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'I'm having a bad hair day' - how self talk develops and affects our self esteem

Tall, short, round, big, little -  all adjectives describing what we see however these descriptions take on additional meanings when we talk about ourselves and our physical appearance. How we think about ourselves and the self talk that we use affects our self esteem.

This month's blog is going to look at how children develop self talk and the link between our ideas and how this can shape how we think about ourselves. Having ideas and identifying emotions rely on developing good language skills. This then links to our role in supporting children to develop their self esteem and emotional resilience through the way they think and talk about themselves. 

How self talk develops our actions and thinking

When you observe young 3 - 4 year old children playing alone you often see  them chatting to themselves about what they are doing and what they might do next.

When playing together, you often see them talking aloud at the same time in parallel self-commentaries or monologues rather than having a genuine social dialogue or discussion (Whitebread & Basilio 2012). 

Vygotsky believes children talk to themselves during play, or when facing challenging situations, because it helps them to guide their actions and thinking.

This ability to use language, to intentionally control one’s own thoughts and behaviours represents the emergence of what he referred to as ‘Higher Psychological Functions’ (Whitebread & Basilio 2012).  Vygotsky sees this as a fundamental milestone in human development. 

Talking aloud progresses on to inner speech or silent thought. Those thoughts that emerge for us as adults as 'I've forgotten to turn the oven off' or 'I'm going to be late'. And also 'I really must go on a diet' and 'I must do more exercise'; or, alternatively 'I feel good today'.

Recent studies in neuroscience suggest our thoughts create our emotional states. How positive thoughts create positive emotions - proving what practitioners in early years have known all along! 

Vygotsky's own thinking is that this inner speech gives children a way of taking control of their own actions and thoughts by using language to direct these. This then means that as supportive adults we can promote positive self talk and enhance self esteem.

Reflecting on practice

How can we help children to develop thinking about themselves?

As with many areas, the roots lie in attachment. Children's language and emotional resilience develops through bonds with caregivers, so putting personal, social and emotional development at the heart of how you work with children can support this. Strong attachment creates the foundations for emotional resilience.

How do you nurture children and what support can you offer to parents about creating these strong bonds? Talking about emotions as they happen “he looks unhappy, I wonder what’s wrong” helps children to develop their emotional vocabulary. How do you help children learn the language they need to talk about how they are feeling?

How do you talk about yourself around children? How do you describe yourself? What you say is helping to shape children's perception of the world and themselves. Reflecting on the way you talk about things and describe the world gives children a model for their thoughts.

Action songs and rhymes can give children opportunities to try out actions and explore movement. Exploring physical and sensory movement can give children a feeling of what their body can do, as well as help them to learn new words (pushing, pulling, stretching, reaching, turning, jumping etc).

This can give them ways to talk about what they are doing and how their body moves. It also helps give children confidence in their abilities and the possibilities of movement, as well as helping to expand their language skills.

What and how do you praise and give children feedback? Praising children for the skills they have and the effort they make can build their self confidence and self esteem. Where feedback is specific they know what they have done right and what they can do to build on this e.g. I like the way you stretched up and made yourself really big there or ‘great, you gave him a turn’.

You can find out more from the Talking Point website and I CAN websites. 

To summarise

Supporting children's language to enable self talk helps them to develop their inner voice that will help them to problem solve and also structure the thoughts they have about themselves. Positive self talk creates a model for children that can develop their emotional resilience and help shape their self esteem.  

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents.  Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant. 


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