I did it! Young children’s academic self-concept in the year before school

Children’s self-awareness develops gradually. Starting with physical self-awareness in infancy, children become increasingly able to gather and understand information about themselves. When children are three and four years old, they often focus on observable characteristics like eye colour, but they also evaluate their own abilities in comparison with other children’s abilities: they know who is the quickest on the monkey bars and who can write their own name. The revised Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (2016) says that ‘children can be observed to intuitively assess their capabilities or achievement of tasks during informal learning opportunities, and repeated attempts to succeed at something new’ (p. 13).

In a recent study, Frank Niklas and I were interested in children’s evolving academic self-concept[i]. We tracked 97 four-year-old children attending four different early childhood programs in Melbourne during the year prior to starting school. The children were visited three times: near the start of the year, in the middle of the year, and towards the end of the year. Academic self-concept was assessed using coloured counters. After a relaxed conversation about starting school the following year, three counters were placed in a row (top to bottom, facing the child). A fourth counter was given to the child and told, ‘This one is you!’ To introduce the concept of comparing themselves with their peers, we explained that the counter at the top was the tallest child, and the counter at the bottom was the shortest child, and the counter in the middle represented the children in the middle. We asked children to place their counter in the spot that showed how tall they were compared with their friends. After checking for understanding, we asked ten questions that required the children to demonstrate how they perceived their academic competence compared with that of their peers. Questions focused on literacy or numeracy-related tasks that were assessed in a later test in the same set of assessment tasks. They included tasks like verbal counting, sharing lollies equally amongst their friends and ‘knowing what lots of words mean’.

We found that children had a general sense of academic self-concept throughout the year before school, suggesting that literacy and numeracy-specific self-concept emerges in school once these subject areas are specifically taught (and named). For the most part, the relationship between academic self-concept and actual achievement was not statistically significant. How well children reported they did was not related to how they actually did on the assessment tasks. Throughout the year, children over-rated their performance on the assessment tasks. This is a good outcome! Confidence and positive self-concept are important dispositions for learning.

The preschool years are an important time in the continuum of learning as children’s self-assessment changes from predominantly random to more precise. Assessing their own academic capabilities contributes to children’s emerging sense of self. Studies have shown that in school-aged children, academic self-concept and academic achievement go hand-in-hand. In early childhood programs, academic learning occurs during playful activities. For play-based programs to support learning, educators’ sensitivity to individual children’s academic self-concept is important. Supporting children’s perseverance so that each child experiences that ‘I did it!’ moment encourages positive attitudes to learning and positive academic self-concept.

[i] Thanks to Danielle Logan for assisting with preliminary data assessment and to Collette Tayler.

Caroline Cohrssen

Caroline Cohrssen is a Professor in Early Childhood Education at The University of New England in Armidale, NSW. As she is interested in children’s learning from birth to five years, her research encompasses the home learning environment as well as early childhood education and care settings. The implications for pre-service teacher education and in-service professional learning are also important to her. She has recently returned home to Australia after spending three years living and working in Hong Kong SAR.

3 thoughts on “I did it! Young children’s academic self-concept in the year before school”

    Maria Chatzigianni says:

    Happy to see that there is research interest around ‘self-concept’ and young children! I did my PhD (2008) on a similar topic (self-esteem) and the role of technology with very young children at the University of Melbourne!
    It is also interesting to see how young children unfortunately lose this ‘confidence’/positive disposition as they grow older.

    James says:

    Nice post Caroline!!

    Interesting findings! Couldn’t agree more on the importance of preschool learning.

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