What factors influence self development

Self-concept and self-image - two partners for healthy self-development

Thomas Künne, Frank Aufhammer, Heiko Frankenberg and Julius Kuhl


The terms self-concept and self-image often appear with different meanings in different disciplines. In this article we present the importance of both terms and their differences from our psychological point of view.How do children develop a stable and realistic self-concept? "we discuss why the self-concept does not develop without the self-image and vice versa. In addition, we want to devote ourselves to the question of what is called the"Self"Can understand a person. Because it is precisely this self with its scientifically researched functions that holds many educational options for action and is an important component in the development of a realistic self-concept.

We often speak of a child's self-concept, and it sounds like something tangible that can be protected, promoted, but also harmed. But what does self-concept actually mean? The self-concept is of course not a tangible object, but a child's idea of ​​himself (e.g. Haug-Schnabel / Krenz 2007). The child has terms for what he can do, what he likes or dislikes and what distinguishes him as a person, i.e. he has a concept of himself (Kuhl 2001). In most cases, children are able to give verbal information about themselves quite early on. For example, to the question: "What is your favorite food?" However, such individual characteristics do not actually describe a child's self, but only what it thinks about itself.

  • Collection of terms that describe the self
  • cognitive knowledge about yourself
  • Description of individual characteristics and skills or their listing
  • Getting to the heart of things, finding terms for something
  • Answers to questions like: How tall or old are you? What are you good at or not good at? What do you like to eat?
  • Feelings, experiences, needs
  • comprehensive holistic picture of oneself; Overall picture
  • Bringing together various aspects, even contradictions
  • felt, broad knowledge about oneself, which is based on experience
  • Answers to questions like: What moves you? What do you need? What have you seen? How do you feel?

Self-image and self-concept

First, let's see the difference between self-concept and even-picture consider (see Table 1): In general, the self-concept often insufficient to describe a person's self. The self-concept is a collection of terms that describe a person (Kuhl 2001). But we know that there is a lot that cannot be described in terms and words alone, e.g. feelings as an integral part of a person. In order to do justice to a person as a whole, i.e. in order to achieve a comprehensive picture It takes more than words to make of her. They say: a picture is worth a thousand words (Kuhl 2011). That is why we differentiate today in psychology between self-image and self-concept.

The self-image can integrate many experiences, feelings, needs, successes as well as failures (how a picture combines many details into a whole, which can then be "seen" as a whole in a flash). However, this self-image cannot be described as well as pure (conceptual) knowledge about oneself; it can often only be suggested, paraphrased or even just felt: You have a feeling of yourself. You could also say that your self-image is more than the sum of its parts (Kuhl 2011; Kuhl / Künne / Aufhammer 2011). A simple list of skills and traits - how a child can run, jump, swim, like pasta, have arms and legs - basically tells us very little about the person as a whole, as so many other people do. But if I combine these characteristics with a child I know, e.g. Max from my group, then the pure listing creates an overall picture including the corresponding feelings and memories.

This already includes a first point of contact for promoting self-image (see practical tip 1). Developmental psychological research has shown that parents who only describe their children with surface features cannot empathize with their child (Biebrich / Kuhl 2008). This means that they are less able to teach their child the ability to empathize with the inner states of another or their own (Fonagy / Gergely / Target 2007). On the other hand, those who do not get stuck on individual characteristics or terms, but can form a holistic "picture" of a child, give the child the feeling of being seen as a person. This feeling is very important for a child's development.

Practical tip 1: Form analogies and metaphors (cf. Martens / Kuhl 2004)

Anyone who wants to learn to form a holistic "picture" of children could, for example, literally imagine a picture of the child that fits the child well. Over time this will become easier and you will notice how your perception of the child changes. One such option would be to ask each child in your group one of the following questions:

"What kind of animal would I be if a fairy godmother turned me?"

"What kind of movie character would I be?"

"What kind of shop / store would I be?"

You can collect positive traits with the children on these questions, paint a picture for them, etc. You can make small connections over and over again in the context of day-to-day day-to-day care, eg "Peter could do that very well, he's as strong as an elephant ".

In the best case, the self-concept can describe individual aspects of the self-image quite well and realistically, i.e. I have no wrong ideas about myself because I do not overestimate or underestimate myself in various areas. Ideally, this happens by comparing self-concept and self-image, i.e. an exchange takes place between the two. Otherwise, the misjudgments mentioned can occur, as not all relevant information (such as experiences or feelings) are taken into account. For example, my grandma used to say "You can certainly build great things with building blocks!" and so filled my self-concept with information. Over time, however, I often find that my towers are always the first to collapse. If the exchange between self-concept and self-image succeeds, I would have to rethink my conscious self-concept in this aspect and take into account the experiences I have made in order to then perhaps say: "I enjoy building, but I still have to practice".

