Understanding child development means that we as carers and parents can understand skills and typical behaviours of children within our care, providing an environment which is nurturing and one that will foster growth. Laura Berk (2000) provides a simple definition of child development; “a field of study devoted to understanding all aspects of human growth and change from conception through adolescence.” (Berk: 2000, p4). This paper will look at three important theories of child development that you as a teacher or parent should know in order to understand the changes that take place from birth to adulthood.
When we talk about child development we refer to three stages called development areas;
– Physical development involves the growth and change in a person’s body and body functions. In this domain we look at the physiological and motor development as well as the influences of health, illness and nutrition.
– Cognitive development refers to the growth and change of a person’s ability to process information, solve problems and gain knowledge. In this area we consider the study of brain development, memory, learning, thinking, language and creativity.
– Social-emotional development involves the growth and change of our interactions with others and our feelings. Included in this area is the study of relationships, emotions, personality and moral development. Whilst we discuss each area of development separately it is important to realise that they do overlap. One domain can influence the other.
Interest in the field of child development began early in the 20th-century. (ref) Many theories have been put forward to explain why and how children develop. Theorist Jean Piaget played a major influence on the way we understand children. He explained children’s development in terms of their cognitive development in a theory known as Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Piaget believed that children think differently from adults, arguing that it’s not that children know less than adults but their thinking skills are qualitatively different. (ref) Many of his ideas came from observing his own children.
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Piaget was convinced that intellect grows through processes he termed assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation refers to using existing mental patterns in new situations. (ref) In accommodation, existing ideas are modified to fit new requirements. Thus, new situations are assimilated to existing ideas, and new ideas are created to accommodate new experiences. In his theory children mature through a series of distinct stages in intellectual development.
– Sensorimotor (0-2years): Piaget believed that an infant is born with no way of making sense of the world. Infants use reflexes which act on the world in specific ways so that the child gradually adapts to the world. Motor movements are seen as the basis for the eventual development of intelligence. These slowly become separated from motor activity as the child learns to represent objects, actions and thoughts through play and language. According to Piaget, object permanence emerges during infancy. This relates to the understanding that objects continue to exist even though they are out of sight.
– Preoperational (2-7 years): Piaget describes toddler’s thinking as illogical. This is due to two main characteristics of their thinking processes; egocentricism and centation. Piaget sees young children’s thinking as egocentric; meaning they can only see things from their point of view. They cannot take into account the ideas or needs of others. Due to their stage of cognitive development their thinking is not yet flexible enough to consider more than one aspect of a given situation. They are now in a stage of self-centred thinking. (ref). Centration is the term Piaget uses to describe young children’s tendency to focus their attention on a single aspect of a situation or object. This is where Piaget’s experiment for the conservation of volume. This stage of development also describes toddlers having improved memory skills, problem solving skills and begin to understand concepts; for example, words such as ‘big’ and ‘small’, colours and the ability to recite numbers. (ref) As children progress into pre-school, children practise mental representations by using mental imagery and language symbols. (Ref)
– Concreter Operational (7-12years): The typical school aged child is entering this stage of development. Children begin to think logically however, they tend to need concrete objects to help them solve problems rather than being able to use abstract ideas. (ref). Piaget would describe the school age child as less egocentric. According to his theory a child is now able to view the world and themselves from other perspectives. (ref) Children at this stage have a longer attention span, a better concept of time and distance and their ability to remember improves.
– Formal Operational (12-15years): Children at this stage break away from concrete objects and thinking is based more on abstract principles, such as ‘honour’ or ‘democracy’. (ref). Full adult intellectual ability is attained during this stage. For Piaget, the development of scientific reasoning is the pinnacle of development. (Vialle, Lysaght, and Verenikina: 2008, p55). At this stage older adolescents can comprehend math, physics and other abstract systems. (ref).
Some critics have faulted Piaget’s theory on several grounds but mostly for its vagueness. Some would say that Piaget’s theory has limited our perception of children’s capabilities- particularly in the pre-school years. (ref). Others may say there has been too much focus on what children can’t do rather than what they can. According to Siegler (2004) children continuously gain specific knowledge; they do not undergo stage like leaps in general mental ability. (more)
However, Piaget’s work has encouraged us to see children’s cognitive skills as being different from those of adults. His theory is valuable for understanding how children think. If we understand how children think and learn we can provide a stimulating environment that will support their learning. Using Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, a teacher or parent’s role is to provide the stimulation and observe carefully to see when to step in and interact or change experiences (ref). (125 more)
While Piaget stressed the role of maturation in cognitive development, Lev Vygotsky focused on the impact of socio-cultural factors. His Socio-cultural theory of cognitive development saw that social interaction and language has a major influence on the development of children’s thinking. Vygotsky places great importance on the tole of significant adults such as teachers, parents and also peers.
