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The principles of transactional models of development

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A dynamic interactionist – or transactional – model attempts to reconcile the nature vs. nurture dichotomy in regard to the relative importance of ‘temperamental characteristics’ on the one hand, and ‘environment’ (in its very broadest sense) on the other, for the cognitive and behavioural development of the individual from birth.

Such a transactional model is the dialectical synthesis of earlier, conflicting development theories which in their purest and most extreme forms either viewed the child as arriving in the world with all the basic elements of his/her personality already innate or preformed, requiring only self-regulation to arrive at spontaneous maturation; or, in complete contrast, as a blank slate (tabula rasa) upon which society (in the guise of parents, teachers, siblings, etc. might make whatever marks it would in the form of socialisation and behavioural modification.

Instead, the transactional model proposes that development is “a product of the continuous dynamic interactions of the child and the experience provided by his or her family model and social context. 1 (My italics) The child in this case is not merely a product of the environment and its constituent elements, such as her relationship with her mother and/or broader family group, and the socio-economic and cultural milieu within which these relationships occur.

Rather, through her interaction with these multiple environmental components, she has an effect on this environment which in turn helps to shape and determine her subsequent experiences, encounters and reactions in an endless, complex and multifaceted reciprocal cause and effect process. One example of this type of developmental transaction given in the literature2 would be when a young mother experiences complications in pregnancy, such as might result in the birth of a premature and physically under-developed baby.

The premature baby could well spend her first few days, weeks or even months in an incubator, prohibiting the initial and immediate post-natal bonding (or imprinting) process that invariably occurs between mother and child and seems quite an important event in laying the foundations for the subsequent mother/child attachment relationship.

The anxiety that the troublesome birth and early life of the infant might induce in the mother could in turn cause her to be unsure, insecure and hesitant in her feeding, handling and general interactions with the child, affecting the child’s ability and willingness to settle into a consistent eating and sleeping pattern, and causing her to cry frequently.

Again in turn, the child may be thus perceived and described by the mother as possessing an ‘irritable’ or ‘difficult’ temperament, diminishing the pleasure that the new mother would derive from spending time with her baby, and causing her to interact with, speak to and generally stimulate the child considerably less than she otherwise may have done with a full-term child born with no complications.

The outcome of this lack of attention over the early years – particularly in a low income, single parent family unit where the mother is the sole carer with no other existent adults or older siblings (and no resources to fund childminders or a private nursery place) – is quite likely to be that the child in question fails to develop the language and communication skills considered appropriate to the various stages of his/her early childhood development.

As a consequence, the child may come to be considered by the mother as being ‘not very bright’ or even as ‘stupid’, again reinforcing the mother’s negative feelings and disappointment and lowering her expectations of what the child is likely to be able to achieve.

The child consistently so-labelled would begin to perceive herself in such terms, developing a correspondingly lower sense of self-esteem and self-worth, and could begin to respond ‘to type’ at home and later in primary school, where her teachers would also begin to form an opinion of her capabilities based in part on what the mother says about her child and in part on how the child herself behaves through her confidence in play and study and her ability to relate well with other children in the social environment.

Problems in these areas can lead to a child being labelled ‘difficult’, the prelude to a pattern of negative perception and limited expectations that could have repercussions for the entire life of the child. The scenario presented here is obviously a considerably oversimplified and partial view of a much more complex transactional process, but it is intended to illustrate the point that the child’s development is subject to a process in which her own behaviour is a major determining factor.

Turning now to the issue of disturbed development (be it behavioural, cognitive or emotional) prior to the emergence of the transactional model, two approaches – which we may think of in terms of a nature model and a nurture one – were prevalent in regard to children considered to possess or viewed as likely to develop what have come to be known as emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD).

Adherents of the first of these, the medical model, considered such difficulties as disorders in the child’s mental functioning – sometimes organic/neurological in origin – and tended towards traditional medical treatment based on description, diagnosis and prescription. Within this tradition the child is, if you like (and without suggestion of intention or agency) the cause of his/her own suffering; that is, the problems are inherent.

The medical model still exercises considerable influence in contemporary British and US society: one thinks of the widespread diagnosis of challenging and uncooperative children as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a blanket diagnosis for an ‘illness’ the causes of which are little understood, and which is widely treated through the use of stimulant drugs such as methylphenidate (Ritalin).

In my experience as an educator working in the EBD sector, I have seen over the last few years a growing number of children thus diagnosed and treated. While my own strictly anecdotal evidence suggests that Ritalin does counter and assuage some aspects of hyperactivity, focus attention temporarily and permit ‘teaching’ to a certain extent, children under the influence of this drug do not to my mind appear to be functioning ‘normally’, but seem dull (in the sense of ‘lacking lustre’) and possessing the compliance of virtual automatons.

Furthermore, the significant reliance on drug-based treatments (as I have witnessed often to be the case) without intensive and continuing psychological therapy and counselling for both the child and his/her family does little to offer the prospect of a long term solution to ADHD-related EBD. The cynic might suggest that it is cheaper to treat children with powerful behaviour-altering drugs than with trained therapists, but such a discussion is outside the scope of this essay.

