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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.

  • Identify methods of promoting individual interests and sense of self through activities and experiences, including long-term projects.
  • Define and understand anti-bias and character education and its role in the school-age learning environment, and in children and youths’ development of a positive sense of self.
  • Choose behaviors and actions that align with being a good model for school-age children.
  • Discuss ways your interactions and experiences with families can affect sense of self.



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.

Think of the many experiences you have had that influence your life and outlook. You may have family traditions, customs, beliefs, and values that you developed growing up. Some families share cultural traditions that center on religion, holidays, or other beliefs. These traditions might be attending worship services, playing cultural games, gathering for specific events, or following a set of behaviors that adhere to one’s belief system. There are other factors beyond culture and religion that can be included when thinking about experiences that influence children. Perhaps a family prioritizes spending time in nature and takes their children camping and hiking. Athletics, political beliefs, and occupations are often woven through families and children’s experiences. For example, many families have long legacies of military service, teaching, or being fans of a particular sports team. What experiences from your childhood have influenced your identity?

Experiences and Activities that Promote School-Age Children’s Sense of Self

Children in your program 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 and youth in this process of self-discovery and identity formation, you should provide them with multiple, ongoing opportunities to explore their interests, try out new things, and learn. You may already have a rich program with a variety of experiences and engaged staff, and you may make time in your program to explore diversity, children’s interests, and unique talents. Such opportunities for promoting a healthy sense of self and identity should be available throughout every day in your program.

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 writers, athletes, musicians, or actors, often indicate that they began their crafts as children. Whether children’s interests stick with them through adulthood or not, the activities and experiences that you plan for school-age children are very important to the development of their sense of self. As school-age children develop a sense of self, they are trying out new activities and experiences to understand what they’re good at, what they enjoy, and what their friends and others around them enjoy. According to the Council on Accreditation Standards for Child and Youth Development Programs, staff members should:

  • Recognize and support the range of interests 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 include the documented needs and observed interests of children in your activity plans. School-age children will enjoy sharing their own ideas for activities and experiences and helping you create plans. 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. Keep these areas stocked with materials and rotate supplemental materials to keep them fresh. 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 the necessary time, space, materials, and direction to fully carry out their ideas.
  • Watch and listen intentionally, and children will share their interests with you. Try to include the interests of the children whenever possible, even if they seem strange, too complicated, or boring to you.
  • 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 curiosity, cooperation, focus, determination, creativity, and the joy of discovery. Projects can take a variety of forms. They can be led by the children and youth in your program, where they 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 that affect all the children in your care. Whether child- or adult-initiated, the children need to be invested in the project and the work surrounding it. All projects have a goal that is being worked toward, take an extended period of time to complete, and typically have some sort of documentation that is completed along the way to show progress.

For example, a school-age staff member might notice that children are interested in flying paper airplanes. They might encourage that interest by checking out books with paper airplane designs from the library, and teaching children how to fold the paper. They might also encourage children to try their own designs, and measure how far they fly.

Projects help support a positive sense of self and children’s overall development because they encourage:

  • Intrinsic motivation: Whether the initial spark comes from the children or the adults, the children need to be interested and invested for the project to happen. Children need to be intrinsically-motivated or inspired to pursue the project from within themselves (Gillet et al., 2012), rather than because an adult requires it or will impose a reward if they do (or consequence if they don’t). Children are self-directed to plan and take the steps necessary, learn through the experience, enjoy the process, and feel pride in their work.
  • Deep investigation: Projects allow children to think creatively and critically. They often require solving problems or overcoming challenges, either through the nature of the project (e.g., “How can I make a plane that flies really far?” “How can we make the playground more accessible?”) or through the process (e.g., “How should we make a conveyer belt?” “Where do I send a letter to city council?”). Learning and growth comes from the process, not the product. Digging into these challenges allows children to discover, investigate and collect valuable information and experiences.
  • Child initiation: In many educational processes, adults are leading the way, whether preparing children for proficiency exams or reading a book aloud. Projects allow children to take the reins and lead their learning. They can decide on topics, phases, methods of documentation, and goals. You take on the role of coach and encourage children’s initiative, by providing the materials they need, asking questions, documenting their learning, and helping them learn the skills they need to achieve their goal.
  • Curiosity: The wonder and passion found in children is demonstrated by their avid curiosity for the world around them. They want to take information in and find a way to understand what it means to them. Children are born naturally curious about their world; it is the job of the adults around them to support and maintain it. Projects are a way to encourage this curiosity in a productive and creative way.

