Permission granted by the National Head Start Association to herein publish the following article originally published in the Fall 1998 issue of Children and Families, the magazine of the National Head Start Association.

"Giving Kids a Good Emotional Start -- What Head Start parents and teachers should know to ensure emotionally healthy children"
By Donald DeMoulin, Associate Professor, University of Tennessee-Martin

"I hate me! I hate my name! Nobody likes me! Nobody listens to me! Nobody plays with me! The world is not fun!"

Sadly, many children begin their learning days in tears, yelling things like this, desperate for attention and reinforcement. Head Start parents, teachers, and other staff are positioned to prevent this from happening.

Defining Self-Concept

Self-concept is a powerful factor in developing the temperament of all children, but especially those who express themselves in this way. Self-concept is the emotional sum of the positive and negative feelings that we attach to our life’s experiences. In a sense, it is a personal composite of ourselves.

Self-concept has two elements, self-efficacy and self-esteem. The first, self-efficacy, is our sensitivity toward a task and our motivation, confidence, and ability to control the stress associated with that task. Self-esteem, the other element, is our perception of self and the weight we place on how people who are important to us perceive us.

Our experiences at home from ages 2 through 6 form the baseline of self-efficacy and self-esteem. This means that encounters with parents, guardians, extended families, teachers, neighbors, and even television help form self-concept. As we grow, our self-concept tends to stabilize somewhat. But if left unattended, it can eventually bring on depression, suicide, rebellion, and anti-moral behaviors.

Children with healthy self-concepts have accepted themselves. They are more capable of accepting others and also perceive themselves to be accepted by others. They feel independent, secure, valued, and loved, because they feel that they are of interest and value to others. Children with healthy self-concepts are confident, have an intrinsic desire to learn, and are more able to tolerate tension. Because of this, they are able to achieve in school, grow into productive members of society, and accept responsibility more readily.

On the other hand, children with unhealthy self-concepts are uncertain about themselves and feel rejected, unwanted, and unloved. Because of this, they feel out of touch with reality and that the world is not a fun place to live. This leaves these children feeling insecure and dependent on others. Fearing failure and incompetence, they often have difficulty accepting responsibility. They demonstrate signs of apathy and anxiousness, often being prone to academic failure. This may lead to juvenile delinquency.

Proper renewal measures can be taken to prevent this, but it would be best for the children and for everyone concerned if the children developed healthy self-concepts from the beginning. Head Start is the place to do this.

Linking Skill Level to Self-Concept

Basically, children begin Head Start with good attitudes (self-efficacy) and good opinions about themselves (self-esteem). But if these two elements of self-concept are not positively reinforced, they tend to deteriorate. The situation may worsen if the children experience reading difficulties when they enter public school. This causes frustration toward learning, which could destroy any enjoyment for school that the children may otherwise experience, and which may snowball further, leading to a negative attitude toward teachers, other children, and school.

This relationship between skill level and self-concept is especially pronounced when it comes to reading. When either is dramatically low or high, the other usually follows the same path. It has not yet been determined if poor reading skills cause poor self-concept, or if the reverse is true. But it has been proven that the further behind grade level children are in reading, the more difficult it is to correct and re-establish positive attitudes toward learning. This causes further weakening of the already fragile self-concepts of children who are behind grade level.

Impacting Learning

Since the 1970s research on effective schools has revealed that developing a healthy self-concept in children is vital in educating the whole child. Data also suggests that the impact of children’s self-concept on achievement is far more powerful than their innate ability. This means that self-concept is a better predictor of success than even I.Q. scores. This wonderful opportunity to enhance a child’s achievement may be lost if self-concept is not properly developed as early as second grade.

An improperly developed self-concept may cause reading levels to decline and the learning process to become repetitive and boring. Three out of four students in fourth grade cannot meet suggested standards in reading. In turn, these declining reading and writing skills often lead to frustration, which can then lead to a further decline in a child's self-concept.

An undeveloped self-concept also can slow a child’s maturation and increase the possibility of holding him in the current grade level. (On average, it costs $5,216 to hold back a child one grade.) With possibilities like these, it is imperative that Head Start parents, teachers, and other staff use all means possible to ensure the development of healthy self-concepts in children.

