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How children develop self-awareness

As a mum and a teacher, I'm always interested in learning more about how children's brains develop and how this impacts their learning and behaviour. I have a two-year-old and two older children (aged 7 and 9). I have recently noticed how quickly my youngest is becoming more and more independent and self-aware. It seems to have happened right before my eyes, one minute he was a baby who needed help with everything and now he is a little person, making his own decisions and telling me all about his day.  

So, if you've wondered how your children seem to grow up so fast, and you're interested in learning more about how they develop self-awareness, keep reading! In this article, I'll summarise and explain Philippe Rochat's Five Levels of Self-Awareness (sometimes, confusingly, referred to as his six stages of self-awareness).

Whatever, you call it, I think his research is fascinating and understanding it can help you recognise the intricate stages of your children's emotional and cognitive evolution. 

Level 0: Confusion  

This represents the most basic form of self-awareness, often called level 0. At this stage, there is not only a lack of recognition of a reflection in a mirror, but also an unawareness of the mirror's presence altogether! The reflected image is thought to be part of the surroundings rather than a reflection of it. Have you ever witnessed a bird unintentionally collide with a window? This is why! Fortunately, studies have shown that humans skip this stage altogether. Even at birth, babies can differentiate between their own touch and others, so they already have some, albeit very basic, sense of self. The inclusion of this stage is why some refer to his theory as 6, rather than 5 stages or levels.  

Level 1: Differentiated Self 

From birth, babies can differentiate themselves from their surroundings. Research shows they quickly understand that their own body is different to their environment. This can be seen when a baby reaches for objects around them. Doing tummy time in front of a mirror can be effective at this stage as the moving images they'll see on the mirror will be a welcome distraction from the full body workout their muscles are experiencing! Remember their vision is still blurry as their focal range is limited to 20-30cm so they will need to be laying close to a baby-safe mirror to be able to see anything clearly. At this stage, they still have no sense that the reflection they see has anything to do with them. Despite this, the movements may catch their attention as they notice a changing scene reflected in the mirror.

Level 2: Situationally Aware Self 

Around 2 months old, babies develop a situational awareness of themselves and their environment. This means they not only recognise the difference between themselves and the environment but they also have a sense of how their body is situated relative to that environment. You'll notice around this age that your baby begins to reciprocate your facial expressions - they may return your smile or stick out their tongue in response to yours. This social back and forth shows their understanding of their presence in the world alongside others. Make the most of this precious developmental stage by spending plenty of time with your baby looking directly at you as you play and interact. Copying their movements and narrating what they are doing is a lovely way to begin.

Level 3: Identification 

Between 18 months and 2 years, children begin to develop the understanding that the baby looking back at them is them! Rochat tested this theory by surreptitiously placing a Post-it note on the children's forehead before asking them to look in a mirror. On seeing their reflections, children who had reached this stage, reached for their heads to remove the sticky note, whereas others reached for the mirror or ignored it completely.  

For parents, meeting this milestone often coincides with an explosion in their child's language skills. Cognitive scientist, Elizabeth Bates, wrote that language demands, “a theory of the self as distinct from other people, and a theory of the self from the point of view of one’s conversational partners,”  

Playing games in front of a mirror is a great way to support your child's development at this stage. Singing songs with actions, learning body parts or having tea parties with toys in front of a mirror all help to cement the idea that the 'baby' in the mirror is them!

Level 4: Permanence  

The time between 2 and 4 is developmentally interesting. Children often appear to have grasped that the person they see in the mirror is them while also sometimes referring to the person they see by name rather than saying "me". Indeed, Rochat writes, it's not unusual for children of this age to "still oscillate between an awareness of the self and an awareness of seeing someone else facing them,”.  

Looking at past photos or videos is a brilliant way to nurture this understanding while also helping your child to understand that the image they see is still theirs even though they may be younger, be wearing different clothes or be pictured in a different location.  

Try making a photo book together as you explore past pictures together. It'll be a lovely keepsake for them in the future and they'll love to try cutting and sticking with your help.

Level 5: Meta-self-awareness (self-consciousness) 

From around 4 years old, children have a secure understanding that the person they see in the mirror is them. They also become aware that what they see in front of them is also seen by others and more than that, they recognise that what they think of themselves may not be the same as what others think of them. This realisation can explain why some children appear to be shy or hesitant in social situations. Self-consciousness has arrived! 

As children develop a more sophisticated understanding of themselves, they also grasp the concept of categories and labels, including gender, age, and appearance. They become increasingly aware of social comparisons and may experience emotions such as pride or shame based on these comparisons.   As parents, we play a pivotal role in fostering our children's self-esteem, emphasizing their unique qualities and encouraging them to embrace diversity in themselves and others. Knowing that developmentally our children are experiencing these thoughts, possibly for the very first time, helps us to support and guide them.  

As they grow older and move towards adolescence, they will reflect on their thoughts, feelings, and experiences more and more. They will become capable of introspection and self-evaluation, a process that continues into adulthood and, as many of us know, is something that can have a huge impact on our levels of self-confidence.  

I hope my brief explanation of Philippe Rochat's Five Levels of Self-Awareness has given you some helpful insights into your children's developmental journey. It's a never-ending process of self-discovery but by understanding and embracing these stages, I hope it enables you to feel more confident to guide them at each step helping to nurture their emotional intelligence and self-esteem. 

Let me know what stage your child is in right now


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