Skip to main content

Promoting A Sense Of Self: Experiences And Activities

As school-age children develop their sense of self, they are also increasing their independence. This lesson provides you with information on methods of supporting and encouraging school-age children to develop interests and increase responsibility.

  • Define and understand anti-bias and character education and its role in the school-age learning environment and development of a positive sense of self.
  • Recognize methods of supporting children’s individual interests.
  • Identify methods of promoting independence through activities and experiences, including long-term projects.
  • Choose behaviors and actions that align with being a positive role model for school-age children.



The factors that go into developing who we become are endless. Our family traditions, cultural beliefs, customs, environment, location and economic status are some of the major factors that play a role in how we develop into individuals. It is important to remember that all children are individuals with varied backgrounds, family beliefs and life experiences.

Can you think of ways your family have influenced your life? You may have traditions, customs, beliefs, and values that are shared with your family. Some families share cultural traditions that center on religion, holidays or other beliefs. These traditions might be attending worship services, playing cultural games, wearing specific clothing, or following a set of behaviors that adhere to one’s belief system. There are other influences beyond culture and religion that can be included when thinking about customs that influence children. Perhaps a family is musical and encourages their child to play an instrument. Athletics, political beliefs, and occupations often have a common thread throughout families. It is very common for children to follow in their families’ footsteps. Many families have long legacies of military service, educators or emergency service professionals.

Environment also helps determine a child’s identity. Environment means many things: it is a combination of the physical space and its contents as well as the atmosphere and sense of community within it. This applies to a child’s school, child-care, or home environment.

Experiences and Activities that Promote School-Age 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 environment 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 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 activity room, 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.

Embracing Multiple Social Identities

School-age children have a complex sense of self that is ever-changing, and all children have multiple social identities. Each child in your program is much more than their gender, age, race, or physical features. While some children may strongly identify with these parts of their identities, and that’s okay, it’s important to remind all children that they have many different identities. For example, you may have a program child who thinks of herself as a daughter, sister, friend, volunteer, athlete, and musician. Others may think of themselves as animal lovers, singers, helpers, and readers.

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 when thinking about others’ identities. For example, flexible thinking about others’ could be observing a group of boys playing soccer and thinking of them as children who like to play soccer rather than thinking that boys only like to play soccer. 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 may have board games, such as checkers, available in your before and after school program, and it is likely that pieces go missing from time to time. A child who is a flexible and creative problem-solver may cut paper to make the missing pieces. In doing so, the child meets a challenge and can still play the game.

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, such as 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:


  • Be honest
  • Don’t cheat
  • Do the right thing
  • Be loyal


  • Treat others the way you want to be treated
  • Use manners and kind language
  • Accept others


  • Always do your best
  • Use self-control
  • Think before you act
  • Do what you are supposed to do


  • Take turns and share
  • Follow the rules
  • Listen to others
  • Treat people fairly


  • Be kind
  • Show compassion, sympathy and empathy
  • Forgive
  • Help others


  • Cooperate with others
  • Help make your community a better place
  • Volunteer

You can learn more about the six pillars at

Character education can be demonstrated 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 following rules or sharing. You could plan an activity to teach fairness to help children with the everyday routines and transitions of the school-age program. Another idea is organizing a civic minded opportunity for children and their families to participate in. Finding a way for children to be a part of their community by volunteering can be an effective way to teach citizenship.

Character education can also be taught informally, in the little things we do and say every day. Always working hard, doing our best, speaking with kindness, and treating others the way we want to be treated are examples of living the traits.

Creating and Maintaining a Bully-Free Zone

Bullying can take different forms, such as physical assaults, name calling, rumor spreading, social exclusion and cyber bullying. Bullying is defined by the Council on Accreditation Standards for After School and Youth Development Programs as “an extreme form of peer conflict that is deliberate, repeated, and involves a power imbalance. It typically peeks in early adolescence, during the middle school years, and can by physically and psychologically harmful.”

Staff members should work to create an atmosphere where bullying is nonexistent. In an effort to eliminate bullying, staff members should:

  • Be able to recognize when a child may be experiencing bullying.
  • Intervene immediately and appropriately when bullying occurs.
  • Follow up individually with the involved children.
  • Document the incident.
  • Follow up with involved parties and other program staff to make sure the bullying does not continue.

Watch the following video to hear how different programs prevent and respond to bullying.

Character Traits

See different school-age programs discuss how they support character development and how they prevent and respond to bullying in their school-age settings.

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, or being an only child.

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.

Developing Children’s Interests

School-age children are in a stage of development where they get to explore and experiment with a variety of activities and experiences while discovering their own personal interests, skills, and talents. Sometimes, these are the skills that will stick with them through their lifetimes. It is usually during the school-age years that children begin to learn skill-based athletics, play musical instruments, and join extracurricular activities and clubs. Think about the skills and interests you had as a school-age child. Are they still your interests today or have they changed or matured in some way? Maybe you were involved in programs that gave you the opportunity to mentor or work with younger children—this could have been the beginning of your interest in being an educator.