Embracing Culturally Responsive Experiences

Culturally responsive experiences are those that help children see both themselves and others represented in your program. This can mean opportunities for self-reflection and expression, as well as broad exposure to people, ideas, and experiences from around the country and world. Exposure to the many different ways to “be” sparks healthy curiosity and empathy in children. This includes racial and ethnic identity, religion, language, gender identity and expression, ability, and family structure, but it can also include important life experiences such as living on a military installation, being an only child, or transitioning to kindergarten.

Embracing Anti-Bias Education

Anti-bias education has been mischaracterized and misunderstood at times, but its foundation is simple: Active and authentic respect and care for oneself and for others. To understand anti-bias education, it may be helpful to reflect on the impact of an anti-bias 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 and self-reflection to make them a reality.

Bias is the feeling or demonstration of prejudice for or against someone or something. Implicit bias is the same, without the individual being consciously aware of the bias. Anti-bias educators work every day to be thoughtful about the subtle ways bias is embedded into systems and experiences. They are mindful of the impact that media, materials, and their own word choices 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 unique individuals, while also respecting the shared cultures and identities that are important to each individual.
  3. Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts. Children are well-attuned to what is fair or unfair. They feel the injustice and hurt when an activity is taken away, or they get pushed down. How caregivers respond to and help children to speak up for themselves and others, influences the degree of agency children feel about responding to unfairness in circumstances beyond their learning environment.
  4. Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice or discriminatory actions. This final goal is where anti-bias education “gets to work.” If children are to truly respect and care for themselves and others, we also need to help them respond when they or someone else is hurt or mistreated. Young children might demonstrate this when they say, “Boys can be teachers too!” or “Don’t touch my hair.” Older children might fundraise to buy more diverse books for their school library or write letters to city council urging them to invest in playgrounds accessible for all children.

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, family income, or physical features. While some children may strongly identify with these parts of their identities, it’s important to remember that all children have multiple identities, and identities can shift with time. For example, you may have a child who thinks of herself as Black, a girl, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a volunteer, an athlete, and a musician.” Others may think of themselves as animal lovers, singers, helpers, Muslim, environmentalists, readers, and future members of the military.

You can support 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 both who they are and who others’ are. School-age staff members do this when they say, “Look at that, three sentences! You’re getting to be a really good writer!” and “You saw how frustrated Millie was and hung out with her on the bench until she was ready to talk. What a thoughtful, caring person you are.”

Remember reading above about implicit bias? Adults send messages about their and other’s identity often without realizing it. Imagine a staff member greeting a child at the door and saying, “Would you like to play basketball with the boys outside, or make bracelets over here with the girls?” Now compare that to this message: “Would you like to play basketball outside or make bracelets?”  The first message suggests to the child that they should choose the play area that matches their gender. In contrast, the second message does not include this suggestion; the gender of the children is irrelevant to the play options, and so it isn’t mentioned. Messages like the first can limit children’s social identities, while messages like the second allow children’s identities to expand.

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 creative solutions to everyday problems. For example, a child who is a flexible and creative problem-solver may cut paper to make missing pieces for a checkers game. Another child who is struggling with their math homework but sees themself as a hard worker will persist in resolving their confusion and completing the task. When children see themselves as having multiple and flexible identities, they will feel more equipped and confident to respond to a variety of challenges.

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 influence 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 (The Six Pillars, 2021). This curriculum proposes six pillars of character. Whether you use this or any character education curriculum, consider how witnessing and demonstrating these six pillars would influence children’s positive sense of self, healthy relationships, and pride in their identities. Likewise, how do you actively demonstrate these virtues as a school-age program staff member?


