Portrait of a Learner 4-8

Systems Change

Factor Connections

Hover to see how factors connect to Identity. Then click connected factors to explore strategies related to multiple factors.

Identity development is the process through which individuals develop a sense of self and establish a unique understanding of who they are. Identity underlies how individuals interact with the world. This process starts at birth, peaks at adolescence, and continues through adulthood. A few common aspects of Identity include race, ethnicity, gender, cultural background, and disability status. In middle childhood, students gain a more complex understanding of social categories and begin to form social identities. During this time, young learners possess the essential skills for making meaning of these social identities and have increased interactions with peers and educators that contribute to Identity development.

Main Ideas

Although every aspect of identity may develop in different ways, young learners start noticing (and asking about) similarities and differences between individuals from early in life. Parents and family members play an important role in helping children learn about their Identities: passing down cultural traditions, answering questions, and discussing constructs like race, gender, and disability. Although parents from historically and systematically excluded ethnic and racial backgrounds are more likely to discuss race with their children than white parents (a process called racial socialization), even in the absence of explicit discussion young children typically have a sense of their own racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender Identity. In addition, there are two key Identity-building behaviors that can help individuals acquire self-relevant information and develop their Identity:

  • Self-presentation: Individuals present themselves in a variety of ways, from changing their appearance to experimenting with different hobbies and activities. When individuals receive feedback on these presentations from those around them, they can choose to maintain or alter their chosen identities in light of this input. When it comes to students with learning disabilities or ADHD who choose to present in ways that adhere more closely to societal norms, this is referred to as “masking” or “camouflaging,” and it can cause difficulty with Self Regulation and a student's Sense of Belonging.
  • Social Comparison: Individuals often look to those around them to contextualize their own Identities. Through this process, individuals can gain an understanding of who they are in comparison to others.

Just as students can explore self-presentation and social comparison at school, social media can also provide opportunities for early adolescents to present and explore their individual identities. Similar to school settings, social media can be supportive (for example, allowing students to access communities they may not have access to in-person) but it can also have negative effects on emotional well-being due to social comparisons.

Because identity is intersectional, it is made up of many factors that combine to form our sense of self. These aspects of Identity develop through life experiences, as learners explore and become invested in different aspects of their Identities. Therefore, as young learners transition to middle school, aspects of Identity can continue to develop, shift, and intersect. In addition, although individuals can feel that some aspects of their Identity are more important or central than others, different environments and experiences may lead some aspects of their Identity to feel more salient than others in that context.

Finally, it is important to recognize that many people have concealed/non-apparent identities that may be stigmatized, such as physical or mental health, family circumstances, or learning disabilities. These non-apparent identities can be isolating, and can impact an individual's Sense of Belonging, Social Supports, and health. Students with learning disabilities or from families that experience socio economic hardship may experience labeling, separation, and stereotyping in school, which may reduce a learner's Sense of Belonging and academic growth. Because we often cannot see all aspects of a learner's Identity, it is important for educators to strive not to make assumptions about students' Identities, and seek to create an environment where all students feel valued and have the space to grow and shine.

When educational contexts are designed to promote a Sense of Belonging and perceived Social Supports for all students, Identity can play a positive role in Learner Mindset, Motivation, and academic achievement. For example, strong racial/ethnic Identity and role models with a shared Identity can help buffer learners from the impact of stereotypes and discrimination. However, the interaction between a student's Identity and environment can lead to negative learning outcomes in less supportive environments. When students do not see themselves represented in curricular or instructional practices, and/or when the home environment and school environment emphasize different ways of knowing, this can create an environment that does not support a Sense of Belonging, leading to reduced Motivation and self-efficacy. Further, through conscious or unconscious bias, educators' perceptions of their students can affect learning outcomes: for instance, interpreting identical actions as more aggressive from students of some identities (e.g., Black boys), or unconsciously signaling to students that they may not belong in a domain due to stereotypes (e.g., having lower expectations for girls in math).

Because negative learning outcomes are often a byproduct of the interaction between an unsupportive environment and a marginalized Identity (or Identities), this means that educators have the opportunity to improve students' learning conditions and well-being by creating an environment where all students feel seen, represented, and respected. In addition, educators can provide learners opportunities for positive Identity development by allowing students to consider, share, and celebrate aspects of their Identity.

Learn More

  • Identity matters: A resource exploring how parents and teachers understand Identity development in young children, and the role this may play in learning.
  • Promoting equity at school: A resource exploring how educators can promote equity in their classrooms via intersectional pedagogy
  • Motivation in STEM: A resource exploring how gender biases can lead to Motivation differences in pursuing STEM learning.
  • Intersectional Identity negotiation: A resource exploring how young immigrant children navigate their intersectional identities.
  • Supporting the transgender community: A resource exploring how schools can support transgender students, parents, and staff members

View Measures and References