Such an integrative and mature achievement can basically only generate the self-image, because in contrast to the self-concept this can be positive and Bringing together negative sides of oneself, even if they seem contradictory at first glance (Kuhl / Künne / Aufhammer 2011). Thus, the self-image can both face and deal with criticism on the one hand and accept praise and successes on the other. The self-concept cannot integrate contradictions so well because it follows the laws of logic: Just as "A sentence can only be true or false", so in the world of thought of the self-concept a person can only have one or the other property.

Practical tip 2: error rate

Children make mistakes and that is also necessary for their development. Because they learn a lot from the feedback they get from their environment. So the crucial question is how we deal with the child's behavior. Flat-rate sentences from adults, such as "Have you already ...?", "I told you!" or "You mustn't make mistakes here!" inhibit children's natural curiosity to try out new behaviors.

The feedback to the children should always be addressed to the specific behavior and explained. One also speaks of the separation of person and behavior, i.e. not the whole person is bad, but the behavior was inadequate in the situation. The important thing is to clarify why the behavior is not appropriate. The criticism should also always be placed in a broad context: What can the child learn from it, how does it feel and how can it act next time? The focus should therefore be on reflecting on the learning experience from a child's perspective.

Despite the special advantages of the self-image, the conscious self-concept is also very important: The self-concept serves to bring the self-image to the point again and again. Everything that I can condense into one term and express in one word brings an increase in clarity. It is good when a child not only has a vague feeling of what they can and cannot do so well, but can also put it into words. The linguistically gifted mind reads details or even a résumé from the self-image (Kuhl 2001).

For example, I can talk about myself or make a realistic assessment of myself ("Can I do that or maybe not yet?"). This assessment should be based on a feeling about myself that does justice to my entire person, i.e. many situations and experiences I have experienced are taken into account. It is not possible to consider so much information at the same time with the mind: This is where terms and words quickly reach their limits. But with the self-image one can "feel" very, very many experiences without having to be aware of all the situations.

This holistic feeling about oneself arises in the development of a child in relationships with other people and in life situations in which the child receives feedback about his behavior from the environment. The relationship experiences relevant for self-growth go back to infancy, when mother-child interactions constitute the first forms of relationship and enable the infant to provide initial feedback about his or her behavior (Fonagy / Gergely / Target 2007). Over time, all of these experiences are saved and make up my wealth of experience. So all experiences that are important and meaningful to me shape my self-image over time.

Children also start learning early on that another child (or themselves) cannot just cheeky or just cautious, but that such opposing characteristics may apply to the same person. We speak of integration, i.e. the merging of contradicting information (e.g. dad is relaxed, dad is stressed, but he is my - well-meaning - person of trust).

On the other hand, in life we ​​look for simplistic rules like "what is right and what is wrong?" This is about a facilitating and unambiguous either / or decision of the logical mind, which can be applied to as many situations as possible. This general validity across many situations (seduces) leads to the fact that the mind always tends to neglect situational boundary conditions: "This child is unbearable" could be such a contribution of my mind. I forget to differentiate in this case and to say in which situations which behaviors of the child seem difficult to bear and what that may have to do with me.

One can pay attention to the boundary conditions when one goes from the world of concepts to the world the images and felt experiences changes. We are also talking about a kind of background music that softly accompanies us, but often remains hidden from the sheer everyday stress. If you listen to this background music a little, you can get a holistic "picture" of yourself and other people (see practical tip 1). We call it this world Self a person and, in psychological research, combine it with a psychological system (Kuhl 2001, 2011), which with its background music - i.e. its functional mechanisms - significantly shapes a person's self-image.

A little digression: what is the self?

The Self is formally described as a very large information store for the experiences that have personal relevance and give me information about myself and my history, my skills and wishes, my feelings and needs (Kuhl 2011). In addition, the self has so-called self-competencies (Künne / Sauerhering / Strehlau 2011), which are particularly important in order to be able to learn throughout life, to find one's way in our fast-moving times and also to be able to further develop one's own self-image. These self-competencies include skills such as being able to motivate yourself, even if you don't feel like it at first, or being able to calm yourself down in stressful moments. These skills are called self-competences because they work in the course of development without the help of someone else, i.e. I can calm down on my own when nobody is around.