  • Be honest in your words and actions
  • Be reliable
  • Have the courage to do the right thing
  • Be loyal to your values


  • Treat others the way you want to be treated Be accepting of differences
  • Use manners and kind language
  • Be considerate of other’s feelings
  • Deal with anger and disagreements peacefully


  • Do what you are supposed to do Persevere
  • Always do your best
  • Use self-control
  • Think before you act
  • Be accountable
  • Choose a positive attitude
  • Make healthy choices


  • Follow the rules
  • Take turns and share
  • Be open-minded; listen to others
  • Do not blame others carelessly
  • Treat all people fairly


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


  • Do your share to make your home, school, community and world better
  • Cooperate
  • Improve the well-being of others
  • Make choices that protect the environment, and the safety and rights of others

Character can be taught 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 being responsible for materials and their personal items. You could plan an activity to teach responsibility and care for materials to help children with everyday routines and transitions. Another idea is organizing a civic-minded project for children to participate in, like a playground clean-up or working together to make blankets for a homeless shelter. Finding a way for children to be a part of their community by volunteering can be a powerful and effective way to build character.

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. Take a few minutes to think about how these six pillars can shape your decision-making, your interactions with children and youth, and your work more broadly.

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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as, “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths...that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance, and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm” (CDC, 2021).

Staff members should work to create an atmosphere where bullying is nonexistent because it is not tolerated by either staff or children/youth. 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, including bystanders or children who witnessed the bullying.
  • Document the incident.
  • Follow up with involved parties and other program staff to make sure the bullying does not continue.
  • Work to uncover the root cause of the bullying to prevent it from reoccurring

Strengthening Families

Families are critical partners in your programs. By serving children and families, you have a commitment to respect families and to help each child feel proud of their identities and culture. Recall these family-centered practices that were introduced in the Family Engagement course:

Family-Centered Practices 



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 purpose in your program.

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 program even if their practices are unfamiliar to you or contrast with your practices. You will need to build relationships with each family to understand their values, beliefs, and circumstances. Likewise, having written policies and program rules posted can assist family members in understanding the caregiving practices their children will encounter in your program. Make sure this information is accessible to all families by making it available in multiple languages and formats.

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.


As you watch this video, keep in mind what you have learned about activities and experiences that support the sense of self, interests, identities, and character of the children and youths you serve. Consider how the staff members in this video promote children’s autonomy, interests, and sense of self through long-term projects and routines. 

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.

Additionally, watch the following video to hear how different programs support character development and intentionally 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.


As you’ve learned throughout this course, relationships with important adults are the key to children’s sense of self and their social-emotional well-being, which in turn is the foundation for their long-term success in relationships, school, and beyond. As a school-age staff member, you have the opportunity to help children learn how to establish and maintain healthy relationships. You do this through modeling, encouragement, and positive guidance. According to the Council on Accreditation Standards for Child and Youth Development Programs, staff members should engage with children and interact with them in positive ways:

  • Help children feel welcome, comfortable, and supported
  • Recognize positive accomplishments
  • Treat all children with respect
  • Listen to what children say and respond to them with interest, acceptance, and appreciation
  • Be consistent and follow through on what you say you will do
  • Offer assistance in a way that supports initiative without taking control
  • Encourage children to take on progressive roles of leadership
  • Give children opportunities to choose what they will do, how they will do it, and with whom
  • Assist 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 the activity, Character Education, observe your learning environment through the lens of the Six Pillars of Character that the Josephson Institute proposes. Read the examples of each character trait. As you observe your school-age learning environment, try to connect these traits with specific observations and examples you witness. Use the Character Education activity 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.

Use the Bully Free Zone activity to learn more about bullying and then record what you learn and how you can use it in your program environment. Discuss your ideas with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


The feeling or demonstration of prejudice for or against someone or something.
Implicit Bias:
The feeling or demonstration of prejudice for or against someone or something, without the individual being consciously aware of the bias
Intrinsic Motivation:
The tendency to pursue a topic or goal from a personal drive, without motivation of rewards or punishments


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.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Fast fact: Preventing bullying. Violence Prevention.

Council on Accreditation (2022). Standards for Child and Youth Development (CYD) Programs. 

Derman-Sparks, L. & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. 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. Teachers College Press.

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

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

Gillet, N., Vallerand, R. J., & Lafrenière, M. K. (2012). Intrinsic and extrinsic school motivation as a function of age: The mediating role of autonomy support. Social Psychology of Education, 15, 77-95. DOI: 10.1007/s11218-011-9170-2. 

Helm, J. H., & Katz, L. G. (2011). Young investigators: The project approach in the early years (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press and The National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The Six Pillars of Character. (2021). Character counts.

Ylvisaker, M. (2006). What is sense of self? Learnet.