Biographies of athletes, musicians or actors, often indicate that they began their crafts as a children. The activities and experiences that you plan for school-age children are very important to the development of a sense of self. As school-age children develop a sense of self, they are trying out new activities and experiences to understand their personal interests, skills and talents. According to the Council on Accreditation Standards for After School and Youth Development Programs, staff members should:

  • Recognize and support the range of interest 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 always include the needs and interests of the children in your activity plans. School-age children will enjoy helping you create plans, brainstorm activity ideas, and share their own ideas for activities and experiences. 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. 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 complete projects and activities.
  • Observe and listen to children as they share their interests with you. Try to include the interests of the children whenever possible and appropriate.
  • Let children showcase their talents and skills. School-age children can provide demonstrations and lessons on a specific talent or interest that they can share with their peers.
Long-Term Projects

Project-based learning helps to support children on their journey of developing a positive sense of self. Projects encourage investigation, cooperation, focus, determination, discovery, and creativity. Projects can be used in the school-age learning environment in a variety of ways. 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. For this type of project, they may be completing a long-term art project, planning a talent show, or conducting experiments to test a scientific theory. Projects can also be created and directed by staff members. These types of projects might be creating and maintaining a garden or working together to solve problems. All projects have a goal that is being worked toward and typically have some sort of documentation that is completed along the way to show progress.

Projects help support independence because they encourage:

  • Self-instruction: Projects allow children to experience self-motivated learning. Instead of having an adult driving their progress, they are the ones taking the steps to move the project forward. They then can experience the success of hard work and what it takes to make something happen.
  • Deep investigation: Projects allow children to think creatively and scientifically. They encourage the process, not the product, and allow children to discover, investigate and collect information and experiences.
  • Child initiation. In most educational processes, adults are leading the way, preparing children for proficiency exams and determining the path the learning must take. Projects allow children to take the reins the lead their learning. They can decide on topics, phases, methods of documentation and goals.
  • Curiosity. The innocence and passion found in children is demonstrated by their avid curiosity for the world around them. Children are naturally curious about their world. They want to take information in and find a way to understand what it means to them. Projects are a way to harness this curiosity in a productive and creative way. Children can ask questions, determine the learning process, and work toward new goals.

Role Models and Relationships

Most life experiences involve other people. We cannot get far into our daily routine without encountering others. Think about the relationships you have with others. You have strong bonds with family and friends. You have professional relationships with coworkers. You also have informal relationships with people you consider acquaintances. School-age children are learning how to establish and maintain healthy relationships. They have friendships that are being based on more than proximity or convenience and more on common interests and goals. They are becoming independent and experiencing other adults outside of the home, such as teachers, tutors, coaches, etc. As a school-age staff member, you have the opportunity to help children learn how to establish and maintain healthy relationships. You will do this through modeling, encouragement and guidance. According to the Council on Accreditation Standards for After School and Youth Development Programs, staff members should engage with children and interact with them in positive ways by:

  • Helping children fell welcome, comfortable and supported
  • Recognizing positive accomplishments
  • Treating all children with respect
  • Listening to what children say and responding to them with interest, acceptance and appreciation
  • Being consistent and following through on what you say you will do


As you watch these staff member discuss how they support school-age children’s and youth’s growing autonomy, think about the experiences and activities you provide in your program to support children’s choice-making.

Experiences that Promote Autonomy

Staff members discuss how they address choice-making and autonomy, as well as long-term projects in their school-age programs and what this means for school-agers’ sense of self.


The Council on Accreditation Standards for After School and Youth Development Programs says staff members should encourage children to make choices and become more responsible by:

  • Offering assistance in a way that supports initiative
  • Assisting without taking control
  • Encouraging children to take on progressive roles of leadership
  • Giving children opportunities to choose with they will do, how they will do it and with whom
  • Assisting children in making informed and responsible choices


Teaching character education is an important aspect of your role as a school-age staff member. Your program may use a formal or informal character-education curriculum. For this Character Education activity, you will observe the learning environment through the lenses of the Six Pillars of Character that the Josephson Institute proposes. Read the examples below of each character trait. As you observe your school-age learning environment, try to make the connections with specific observations and examples. Use the blank form to fill in your observations. Then, share your observations with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Bullying happens everywhere, and it deeply affects children and their sense of self. It is your responsibility to create a bully-free zone in the learning environment. Your program space should be a safe place for children to learn and grow.

Follow the link below to the Stop Bullying site to learn more about bullying. Next, use the Bully Free Zone activity to record what you learn from this site and how you can use it in your learning environment.


True or False? In a school-age program, character education is demonstrated by using a formal character education curriculum.
Finish this statement: Project-based learning…
A co-worker mentions that she often arrives late to her school-age activity room. She says it’s not a problem and the children usually laugh with her about it. How do you respond?
References & Resources

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2011): Facts For Families Guide: Children and Role Models. Accessible at

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.

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

Helm, J. H., & Katz, L. G. (2011). Young Investigators: The Project Approach in the Early Years (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press, and Washington, DC: The National Association for the Education of Young Children.Ylvisaker, M. (2006). What is Sense of Self? Learnet. Retrieved from