is important to note that the tasks must be challenging for children in order to develop that confidence and willingness to try new things. When a child completes a job that is easy for them, it doesn’t build their confidence. However, when children must put effort toward a goal and then are successful in achieving it, they will feel the pride of accomplishment, and be more likely to try it again. This experience will also encourage them to try other new challenges too. The experiences that are at the right level of challenge will differ for children of the same age. One child’s success might be introducing themself to someone new in the group, but another child’s success might be doing their homework without reminders.
  • When children and youth develop and maintain healthy relationships, they feel good about themselves. Healthy relationships help children to feel secure and loved. When children have established positive relationships with family, friends, teachers and caregivers, they feel accepted and safe. They know that they will be supported as they try new things, take risks, make mistakes, and learn. Children also need to know they have a support system for when they need to ask questions or seek guidance.

School-age children are becoming increasingly independent. They are making more choices based on their past experiences and knowledge rather than options provided by an adult. They are thinking more about who they are and who they want to be, as individuals and members of social groups. As a school-age staff member, part of your role is to support their autonomy.

A positive self-concept and healthy self-esteem are necessary for children to establish their independence as they grow According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are several key characteristics that help children develop a healthy self-esteem, which are listed on the chart below. On the right, you will find how you can support these characteristics within the learning environment.


How to support

Sense of security

  • Maintain a safe and healthy learning environment by following safety policies and procedures and addressing bullying and harmful behaviors.
  • Show all children you care about their well-being by talking to them each day and learning about their lives.
  • Be consistent and follow through on your promises.

Sense of belonging

  • Establish and continually support a sense of belonging and community for all children and adults.
  • Celebrate all children as individuals.
  • Promote kindness, teach empathy, and encourage children to reflect on words, actions, and behaviors. 

Sense of purpose, responsibility and contribution

  • Give children meaningful responsibilities in the environment.
  • Ask for input from children when creating activity plans and planning projects.

Sense of personal competence and pride

  • Give children opportunities for challenge and success.
  • Provide a variety of activities and materials that can be used in multiple ways so children of different ages and with different abilities and interests can be challenged in a safe way.

Sense of trust

  • Gain the trust of children by creating an atmosphere based on mutual respect and kindness.
  • Set boundaries that give children opportunities for safe risk taking.

Sense of making real choices and decisions

  • Give children the opportunity to choose their activities, field trips, etc.
  • Take their suggestions seriously, even if they seem unconventional at first and use them to develop activity plans.

Sense of self-discipline and self-control

  • Use positive guidance methods that support school-age children and their ability to regulate their own behavior.
  • Help children develop self-control by teaching them coping techniques.

Sense of encouragement, support and reward

  • Provide guidance, encouragement, specific feedback, and validation when children are working hard towards any goal (big or small).

Sense of accepting mistakes and failures

  • Turn mistakes, setbacks or failures into learning opportunities by talking to children about what happened. Discuss with them the choices, steps or decisions that could have changed the outcome.
  • Talk about how a child would do something differently in the future, and express confidence in their ability to do so. This helps them to apply their current situation to future events.

Sense of family self-esteem

  • Families are a child’s first and most important caregiver, teacher and advocate. Children need to feel comfortable, loved and safe within their family unit.
  • Work with families to support their needs.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics (2015). Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12. Available at:

Addressing the Needs of All Children and Families

No two children or families will ever be the same in your school-age program and meeting the needs of every individual can seem like a daunting task. There isn’t 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 expect their child to be quiet and respectful with his teachers, whereas another family may encourage their child to speak up and be assertive. These values and beliefs guide the ways adults respond to children which in turn impacts the messages children receive. In this way, culture shapes who 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 these seven irreducible needs are met, 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 upon children’s development, it is critical that they are actively involved in efforts that promote their children’s sense of self and overall development.

In your work at a school-age program, 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 school-age children should or should not do, it is important to be considerate of families and try to understand and honor experiences or points of view that may be different from yours. For example, while you may think it is important for children to feed themselves, families of children in your care may favor adults helping children with eating, which helps establish and promote relationships. You may suspect a child watches too much television at home, but that may be the only way for a parent who works at night to rest. As a caring and resourceful professional, be flexible and think of alternative ways to positively engage with all families in your program.

When it comes to families of children with special needs, communication is essential. As a school-age staff member, you should gather as much information as possible about the child, as well as accommodations that the family has used in the past and what the family’s desires are for their child. Equip yourself with credible resources on the disability so you have a better understanding of what it means for the child and their care. Be positive and convey confidence and readiness to learn and work with other professionals such as physical therapists. You should also invite the families to share concerns or ask questions.

Challenge yourself to get to know every family in your program. You cannot appreciate what you don’t know or can’t see. Reach out to children’s families and find out about their priorities. Focus on their strengths and support their struggles. Instead of judging, be sensitive about why family members believe or act the way they do.


As you watch this video and listen to these school-age staff members, reflect on the way you help school-age children and youth in your own program make positive choices, experience accomplishment, and establish healthy, rewarding relationships.

Promoting a Positive Sense of Self

Watch and listen as these caregivers describe ways they help children make positive choices, experience accomplishment, and develop healthy relationships.


You will offer support through a variety of methods, depending on the child and situation. It is important to remember that all children develop at their own pace and while milestones and characteristics may be similar, all children are individuals with their own life experiences and perspectives.

  • 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, coworkers and other adults.
  • Provide consistent, predictable experiences for children to support a sense of belonging
  • Share positive comments and feedback with families when you observe positive interactions with their children.
  • Make resources available to all families. 


As a school-age staff member, you work with children and families from diverse experiences and backgrounds. Read each of the scenarios in the Promoting a Sense of Self activity. Reflect on the child’s and/or family member’s sense of self, and consider how you would promote a positive sense of self. When you are finished, share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


In 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 to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem within your school-age learning environment. When finished, share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


The ability to self-govern or self-regulate; to manage one’s own self and make decisions, especially with regard to moral choices


True or False? Offering school-age children activities that are geared at the same level of difficulty helps support their sense of personal competence and pride.
Finish this statement: In your work with school-age children…
Which of the following strategies will help support school-age children’s ability to accept mistakes and failures?
References & Resources

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). Helping your child develop a healthy sense of self-esteem.

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.

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

Kelly, D. (2005). Developing a sense of self: A workbook of tenets & tactics for adolescent girls. National Association of Social Workers Press.

Woolfolk, A. (2013). Educational psychology (12th ed.). Pearson.