In our research we were able to describe and examine many important characteristics of the self that underlie these self-competencies (Storch / Kuhl 2011). In the following we want to take a closer look at which options for action can be derived from these characteristics and support a child's healthy self-development.

Practical implications for everyday educational life

Since the self with its self-competencies plays an important role in the further development of one's own self-image, we want to present practical aspects that on the one hand activate the self with its functions and on the other hand support the development of a differentiated self-image and the exchange with the self-concept. To do this, we pick out three characteristics of the self and describe options for action for everyday pedagogical life on these three levels.

Level 1: feelings and emotion regulation

Feelings serve as a kind of navigational aid in our life, i.e. feelings help us to make the most favorable decisions for ourselves (Storch / Kuhl 2011). The better the individual experiences so far are linked with the feelings of that time, the more clearly feelings act as a "navigational aid" in the search in the infinite expanses of the personal world of experience (the self). One can thus well imagine that one's own spectrum of behavior can become more flexible and creative, the greater the emotional wealth of experience of the self.

In the development of a child, however, there are many experiences that can overwhelm the self, which is still in the maturing phase, due to the not yet so broad spectrum of experience. Here the child is dependent on outside support from a caregiver. The following methods are suitable:

A first option is to feed back the emotion exhibited by a child or to act appropriately. An example: A child is afraid of slipping and the teacher says: "I understand that you are afraid". If a child falls and hurts and expresses their pain, one reaction can be to respond to the pain with blows and comfort.

Small children often find it difficult to express their own emotional states in response to a question about their emotional state. The following exercises can help here:

  • Conversation, e.g. with hand puppets, about children's feelings, which takes the place of direct questioning of the child. Such an approach creates a certain distance to the feeling, so that the child is not overwhelmed by it.
  • Another support is the submission of emotional images, which the children can also design themselves. Here the children have the opportunity to contribute their various experiences and their knowledge of feelings. A playful variant would be the following: one child represents an emotion and the other children guess it.
  • Reading and looking at picture books with stories of emotions (see literature tips) together shows the character of and dealing with emotions and stimulates the imagination.

Reflection questions:

  • How do I deal with my feelings as an adult? How do I react to the group and to individual children?
  • In between, consciously put yourself in an "observer position": How am I doing right now?

Level 2: The role of the body

Just as feelings serve as a navigation aid, our body also gives us important information and impulses for our everyday actions. Small children only experience themselves as self-effective in an activity and learn something about their behavior through the feedback that can be felt in the body (Zimmer et al. 2005).

Feedback, which contains not only linguistic information but also body perceptions, directly strengthens the self-image.Exercises that directly or indirectly involve the body can be beneficial here (see also psychomotor as a method).

An important step is to first establish a basic form of body awareness. This can be done, for example, on a barefoot path or by patting each other's backs in two-person exercises (here there are pictures of different weather conditions or kneading dough on your back).

For the promotion of self-image and self-concept, the exchange of experiences is important, which takes place in an appreciative framework and no experiences - no matter how strange - are underestimated as wrong or inappropriately: For example, it can be that children from different Cultures have very different perceptions or, against their background, are not yet ready to open up in such an exercise (Keller 2011).

The body awareness also includes a good complement to the above-mentioned exercises on feelings, if the mentioned feelings can be associated with body awareness, for example. Feelings could be drawn in a body outline and then differences between the children discussed, always with the question: "How does that feel about you?" You can also use a mirror for this, in which you can look at your feelings and try out what different feelings look like. In addition, the mirror has the advantage that it directs attention to oneself and at the same time sets it up picture from oneself shows.

Reflection questions:

  • Which perceptions and signals do I perceive from my body? How do situations differ?
  • How could I use my body signals for everyday daycare?
  • How could I take more account of the children's body perceptions in everyday life? At which points can I combine feedback with body perceptions?

Level 3: integration skills

Another very important characteristic of the self is its ability to integrate, i.e. information that is contradicting at first glance is brought together. The integration includes cognitive, emotional and physical components and, so to speak, forms the framework around the aspects mentioned so far. Above we have already given an example of an integrative service, namely that a child has another person with positive and learns to perceive negative traits (Kuhl 2011).

This ability can be strengthened by looking at the positive in contact with the child and respects the negative traits of other people. A typical expression of a child could be: "Max, he always annoys everyone! I don't like him". At this point the adult can ask whether that really is always that's how it is or whether Max has nice sides too. Certainly, generalizations in childhood offer a certain support and create clarity, but in the long term lead to a rather one-sided view of things.

