“We found that by as young as five years of age, self-esteem is established strongly enough to be measured using sensitive techniques,” said lead study author Dario Cvencek, research scientist at University of Washington.
The study conducted in January 2016 used a newly developed test to assess implicit self-esteem in more than 200 children up to five-year-old.
“Some scientists consider preschoolers too young to have developed a positive or negative sense about themselves,” study co-author Andrew Meltzoff from University of Washington noted.
Until now, no measurement tool has been able to detect self-esteem in preschool-aged children as the existing self-esteem tests require the cognitive or verbal talk.
Researchers created a Preschool Implicit Association Test (PSIAT), to measure how strongly children feel positively about themselves.
To make the task appropriate for preschoolers, a mix of 234 boys and girls of five-year-old from the Seattle area, replaced words related to the self (“me,” “not me”) with objects. They used small unfamiliar flags, and where told about “yours” and “not yours”.
Using buttons on a computer, children responded to a series of “me” and “not me” flags, using words and pressing the buttons.
The results showed that the five-year-old associated themselves more with “good” than with “bad”, and this was equally pronounced in both girls and boys.
A gender identity task assessed the children’s sense of whether they are a boy or a girl, called a “gender in-group preference”.
Children with high self-esteem and strong sense of gender identity showed preferences for members of their own gender.
“Self-esteem appears to play a critical role in how children form various social identities. Our findings underscore the importance of the first five years as a foundation for life,” Cvencek said.
The study was published in the journal Experimental Social Psychology.