Who am I? How children develop their sense of self
During the years between ages 3 and 7, children experience significant changes to their cognitive, social, and emotional development, which in turn profoundly influences their sense of self, or their self-identity.
Having an opportunity to explore the myriad (and ever changing) answers to this question is critical for children evolving a sense of self and place in the world, with two key concepts typically developing for children aged between 3 and 7-years:
- Self-awareness – the ability to recognise oneself as a separate entity
- Self-concept – the beliefs and attitudes a child holds about themself
These two aspects of self-identity are very closely entwined, each playing a crucial role in a child’s overall well-being and success in life.
The development of self-awareness in children
Self-awareness is the foundation upon which a child’s sense of self is built. It involves recognising oneself as a separate entity and understanding one’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions. In children between the ages of 3 and 7, the development of self-awareness is a gradual process primarily aided by mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are specialized neurons in the brain that are activated (i) when an individual performs a particular action and (ii) when observing someone else perform an action. Research suggests that mirror neuron development begins in infancy and continues throughout childhood, into adolescence and adulthood, at each stage facilitating:
- An understanding of self as a separate entity from others
As children grow and develop, they first begin to recognise themself as being separate from others. For example, mirror neurons first help children to realise that the reflection they see when looking at themself in a mirror is a representation of themself. Later, when the children understand that they possess unique thoughts and feelings of their own – those that are different to others, the child’s self-awareness increases to incorporate more nuanced and abstract characteristics of self
- The development of self-awareness in social situations
When children interact with others in diverse social situations their self-awareness grows exponentially. They learn to recognise and tolerate others’ values and reactions; they learn of the impact that their actions and beliefs have on others; they learn even more about their own abilities and limitations; they gain an insight into the social norms and expectations of their peers and culture; and in turn, they gain a deeper understanding of themself and their place in the world.
The development of self-concept in children
Self-concept is an integral aspect of a child’s identity, arising from the values, beliefs and attitudes a child learns to have of themself, which can also be influenced by others’ attitudes towards them. In children between the ages of 3 and 7, the development of self-concept is mainly shaped by three factors:
- Interactions with others
Children’s self-concept is continually shaped by their social interactions with others, whether those exchanges be with their teachers, peers, or people in their local communities. Through such interactions, children form beliefs and receive feedback about their abilities, personality, and physical appearance. Receiving positive feedback and support in this way can help to build a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence, while negative feedback (when managed skilfully and framed within positive language) can teach them to adapt and improve, or prompt them to develop resilience and greater self-conviction.
- Positive self-esteem
A positive self-concept and self-esteem are important for a child’s overall well-being and success in life. Children with a positive self-concept and self-esteem tend to be more confident, resilient, and better able to handle challenges and setbacks. They are also more likely to form healthy relationships and pursue their goals and aspirations.
The ways in which children are raised by their parents, caregivers, and immediate family – the values and beliefs they are exposed to, and the expectations placed upon them – all contribute to the development of a child’s self-concept. By offering love, support, and encouragement, parents and caregivers play a vital role in children developing self-esteem and a positive self-concept.
As adults of 3-7-year-olds, we play a crucial role in helping the children investigate the question; “Who am I?” Being diversity aware in our responses helps the children in turn to develop diverse self-awareness and self-concept. Here are some ways that we can help them to accomplish this:
- Encourage exploration: Encourage children to explore their interests and passions, which can lead to encounters with people and experiences beyond those of their typical home-life.
- Celebrate differences: Celebrate the differences that exist between people, whether that be through books, stories, or cultural celebrations.
- Model inclusive behaviours: Model inclusive behaviour by treating everyone with respect and kindness, regardless of their identity or ability.
- Expose children to diversity: Seek out opportunities to visit museums, attend cultural events, and interact with people from differing backgrounds.
- Encourage open communication: Encourage open communication about differences, by creating a safe and supportive environment where children can ask questions and share their thoughts and feelings.
- Provide positive feedback: Provide positive feedback when children exhibit inclusive behaviour, such as sharing, cooperating, and showing empathy towards others.
- Teach empathy: Teach empathy by encouraging children to put themselves in others’ shoes and encourage them to consider how they might feel in a particular situation.
By promoting a diverse response to the question “Who am I?” we can help children to value both themselves and others, for who they uniquely are.
Dr Clare Seymour
Clare has spent much of her professional career (over 30 years) in international settings. Part of her Doctoral research involved exploring the often hidden aspects of institutional racism. As a result she has a longstanding interest in, and passion for, promoting positive Diversity.
In addition to school music-teaching, Clare also has over 10 years’ experience working as an international music examiner – an understanding and respect for Diversity is so crucially important in every aspect of her practice.