Reflection questions:

  • How do I deal with general judgments about other people myself?
  • Do I differentiate between a first impulse, such as "Man, I can't stand Karl", and a reflected level, what exactly bothers me about the behavior of the other and why?

The integrative ability also affects the own person, i.e. the child has an overview of his strengths and weaknesses. A balance between a critical look at and good self-care for oneself is important in order to prevent overestimation of oneself or a loss of self-esteem. Here you could make a scale with weights together with children. There is one side with weights, which I am particularly good at, and the other side, which I still have to practice. The other children in the group are invited to do more for each child - suitable for the child - Adding weights and also making sure that the scales do not lose their balance. It is important to emphasize that both sides are equal and that both positive and negative weights get their place. The results can then also be discussed against the background of feelings and body perceptions or combined with the above exercises. Over time, the number of aspects considered can be increased as the children have expanded their integrative skills.


The exchange between self-image and self-concept is central to healthy self-development (cf. Künne et al. 2011). Because this ensures that the self-concept is constantly compared with real experiences that are stored in the self-image. The self represents the basis of the self-image. The functioning of the self has been proven in psychological research (Kuhl 2011) and offers approaches to support. In conclusion, it can be stated that a stable and real self-concept can only develop on the basis of a differentiated self-image.

Literature tips

Kog, M./Moons, J./Depondt, L .: A suitcase full of feelings. Erkelenz: Vocational college of the Heinsberg district 2007

Kreul, H./Geisler, D .: Me and my feelings. Bindlach: Loewe 2011

Kuhl, J./Müller-Using, S./Solzbacher, C./Warnecke, W. (Ed.): Education through relationship. Strengthening self-competence - developing talents. Freiburg: Herder 2011

More time for children e.V. (Ed.): Kluge Emotions. Family guide to promote emotional intelligence. Turnhout: Proost 2005

Storch, M./Kuhl, J .: The power from the self. Seven PsychoGyms for the unconscious. Bern: Huber 2011


Biebrich, R./Kuhl, J .: Reflective ability and self-development. In: R. Sachse (Ed.): Theory and Practice of Clarification-Oriented Psychotherapy. Göttingen: Hogrefe 2008

Fonagy, P./Gergely, G./Target, M .: The parent-infant dyad and the construction of the subjective self. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2007, 48, pp. 288-328

Haug-Schnabel, G./Krenz, A .: Developmental Psychology Basics. In: Krenz, A. (Ed.): Psychology for educators. Berlin: Cornelsen Scriptor 2007

Keller, H .: The Illusion of Autonomy: Childhood in Germany between Demands and Reality. Submitted manuscript. University of Osnabrück 2011

Künne, T./Kuhl, J./Frankenberg, H./Völker, S .: The importance of individual support in primary school from the perspective of personality psychology / PSI theory. In: Solzbacher, C./Müller-Using, S./Doll, I. (Ed.): Strengthening resources! Individual support as a challenge for the primary school. Kronach: Carl Link 2011

Künne, T./Sauerhering, M./Strehlau, A .: Promotion of self-competence as a basis for early childhood learning. A (further) requirement for elementary educational practice !? (2011). http://www.kindergartenpaedagogik.de/ 2208.html (21.09.2011)

Kuhl, J .: Motivation and Personality. Göttingen: Hogrefe 2001

Kuhl, J .: Findings from the exploration of the self. Psychology Lessons 2011, Volume 44

Kuhl, J./Künne, T./Aufhammer, F .: Those who feel accepted learn better: promoting talent and personal skills. In: Kuhl, J./Müller-Using, S./Solzbacher, C./Warnecke, W. (Ed.): Education through relationship. Strengthening self-competence - developing talents. Freiburg: Herder 2011

Kuhl, J./Völker, S .: Development and Personality. In: Keller, H. (Ed.): Textbook of developmental psychology. Bern: Huber 1998

Martens, J.U./Kuhl, J .: The art of self-motivation. Practical use of new findings from motivation research. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer 2004

Storch, M./Kuhl, J .: The power from the self. Seven PsychoGyms for the unconscious. Bern: Huber 2011

Zimmer, R./Tieste, K./zur Lage, I./Vieker, N .: Handbook of Sensory Perception. Basics of a holistic education. Freiburg: Herder 2005

Contact the authors

Lower Saxony Institute for Early Childhood Education and Development
Research Center for Talent Promotion - Prof. Dr. Julius Kuhl
Attention Thomas Künne
Seminarstrasse 20th
49074 Osnabrück
Email: [email protected]