Using a Personalized Program

Literature and an individualized approach are two of these means. Research on using personalization to motivate learning has been conducted with positive results since the late 1970s. But there has not been an affordable way to provide a comprehensive, personalized program to masses of children until now. The "I LIKE ME!" program is that way.

"I LIKE ME!" is one of many valuable initiatives of Kindergartners Count, a non-profit organization that helps children use literature to develop a healthy self-concept. The program is now available for kindergarten, but it will soon include preschool through grade three. This means that Head Start will be able to feel the impact of "I LIKE ME!" that thousands nationally already feel.

"I LIKE ME!" is a 12-week program that is available to Head Start programs. It has at its centerpiece a personalized reader that includes powerful "I" statements as positive inducements for learning and achievement. It uses the child's first name, the first names of two of her friends, and the names of the child’s school, teacher, and principal. The purpose of this personalized approach is to allow children to become heroes in their own lives, to develop healthy self-concepts, and to reinforce the reading processes. Through this, a positive sensitivity toward self and learning will be fostered.

The program provides an understanding of inclusion and tolerance, delivers anti-drug and anti-gang messages, and joins home, school, and the community as partners. It also helps instill in children an early love of reading, while improving reading comprehension and recall. Plus, it demonstrates to children that they are important and can become successful.

Teachers are provided a 12-week daily lesson plan that they can integrate into the existing curriculum and through which they can encourage parent involvement. But teachers are free to utilize the "I LIKE ME!" program in the best way that suits their children’s needs.

"I LIKE ME!" operates on the premises that all children are precious and deserving of attention, that all children can learn, and that all children possess the capacity for good. We must assume that there are no bad children, but instead children who may do bad things.

Counting the Results

Results of implementing the program for 12 weeks demonstrate that "I LIKE ME!" significantly improved self-concept development in elementary school students. The children, their teachers, and their parents all felt or witnessed this. Classroom management problems were reduced by 40 percent, and reading comprehension greatly improved in 22 percent of the students. Teachers also reported an increase in parent involvement and home-school relationships.

The main emphasis of "I LIKE ME!" is to strengthen children's self-concepts through literacy and their attitude toward learning. But it also aims to enhance reading enjoyment and improve reading comprehension, recall, and writing skills. Moreover, the program sets out to build positive interactions between parent and child, teacher and child, and parent and teacher, while increasing school and community partnerships and involvement.

To achieve this, we need to guarantee that children have positive learning experiences. Self-concept and reading and writing issues must become the focal point right from the start. Head Start is the place to do this. Together, parents, staff, and community can maximize children’s opportunities to read and write at grade level—with a positive self-concept. Then children may be able to say with a smile, "I like me! I like my name! People like me! People listen to me! The world is a fun place!"

[author bio]

Dr. Donald F. DeMoulin, has been an elementary school teacher, principal, and district superintendent. He is recognized internationally for promoting reading and self-concept development in elementary school children and is a professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Tennessee-Martin.

[sidebar 1]

Why Head Start Will Like "I Like Me!"

"I LIKE ME!" is available to your Head Start program. Kindergartners Count, Inc. will assist local Head Start agencies to network with other organizations to provide a personalized "I LIKE ME!" book to all the children. This would begin the process of reading, writing, and developing healthy self-concepts in the children’s critical developmental years. The children could then become a part of the ongoing 12-week program each year until the end of third grade. Through this seamless approach, children would enter fourth grade with healthy self-concepts and the ability to read and write at grade level. With the assistance of local business and civic sponsorships, all of this could be at no cost to your Head Start program.

For more I Like Me! information, telephone (785) 273-1765. E-mail inquiries may be sent to:

But there is no reason to wait to do something until the program gets on its feet for Head Start-age children. Starting today, we should improve the chances of happiness and success for our Head Start children by improving their chances of developing a healthy self-concept.

We can begin by listening to children and spending time with them. Children gauge their importance by the amount of time their parents give them. We also can show them how much they are appreciated. Appreciation and love are things that children need to make them feel important.

And finally, follow these 10 easy steps. Step 1 is to read to the children daily. Then repeat that step nine more times. According to the Department of Education, reading aloud to children is the most important part of reading development. So, read, read, read to your children.

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