When a child is born, they have no understanding of themselves as a separate person, unable to differentiate themselves as somebody separate from the others around them. Developing this individualised sense of being someone different happens over time as we develop the mental, emotional and behavioural functions necessary to see ourselves as a separate person. As we learn to manage our bodies and respond to our basic needs and drives, an awareness of who we are and what we can do develops, along with a growing confidence in ourselves as a person.

When we allow children opportunities to do things for themselves, to select their own goals and manage their environment, they begin to experience this sense of personal power, developing their self-esteem and resilience as they feel what their bodies can do. Opportunities to engage with other children and adults within different environments allow these skills to flourish. But it also places a child in a position of comparison – what can they do compared to those around them? And what do other people think of them when they try?

Given opportunities to see what they are capable of, children can experience what it means to try. As they persevere through a challenge, they develop a good sense of who they are and more importantly, a belief in themselves and who they might become. They are more likely to try new things and bounce back quickly after difficult experiences.

However, children who experience limited opportunities or frequently have adults’ step in, don’t develop this sense of security. Left feeling unsafe within unfamiliar situations, they may shy away from new experiences, unsure of their own abilities. We must then support our children as they establish a sense of competence, confidence and worthiness. But what do these grown-up terms really mean in the early years?

Competence – the ability to do something successfully

To feel competent, a child needs experiences of seeing something through to a successful conclusion – no matter how small. To do this, they need to develop mental thought processes as they think about what they want to do. They need a degree of emotional stability to understand and manage the emotions they may feel along the way. And they need verbal skills to express their thoughts, wants and needs. Once all these things are established and with lots of opportunities to practice, a sense of empowerment develops. It can be strengthened with every achievement and reflected in their behaviours and responses to others.

Confidence – having the belief that you can do something successfully

Confidence is then rooted in a child’s faith or trust in their abilities. This is all about past experiences, fuelled by every success and dented when things go wrong. This is why young children will confidently tell you they will beat you in a race or perform cartwheels well beyond their means – they don’t have much experience of not being able to! As you allow children to make memories of doing things with ease, and when trying again paid off, their confidence will build. If they doubt their confidence, simply allow them to try again so that positive outcomes, even the little ones, can follow this additional effort. And always see setbacks or difficulties as part of the learning process, rather than failures as you build their resilience. We will look at this again in The Learning Child when we explore “motivation and achieving goals”.

Worthiness – feeling good enough

Worthiness is rooted in our values; our beliefs about what is good, what is right and what is important. And how we ourselves measure up. These are very complex issues and yet are continuously communicated to children - when we mean to as well as when we don’t, so it is so important to be mindful of the messages that you are sending. Avoid comparing children with comments like, “Look how quick the girls got ready” All this does is help children take an instant dislike to the shining example. This is even worse when the example is an unreasonable ideal, “I would love it if you could all be quiet” … really… a group of toddlers on a Friday afternoon!

Children are growing and developing through every experience, every day. Some of this growth is visible, but much of it is deep rooted. Affecting the ways they think about themselves and the world around them. It affects how they consider themselves to be measuring up, both in your eyes and anyone else’s whose opinion they think matters. And from this, they will be considering the degree of recognition and respect they feel they are deserving of. With concerns regarding child mental health increasingly on the rise, now more than ever we need to be mindful of the messages we are communicating and the opportunities we are offering to our children. And this starts far earlier than is often realised.

So, allow children to feel competent through the tasks they perform – and complete – for themselves. Don’t be afraid if this comes with some frustrations, give them the words to talk this through with you. Let them see the small victories, rather than becoming discouraged on root to a bigger goal and remind them of all the great things they have achieved when they put in that extra effort.

Build their confidence through the success you can offer them. Start small and notice the victories that are important to them, even if this is not quite where your focus may have been. Every time you draw their attention to these moments, you make these lasting memories more powerful.

And be careful of the value you unintentionally attach to things by the language you use. How you praise their efforts and achievements; how you refer to different people and yourself, even when you think a child is not listening, has a bearing on this. You are so influential to the ways their opinions and beliefs are forming, not just of the world around them but in the way they view themselves. So, be mindful of this as you support children to be competent, confident and full of self-worth.

Next time, as we continue our reflections of The Happy Child, we will consider the importance of self-esteem. But in the meantime, bring focus back to nurturing all of children’s growth and development with a Nurturing Childhoods Accreditation. Whether you are looking for a setting wide approach to reflective practice and active CPD or a more personalised approach with the Nurturing Childhoods Practitioner Accreditation, gain recognition for the nurturing practice you deliver. Through 12 online sessions through the year join me and hundreds of nurturing practitioners as together we really begin developing the potential of all children in their early years.

About the author:

As Founder of Nurturing Childhoods, Dr Kathryn Peckham is a passionate advocate for children’s access to rich and meaningful experiences throughout their foundational early years. Delivering online courses, training and seminars, she works with families and settings to identify and celebrate the impact of effective childhood experiences as preparation for all of life’s learning. An active campaigner for children, she consults on projects, conducts research for government bodies and contributes to papers launched in parliament. Through her consultancy and research she guides local councils, practitioners, teachers and parents all over the world in enhancing children’s experiences through the experiences they offer. A highly acclaimed author and member of parliamentary groups, Kathryn also teaches a Masters at the Centre for Research in Early Years.

Get in contact with Kathryn by emailing info@kathrynpeckham.co.uk

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