-The zone of proximal development: Like Piaget, Vygotsky believed that children actively seek to discover new principles. However there is emphasis that many of a child’s most important discoveries are guided by these significant adults. (ref). Vygotsky realises that some tasks can be beyond a child’s reach. The child is close to having the mental skills needed to do the task, but it may be slightly too complex to be mastered alone. The zone of proximal development means children learn with the guidance and assistance of those within their environment. Parents, teachers or other sensitive caregivers will know that children will need assistance, guiding the child to support them in the learning process.
Vygosky argued that children’s thinking is highly influenced by interactions and conversations with other peoples. If we want to understand how children think and learn, Vygotsky proposes that we need to observe them when they are relating with others. (ref).
Vygotsky proposed that language plays a critical role in learning. He noted that preschoolers often talk to themselves as they complete activities and tasks. He called this Private speech. According to Vygotsky, private speech enables children to talk through problems (ref).
Erik Erikson proposed a theory of development that focuses on the emotional and social aspects of development and how these impact on the overall development of the person from infancy to old age. (ref). He called it a Psychosocial theory of development focusing on the social experiences we have in life that shape our psychological make- up. Erikson was a student of Sigmund Freud and believed that the social interactions an individual experiences has a greater influence on development. (ref). Erikson identified eight stages of development over the entire human lifespan, each stage marked by a crisis. If each crisis is resolved in a positive way then the child would develop high self esteem and was more likely to respond to the next crisis in a positive way, developing a healthy personality. If the crisis was resolved in a negative way then it was likely the child would develop low self esteem and have difficulty resolving future crisis. (ref). His theory, particularly the first four stages hold vital considerations for you as a teacher or parent, ensuring that young children develop and maintain a positive sense of emotional wellbeing.
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-Stage one (0-1 years) Trust vs Mistrust: According to Erikson, a critical emotional struggle in infancy is between trust and mistrust. Emotionally healthy babies come to understand they have nurturing, responsive caregivers who meet their basic needs. They view the world as safe and enter into trusting relationships with caregivers and later, other individuals. However, a degree of mistrust is also important to keep infants safe from harm. But for the most part, the emotionally healthy baby is trusting of the world. (ref) A critical part of achieving trust from Erikson’s view is the ability of infants to come to know and develop an emotional tie with caregivers; also known as attachment. Mary Ainsworth described attachment as “the affectional tie that one person forms to another specific person, binding them together in space and enduring over time” (Ainsworth: 1973).
– Stage two: (1-3 years) Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt: Once toddlers have developed a sense of trust with significant adults and understand their basic needs will be met, they are willing to venture away from the safety of parents and caregivers. We see this as striving for control over their environment. (ref). Children express their growing self control by climbing, touching, exploring and trying to do things for themselves (Coon & Mitterer: 2007). Offering support, achievable tasks and time, children are more likely to experience success and thus feel autonomous and develop feelings of positive self-esteem. (ref). However, if we are impatient, provide tasks that are too difficult or become unsupportive with their efforts, children will develop feelings of shame and doubt about their abilities, resulting in low self esteem.
– Stage three: (3-5 years) Initiative vs Guilt: In this psychosocial theory of development, Erikson saw the preschool years as a time when children develop a sense of initiative. Preschoolers develop an increasing sense of their own ability and have a desire to make things happen. Through play, children learn to make plans and carry out tasks. Parents can reinforce initiative by giving children freedom to play, ask questions, use imagination and choose their own activities. (ref). When encouraged, this sense of initiative will support the development of high self esteem. However, when preschoolers receive negative feedback, prevent play or punished for trying to plan and make things happen they will develop a sense of guilt, thus developing low self esteem. (ref.)
-Stage Four (6-12 years) Industry vs Inferiority: Middle childhood is the time to resolve the crisis of industry versus inferiority, according to Erikson. Primary school years are a child’s ‘entrance into life’, where children begin to learn skills valued by society. His theory states that as children gain positive feedback from developing skills required for their particular culture, they will develop a sense of industry if they win praise for productive activities such as building, painting, cooking, reading and studying. This high self esteem will motivate children to challenge new tasks. However, if children receive negative feedback and have trouble developing skills and a sense of inferiority will arise, resulting in low self esteem and less motivation to try new tasks. (160 more)
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