The second approach – the social environment model – is one that might simplistically be characterised by the phrase ‘society is to blame’. Here the causes for the dysfunctionality of the child are laid by practitioners at the door of others in the family or wider social grouping; most frequently the mother, often held almost singularly responsible for ineptitude or neglect in raising the wayward child.

While this social environment model might take into consideration broader social factors in the maladjustment of the child – such as poverty, familial neglect and disturbed interfamilial relations, inadequate education, lack of discipline at home and at school -it is the mother, subject to accusations of maternal deprivation, who is often viewed as the principle culprit in failing to form a solid and sustaining attachment relationship with the child.

At the extreme end of intervention and treatment within this perspective, a child may be removed from the family home by social workers and taken into care, if that home be considered by the ‘caring professions’ as an undesirable, unsuitable or even dangerous environment for the child. The individual temperament of the child and the influence this temperament exerts in helping to condition and reinforce the quality of the child’s own interactions and interrelationships with the mother, father, siblings and others in its broader social network are not taken into consideration.

Rather, it is the effects of the inadequate nurturing of the child-as-victim (and ‘poor parenting’ and ‘maternal deprivation’ in particular) which is deemed culpable within this perspective for causing the emergence of EBD. Both these perspectives – the medical and the social environmental – would seem to offer only a partial insight into what are enormously complex and indeed controversial issues regarding the origins and expression of ‘abnormal’ behaviour..

The transactional model acknowledges that nature and nurture act in tandem to give rise to disturbing behaviour in young children and in so doing, the model seeks to take into consideration a large array of contributing causes and influences regarding the biography of the child and her carers and the changing environmental – social, economic and cultural – contexts she encounters and to which she must respond.

One point which the adoption of a transactional model would allow us to take into consideration is that not all behaviour perceived as ‘disturbing’ in one particular cultural setting may be so-viewed in another. For example, to compare an individualistic society such as the USA to a more collectively-oriented and structured society such as Cuba, my own (non-scientific) observations would suggest that in the former, personal ambition and competitiveness are much more highly-prized traits which children are encouraged to develop and express from an early age, and for which parents and schools may offer rewards.

In Cuba in contrast, excessive personal ambition and material desire are construed by the political culture as ‘selfish’ and ‘antisocial’ and so are actively discouraged from the earliest age. Disturbing behaviour in a Cuban child would in such circumstances be behaviour which values and promotes the needs and wants of an individual over those of her peer group.

A transactional position allows the utilisation of a cross-cultural perspective which would by necessity be obliged by definition to take into account such social and cultural context-specific factors, as well as family influence and the child’s own temperament, as it attempts to arrive at the identification of disturbing behaviour in the individual child Evidently the range of ‘pathways’ that lead to psycho-socially disturbing behaviour is diverse, complex and inter-related.

A transactional perspective would have to consider, amongst others, such ‘risk factors’ as the family’s socio-economic background (occupation, income and housing situation); the state of the inter-parental relationship (that is, where both parents are present) and the degree of domestic conflict/harmony in the household; the mental state of the mother in particular, and her degree of responsiveness towards the child; parental ‘styles’ and attitudes towards, and interactions with, the child; and the child’s relations with her siblings and other significant family members, as well as the child’s temperament, and even the child’s gender.

It is difficult, within this perspective, to unpack and identify simplistic ’causes’ for disturbing behaviour, but it should be clear that the child’s behaviour can contribute to how it is perceived and treated by parents, siblings and others including, at a later stage, friends, teachers and members of the broader community. I could give a large number of specific individual case-studies from my own work with disturbed/disturbing children which would illustrate how difficult it is to isolate the causes of their behaviour, much less offer treatment, but perhaps it may be more enlightening to refer to a pattern which I have seen persistently.

My small EBD special unit is based in an inner-city ‘sink estate’ in a large provincial city. The area in which I work is economically deprived with a very high incidence of unemployment local, especially amongst men. The neighbourhood is plagued by crimes such as car theft, burglary and mugging, often carried out by young men in pursuit of cash to buy heroin and crack cocaine, to which many are addicted. The local authority uses its stock of council housing in the area to locate ‘problem families’ and single mothers (quite often under-16).

Many parents themselves left school without any qualifications whatsoever, or failed to complete school, and there is little enthusiasm for or faith in the formal education system. The incidence of family breakdown, often exacerbated by poverty is high. There are very few affordable community resources available for young people, particularly in the evening, and recreational drug (hashish and marihuana) and alcohol use would appear almost de rigueur amongst children from around 12 and upwards. Within this context I have worked with many young people who have presented challenging behaviour.

Virtually without exception, the children have all been from low-income single-parent (mother) homes where there are often two or three siblings present, quite frequently with different fathers. There are few stable elements in the lives of these children. But not every child born and raised under similar or even identical circumstances within the estate presents challenging and disturbing behaviour or EBDs. While it is hard to imagine, applying the notion of ‘goodness of fit’ of any kind of temperamental characteristics that will enable a child to thrive under such circumstances, some apparently do.

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