Experiences and relationships within our families, cultures, communities, schools and other settings shape our identities over time. During early childhood, children develop a self-concept or sense of self as they recognize and understand who they are – what makes them similar to and different from other people. They notice the characteristics – attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that define them as unique individuals.
Sense of self, or identity, includes the roles, behaviors, and attributes we associate with ourselves; including descriptions, such as “I’m strong,” “I’m tall,” or “I am the oldest child in my family.” The development of a sense of self begins in infancy. A child’s sense of self is about who he is, not what he can do.
Positive experiences and strong, reciprocal relationships with loved ones help children understand that they are important, valued, and respected. From birth, children develop a sense of belonging when they feel accepted, develop secure attachments, and trust those who care for them. When children feel safe, secure, and supported, they develop the confidence to explore, take risks, and solve problems. The relationships among you, the children, and their families play a key role in building children’s identities.
Truly knowing and understanding the children in your setting requires observation, time, and commitment. This knowledge allows you to customize the environment, materials, curriculum, and interactions with individuals and groups to best serve each child.
The following are ways you can bolster children’s developing self-concept and strengthen your relationship with each child:
Respond to children’s needs promptly and consistently. Infants develop a sense of trust when they know that their needs will be met. This trust leads to feeling safe enough to explore and learn in the early years and beyond. Toddlers and preschools can wait longer for needs to be met, but they too need consistency and to know that you are there to provide the limits that keep them safe.
Include families in the setting. Post photos of children and their families in several places so children can “visit” them during the day. Create “All About Me” books that feature photos of children’s families, pets, and friends and include documentation of their work and learning that they select. Digitize the books if possible to make it easy to update and expand them over time.
Incorporate children’s home languages and cultures. Include oral and written language, and books, music, recipes, and artifacts representing children’s cultures.
Create a home-like setting. Allow children to bring their favorite items form home – including blankets, stuffed animals, and books. Offer dress-up clothes and props that will be familiar to children from their own homes.
Post documentation of children’s learning. Include artwork and photographs of their experiences and accomplishments within your setting. Talk with children about their experiences so they can revisit what they did and learn.
Encourage children to practice and master age-appropriate skills. These might include self-help skills such as grooming, feedings, and dressing, social skills needed to play and cooperate with others, literacy, math, and other pre-academic skills.
Provide many opportunities to make choices and express preferences. Infants can reach for one rattle or another, toddlers can choose a book to read, preschoolers can determine which pieces of are, writing samples, and photos they would like to take home, display in the setting, or place in their portfolios or “All About Me” books.
Give each child one-on-one positive attention every day. Hold and talk with infants about what they are doing and what you are doing. Nurture and respond to each child during daily routines, transitions, activities. Observe and join in their play as appropriate.
Help children develop the ability to express emotions. Encouraging them to clap hands, reach, smile, wave, point, and talk using gurgles, sounds, artwork, writing, and speech.
Help children distinguish themselves from others. Use saying the infants’ names and the names of family members when viewing and pointing to photographs.
When given opportunities, young children can be active participants and decision-makers in your setting. Respect and work with each child’s unique skills, qualities, and abilities. Understanding children’s developmental milestones, as described in the previous section, will help you select materials, imply teaching strategies, and interact in ways that meet children’s needs, reflect their interests, and ensure their progress, growth, and learning. It is also important to understand and see the impact of each child’s gender, temperament, approaches to learning, strengths and challenges, and cultural and racial identity. Each of these factors contributes to the development of the whole child.