psychology

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Child development: gradual change or series of stages

Child development is an important aspect of our life. There is new research being carried out on child’s growth. To be able to answer this question, the definition of child development will be first explained. Next, the theories on gradual change, also known as continuous process, will be discussed. Then, the series of stages’ theories will be explained and finally theories on both continuous and discontinuous processes will be examined.

Child development is usually defined as the different changes - biological, psychological, cognitive, social and emotional - that occur from infancy to adulthood. The nurturing of a child normally defines the type of adult the child will become in the future. Many theories describing child development have been postulated in the last century. Some theorists such as Albert Bandura and John Watson believe that development is a continuous course while others such as Freud and Jean Piaget think that development occurs in a series of stages. However, researchers such as Fischer and Bidell suggest that child development is both continuous and discontinuous.

In support to continuous development, Albert Bandura (1977) proposed the social learning theory. His theory includes also the child’s observations, imitations of role models and trying out new things, i.e. modelling known as imitation or observational learning (Berk 2009, p19). Bandura (1977) is of the opinion that children imitate what they see, hear and remember from their surroundings, for example, the child who angrily hits a playmate in the same way that he has been punished at home. Bandura’s (1992, 2001) social cognitive theory places a strong emphasis on how children think about themselves and other people. Children become more selective with the things they imitate, i.e. from feedback; children develop their own belief in their abilities to successes (Berk, 2009, p 20). Another argument for continuous development is behaviourism. Psychologist John Watson (1913) suggested the behaviourism theory which focuses on directly observable events. He carried out an experiment on presenting a white rat to an 11 months old baby called Albert. As soon as the infant touched the rat, Watson made a sharp and loud sound scaring Albert. Later the baby, being afraid, did not want to touch the rat again. Although behaviourism and social learning theory had an impact on practices with children, they offer a narrow view of important environmental influences and also they underestimate children’s development (Berk 2009, p20).

However, regarding discontinuous development, Freud created his psychosexual theory. In his theory, the three parts of personality, i.e. id, ego and superego become integrated during the five stages i.e. oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. For example, between three and six years, the superego, or conscience, develops through interaction with parents, who insist that children conform to values of the society (Freud 1923/1974) (cited in Berk, p16, 17).However, Freud overemphasized on the influence of sexual feelings in development, also it did not apply in other cultures than the nineteenth-century Victorian society and finally he didn’t study children directly (Berk 2009, p17). On the other hand, Jean Piaget proposed the cognitive development theory. According to Piaget (1954), children actively construct knowledge as they manipulate and explore the world (Berk 2009, p20). Furthermore, Piaget(1954) suggests the three stages namely the sensorimotor stage which lasts from birth to between eighteen and twenty-four months, the preoperational stage from about age two to age six or seven and finally the concrete operational stage, from seven to eleven or twelve years. Each stage has its own characteristics, for example, during the sensorimotor stage the object permanence is when they believe that the object doesn’t exist if he/she does not see the object whereas in the second one, immaturity is most noticed, i.e. egocentrism, one of the signs of immaturity, is that the child thinks his/her point of view is the only one (Baron 2007). However research indicates that Piaget underestimated the competencies of infants and preschoolers. This discovery has led many researchers to conclude that the maturity of children’s thinking depend on their familiarity with the task presented and the complexity of knowledge sampled. It can be seen that children improved on training as well (Berk 2009, p22)

Moreover, researchers and theorists such as Fischer and Bidell (2006), Spencer and Schoner (2003), Thelen and Smith (2006) implemented the Dynamic System Perspective as being both continuous and discontinuous development (Berk 2009, p29). During their research, their aim is to find out and comprehend how children attain new levels of organization by studying their behaviour when experiencing changes in their lives (Thelen and Corbetta, 2002)(cited in Berk 2009, p29). The combination of these two processes provides both consistency and variability which play an important role in children’s development as it proposes both stability and change. In the dynamic system perspective development, different paths namely biological makeup, common human heritage such as talking, everyday tasks and social experience like parents lead to wide individual differences in precise skills (Berk, 2009, p29). Also, this perspective views the child’s mind, body, physical and social world as an included system leading to the learning of new abilities. Children behave in different ways, differ in personality due to their different experiences they had before or after in life. In addition, nature and nurture play an important role in the child’s learning of basic skills. A change in any part of the system disrupts the current organism-environment relationship. However, the dynamic system research is still in its early stages. The perspective is applied largely to children’s motor and cognitive skills. There is still more research being carried out in this perspective of child development.

To conclude, it can be seen that child development can have many different definitions as outlined by the different theories discussed. During the past century, many psychologists have proposed different theories regarding child development and research have provided us new insights in this field. Child development is mainly divided into two processes namely continuous – gradual change and discontinuous – series of stages. Some researchers such as Albert Bandura and John Watson think that development is gradually changed while others such as Freud and Jean Piaget believe it as a series of stages. However, modern research carried out by Fischer and Bidell suggest that child development can be both continuous and discontinuous. Actually, each theory has its own strengths and limitations. With time, a child’s experiences and surroundings can determine his/her personality or way of behaviour. ‘Theorists differ greatly in their approach to the study of development, but all tend to agree that people develop at different rates, that development is an orderly process, and that development takes place gradually’ (Woolfolk 1998, p60).


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