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    • Define and describe the sense of self.
    • Identify ways culture can influence staff members’ sense of self.




    As we grow older, we tend to have thoughts and draw conclusions about who we are as a person and who we are in a specific role (e.g., as a parent or at work). Take a moment to write down eight to ten words or phrases that describe the kind of person you are. How did you describe yourself? Funny? Smart? Energetic? Flexible? Emotional? It's likely that some of your answers reflect particular personality traits, yet all of your descriptions offer a window into your sense of self. This course will help you better understand the concept of self and how it relates to your own competence, confidence, and well-being. It will also help explain how you can help staff members build their competence, confidence, and well-being.

    What is a Sense of Self?

    Our sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves, according to Mark Ylvisaker, a researcher in communication disorders. Examples of things that help develop who we are as individuals 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 part 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 an unsupportive 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 her or his 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 level 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.

    According to Ylvisaker (2006), 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.

    2. Success with meaningful tasks:

      A positive sense of self and self-esteem are ultimately derived from meaningful achievements.

    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 co-worker who successfully diffuses a situation with an angry parent, saying something like, "You did a great job listening to that parent and helping them understand our policies and procedures. It means a lot that she left with a smile on her face."

    5. Genuinely challenging and meaningful tasks:

      Creating experiences and opportunities that are meaningful and fitting to a young child's developmental level and that support daily routines can help contribute to a positive sense of self.

    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 normal 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.

    What is Resilience?

    According to Michele Tugade and Barbara 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 adapting 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 staff member 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. They can also be strengthened by protective factors found within the environments in which the staff member lives and works, as well as within the staff member 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 training and curriculum specialist, you assume the important task of helping staff members nurture their own-and children's-- sense of self, and you must carefully observe and listen to each child, staff member, and family.

    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 ideas such as self-esteem, individual choices, and assertiveness are valued. 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, culture can influence how you, staff members, and children 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 interact with one another and with children: Do they choose whom to interact with or do they interact 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.

    What does this Mean for You?

    As a training and curriculum specialist, you are likely to encounter staff members from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. It is important for you to understand the complexity of the influence of culture on identity, but it is also important for you to understand individual differences. A staff member who has had a lifetime of encouragement, praise, and support may have very different needs from a staff member who has experienced extensive criticism, self-doubt, and isolation. You will need to understand the differences between these staff members to help them develop the level of confidence needed to be successful in their positions. You will also work with staff members who are facing adversity in their private and professional lives. They will feel different levels of comfort talking with you about their concerns. You will need to understand the concept of resilience and how to help staff members bounce back from challenges.

    Watch the following video to review important concepts related to the sense of self.

    A Sense of Self Among Staff

    You play an important role in helping staff understand and develop a sense of self

    Completing this Course

    For more information on what to expect in this course and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Training & Curriculum Specialist Self & Cultural Understanding Course Guide

    To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:



    As a training and curriculum specialist, you are attuned to many aspects of the child and youth programs (e.g., social interactions among families, children, and staff, and the emotional environment of the workplace). You hold a great deal of responsibility as part of the leadership team. Take time to reflect on the role you have as a leader who promotes a relationship-based, caring environment. You may want to use a journal to write answers to the following questions:

    • How does helping adults learn (i.e., training, coaching, supporting staff members) contribute to your own sense of self?
    • What accomplishments in your work and personal life are you most proud of?
    • What resources and supports have contributed to your own sense of self?

    Draw upon your own experiences to facilitate supporting staff in their growth as self-confident caregivers. Why do you need to learn about the idea that different staff members’ cultural or family backgrounds may promote differing values or ideas about developing self-concept? How will you learn about these differences? Write down some of the methods you might use to learn about how to support individual staff members’ sense of competence and confidence.



    As a training and curriculum specialist, you can play a significant role in helping staff members identify and define their sense of self. In so doing, you prepare them for the important work of helping infants, toddlers, children, and youth develop their own senses of self. Just like children and youth, adults learn in the context of relationships. Therefore, you should be planful and intentional in how you form relationships with each staff member.

    Use the attached Building Relationships with Staff guide to help you think about the individuals you coach or mentor on a daily basis. Consider the questions in the guide and make a plan for learning about and acknowledging individual staff members’ sense of competence and confidence.


    Self-conceptThe set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an individual believes defines who he or she is
    Self-esteemThe aspect of self-concept that involves judgments about one’s own worth and the feelings associated with those judgments
    Social comparisonJudgments of one’s own abilities, behavior, and appearance in relation to those of others




    True or False? As a supervisor, trainer, or coach, it is not necessary to consider your staff members’ sense of self.


    Finish this statement: A family’s cultural values…


    Which of the following contribute to a child’s or staff member’s sense of self?

    References & Resources

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

    Baker, A. C., & Manfredi-Petit, L. A. (2004). Relationships, the Heart of Quality Care: Creating community among adults in early care settings. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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

    Selmi, A. M., Gallagher, R. J., & Mora-Flores, E. R. (2014). Early Childhood Curriculum for All Learners: Integrating play and literacy activities. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.