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Early Identity Formation: How Children Develop a Sense of Self

From the moment they are born, young children are learning about who they are and how they fit into the world around them. Through social interactions with peers and caregivers, they become increasingly aware of themselves and begin to develop a personal identity. This discovery of self is an important part of social and emotional development that continues throughout childhood. As educators and caregivers, we can support this discovery process through thoughtful curriculum planning and supportive interactions. 

Stages of Identity Development, from Birth-5

Infancy: The First Year

Because babies are so dependent on their caregivers, infancy is all about building trusting relationships. As infants learn about how they relate to the world around them, it is especially important that we help them see that they can trust others, that they have a place in which they belong, and that they are worthy of being loved and cared for. 

Quick Tip for Supporting Infant Development: Support infants by comforting them when they cry and responding to their cues when they are hungry or tired. Doing so in a timely manner will help them learn that they can depend on their caregivers to support them.  

Toddlerhood: 18 Months – 2 Years

During toddlerhood, children become increasingly aware of themselves and begin to desire a sense of control over their environment and daily routines. According to Debbie LeeKeenan, early childhood educator, consultant, and co-author of Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change, “toddlerhood self-awareness reaches a high point when children can identify themselves as unique individuals. The toddlers take in the messages they have received about themselves (I am loved, I am safe, I have feelings) and develop a sense of who they are and what they are capable of doing (I can do it myself).” 

Quick Tip for Supporting Toddler Development: During playtime, you can support toddlers’ sense of autonomy by encouraging them to make choices about their activities, such as what book they would like to read and what toys they want to play with. Toddlers are also ready to practice putting on their own shoes, socks, and jackets, as a way to build confidence in their ability to do things on their own.  

Preschool: 3 – 5 Years

As they gain more physical strength, preschoolers become especially interested in trying to move their bodies in new ways. In an article for ZERO TO THREE, Kathy Reschke, PhD, Senior Content Specialist and author of ZERO TO THREE’s Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators™, adds, “The first 3 years of a child’s life are packed with learning and mastering new physical abilities. Young children seem to get a great deal of satisfaction practicing their new abilities for the pure enjoyment of it….These physical attributes and abilities make up a large portion of young children’s perception of themselves. Even older preschoolers, when asked to talk about themselves, focus almost exclusively on what they look like, what they like to play with, and what they physically can do.”

Quick Tip for Supporting Preschoolers’ Development: We can support children in their growing sense of ambition by offering encouragement when they try something they have never done before, such as climbing extra high on a play structure or riding a bike for the first time.

Identity Formation and Self-Esteem

As educators and caregivers, we can have a profound effect on the children in our care by showing an interest in their expressions of individuality. Offer children encouragement when they take on new challenges, and celebrate with them when they accomplish something new. Our response to each child’s unique and emerging identity helps build that child’s developing self-esteem.

In a ZERO TO THREE video on infant-toddler educator competencies, Ross Thompson, PhD, professor of psychology at UC Davis and director of the Social & Emotional Development Lab, observes, “We know that young children are developing a sense of themselves as it is reflected in how they are relating to people who matter to them…And this begins very early. It begins in how a parent or care provider applauds their accomplishments and contributes to a sense of pride…So how parents and caregivers are communicating their own sense of a child to the child themselves, and how that is being incorporated into their own self-esteem is really important.”

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