Applying Sense of Self in the Classroom

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Teachers need to foster all children's development of self-concept, including things like self-control and reliance. This lesson outlines strategies for teachers that support students as they discover their emerging sense of self.

What Is Self-Concept?

Imagine a pre-school classroom filled with children. Some are in the housekeeping area 'baking' pies, others are building castles in the block area. In the art center, students are finger painting, and books are being read in the cozy book nook. Each is focused on their own experience, busy at work and play. But something else is happening that you can't see - each is developing a sense of self. They're building a self-concept, or an idea of who they are.

As children build with blocks or bake in the kitchen, they are starting to realize they are unique individuals. They see themselves in mirrors and pictures and recognize themselves. They're also beginning to see themselves in relation to others. Gwen may understand she is a girl and that Adam is a boy. They're interested in how special they are and like to talk about themselves. Adam may say 'Watch me run fast,' or Gwen, 'I have blonde hair like my mommy.' All these are examples of the emerging sense of self in young children.

The Development of Self-Concept

Believe it or not, self-concept begins to develop when children are infants. A baby gets a sense of self as parents respond to cries for food or attention. When the child and caregiver make eye contact and have serve and return interactions, this forms a bond that allows the baby to feel secure and begin to gain a sense of self. The baby coos and the mother returns the coo. Later, the toddler points to an orange and says 'Ball?' and the mother responds 'No, orange. Say orange.' These interactions are setting the foundation of a healthy sense of self.

Children's interactions with their environments allow them to gain confidence in their ability to try and succeed at things like walking, climbing, and exploring. Important connections in the child's brain are being made between neurons, or brain cells, to allow them to grow physically, socially, and emotionally. When a child tries to climb on furniture, parents' and caregivers' instinct may be to say 'No - that isn't safe'. This stops neurons from making connections that signal a child's growing sense of self. Instead, they can provide an alternative safe climbing experience, like pillows or playgrounds.

Fostering the Development of Self

Teachers can help young children learn and grow their sense of self by providing activities and experiences that foster self-control and self-reliance. They can do this by providing a wide range of play, interactive, and cooperative experiences. Let's take a closer look.


Gwen and her mother are in the grocery store. Gwen wants some new cereal and is trying to reach it on a high shelf. The mother reaches it for her, and Gwen begins to shriek, 'I can do it!' Though this may seem like a negative toddler interaction, what is beneath Gwen's angst is an emerging sense of self-reliance, knowing she can do things for herself. She wants to tie her own shoes, pick out her own clothes, and give herself a bath, showing she can do things for herself and doesn't need help.

How can teachers foster self-reliance in their young students?

  • Provide opportunities for responsibility, like cleaning up a mess or helping with a pet
  • Allow children to care for themselves as much as possible, such as pouring their own milk or setting the table
  • Verbally reinforce actions of self-reliance
  • Design play experiences that allow children to safely explore 'grown up' themes, like a dress up and wood working area
  • Show students ways to work together to accomplish a task, like pushing a truck up a slide or dressing a doll

By setting up experiences in which children are allowed to explore, play, and interact with each other and their environment, teachers are giving them the tools necessary to build self-reliance.

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