- Describe a sense of self in 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.
Sense of Self and School-Age Children
Within Lesson One, highlighted was that a sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves (Ylvisaker, 2006). Children begin to develop their sense of self from birth. They are taking in the world around them and developing relationships and likes and dislikes. School-age children are also developing their sense of self, but in a more mature and sophisticated way. For the first time, children are 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, in addition to comparing them 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.
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 in physical terms, such as physical actions (I can run fast.) and traits (I am a girl and I have brown hair.). Between five and seven years old, self-descriptions will highlight proficiencies, most commonly in social skills and cognitive abilities. During this period, children become aware of cultural values and gender roles and begin to incorporate these views into how they describe themselves.
Young school-age children continue to see themselves in an overly 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 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 overly positive and 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 believe it is impossible to be both antonyms at the same time. Their logic tells them "I'm good, therefore I can't be bad;" although at this age they may acknowledge that people can switch qualities on occasion or in the future ("He was such a bad man 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 still allow important adults to modify what they are saying. 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 five 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 8-11, children's self-descriptions reach a significant milestone and children 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 a child defines him or herself; self-descriptions reflect this by including many social characteristics. At this age, some children prefer same-sex friends and may avoid or even express disdain when interacting with the opposite sex.
Another milestone at this stage is 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 eight years old a child will understand if he or she meets the standards that make someone conventionally attractive in their culture. Looking, dressing or 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 hard work to success.
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. You will be helping to promote positive self-concepts in school-age children.
Developing a strong, positive self-concept takes time. Think about what it takes to make you feel confident and secure in a new skill or situation. Usually, the feeling of success and accomplishment gives you the sense of confidence in yourself 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 things that make them feel good about themselves in order to develop a positive self-concept. Children are working to build their track record each day. 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 develop, so does their understanding of right and wrong. When presented with choices, actions and decisions, they are beginning to learn what path will be the positive and successful one and which may face negative consequences. As children learn to choose the positive path and accept and learn from mistakes, they begin to trust themselves.
- 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. When children work toward a goal and are successful in achieving it, they will feel confident that they can do it again, try new things, and take risks.
- 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 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. For the first time, children are able to make choices based on their past experiences and knowledge rather than from options provided by an adult. Children are beginning to develop their own identities, establish unique personalities, and enjoy a variety of interests and likes. As a school-age staff member, part of your role is to support their autonomy.
Maturity and autonomy are closely linked to a positive self-concept because it is all about how children feel about themselves. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are key characteristics that help children establish healthy self-esteems. A positive self-concept and healthy self-esteem are necessary for children to establish their independence as they grow into adolescence. The chart below lists the American Academy of Pediatrics’ key characteristics important to developing a healthy self-esteem. On the right side of the chart, you will find examples on how to support these characteristics within the learning environment to encourage autonomy.
How to support
Sense of security
Sense of belonging
Sense of purpose, responsibility and contribution
Sense of personal competence and pride
Sense of trust
Sense of making real choices and decisions
Sense of self-discipline and self-control
Sense of encouragement, support and reward
Sense of accepting mistakes and failures
Sense of family self-esteem
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 and impossible task. There isn’t one best practice to help children develop a healthy sense of self; it requires many experiences over time. While you will need to pay special attention to accomplishing this goal, the tasks necessary to accomplish this will coincide with a large number of the best practices you do every day.
Highlighted within the first lesson, you had a chance to learn more about the ways families and caregiving practices are influenced by culture. For example, one family may value a child or youth who is quiet whereas in another family, assertiveness and speaking-up is valued. These values and beliefs guide the ways adults respond to children which in turn impacts the messages children receive, in essence helps define who children are. Coupled with individual beliefs and values are needs of all children to help them grow, develop, express emotions and display behaviors in culturally appropriate ways, as well as 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 program efforts that promote their children’s sense of self and overall development.
In your work at a school-age program, it is important to help families understand the significance of children’s participation in activities that foster the development of their sense of self and overall well-being. At the same time, it is also very important to be sensitive to families’ values, backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions as they relate to children’s skill development and independence. While you may have certain opinions about what school-age children should or should not do to develop a sense of self, it is important to be considerate of families and try to understand and honor a point of view that may be different from yours. As a caring and resourceful professional, be flexible and think of alternative ways to positively engage with all families in your program.
Establishing and maintaining collaborative relationships between home and school promotes children’s optimum learning and growth. When it comes to families of children with special learning needs, communication is essential. As a school-age staff member, you should gather as much information as possible about the child and their particular needs, as well as accommodations that the family has used in the past. 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.
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.
Download the attachment, Promoting a Sense of Self: Scenarios. Read through each of the scenarios, reflect on the child and family’s sense of self, and consider how you would promote a positive sense of self. Then look at some of the suggestions provided. Which ones would you try first? What other ideas might you try to support this child and family to support their positive self-images? Discuss your ideas with your coach, trainer, or supervisor.
Download and print 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 develop a healthy sense of self-esteem within your school-age learning environment. When finished, share your responses with your trainer, supervisor, or coach.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2014). Healthy Children: Ages & Stages: Helping Your Child Develop A Healthy Sense of Self Esteem. Retrieved from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/Pages/Helping-Your-Child-Develop-A-Healthy-Sense-of-Self-Esteem.aspx.
Berk, L.E. (2003). Child Development. (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Brazelton. T. B. & Greenspan, S. I. (2000). The Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn, and Flourish. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
Harter, Susan (2012). Construction of the Self: Developmental and Sociocultural Foundations (2nd Edition). New York, NY. Guilford Press.
Kelly, D. (2005). Developing a Sense of Self. National Association of Social Workers Press,.
Woolfolk, A. (2013). Educational Psychology, 12th ed. Pearson.