“I’m not big now, but I’m growing. I can ride a bike and run and jump and skip, and next year I’ll learn to read, too,” answers Domingo when asked to tell about himself. Domingo’s answer reveals his attitude about himself—not very big but growing, an “I can do” attitude, and an attitude that says, “I will grow, I will learn, I can do it!”

Self-esteem, self-identity, and self-concept—educators use these terms to denote the totality of meanings, feelings, and attitudes that children maintain about themselves. Self-concept refers to cognitive activity: children’s awareness of their own characteristics and of likenesses and differences between themselves and others (Marsh, Craven, & Debus, 1998). Self-esteem refers to children’s regard for and feelings about themselves. Self-identity has a social connotation; it includes awareness of group membership.

Whatever definition or terminology they use, scholars have long recognized the importance of feelings of self-esteem in human behavior. As a theoretical construct, the self has been an object of interest since the 17th century, when René Descartes (1646) first discussed the cogito, or self, as a thinking substance. Throughout the ages, prominent theorists and researchers have recognized the importance of feelings of self-esteem in human behavior. Theories of Sigmund Freud (1949), Carl Rogers (1961), Abraham Maslow (1969), and others have been directed toward understanding the conduct of human beings by examining the feelings and beliefs that individuals hold about themselves.

The theories of these scholars differ greatly. However, amid the diversity, some assumptions are basic to all theories of self. One assumption is that self-esteem begins to be established early in life and is modified and shaped by the children’s succession of experiences with significant people in their environment. Another assumption present in all theories of self is that self-esteem has a predictable effect on behavior. The theories also hold that self-concept, self-esteem, or self-identity is multifaceted: children’s self-concepts about their social, academic, physical, and other facets may differ (Marsh et al., 1998).

Finally, theories of the self generally agree that an early childhood program can foster children’s self-esteem and build the foundation for future relationships with others (NICHD Early Childcare Research Network, 1998). Teachers can structure the classroom and respond to children in ways that contribute to their feelings of general identity, their physical and academic self-competence.

General Identity: Names

People’s names make them unique. Using children’s names in the classroom fosters their sense of esteem. When you use a child’s name, you are saying, “I know you, and I respect you.” Teachers may encourage children not only to call one another by name but also to use the names of teachers, volunteers, and assistants. In this way, children learn that each person is an important individual and that each is different from the other.

“I can’t say my last name, but I can show it to you,” says Michael, leading the teacher to a piece of plaid fabric, mounted and framed. “My last name begins with Mc, and that’s my sign.” First names come naturally to the children and teacher, yet you do not want to neglect children’s family names. Children might, as Michael did, find out the history of their last names, the places on the map where the names originated, or what they mean.

Very young children might be encouraged to learn their parents’ first names. Understanding that their mothers and fathers have their own names helps children see their parents as people in their own right. In the classroom, you might do the following:

  1. Use children’s names in songs, and substitute their names in stories, poems, and games.
  2. Write the children’s names on objects that belong to them.
  3. Make up news stories using the children’s names: “Susan has new shoes. They are brown.”
  4. Purchase a stamp pad and rubber stamps with the children’s names individually imprinted on each. Children just learning to read their names enjoy these stamps.
  5. Place two stacks of name cards on the game table for the children to play with. Children can sort through them and find their own name, all the names they can read, or any names that are alike. Depending on their age, they can classify the name cards according to boys, girls, friends, or initial or final sounds.
  6. Take snapshots of the children, and mount them on cards with their names. As the children become familiar with the pictures and names, cut the names from the cards. Then the children can match the names with the pictures.
  7. Make bulletin boards using children’s names. One might be, “We are in kindergarten. There are 15 children,” with the children’s self-portraits and names below.
  8. Make a name picture book. Place a photo of each child on a page. Then the child or you writes her name under the photo and a sentence about what she likes.