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Theories of Child Development

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An understanding of child development is essential; it allows us to fully appreciate the cognitive, emotional, physical, social and educational growth that children go through from birth and into early adulthood. Child development is a multidisciplinary subject; it draws on various academic fields, including psychology, neuroscience, sociology, paediatrics, biology and genetics. Child development is a non-negotiable study subject for everyone who works with children, child care educationalists and care workers need to be trained thoroughly and that means learning about every aspect of how children develop and learn.

There are many different approaches to studying child development; integrated development looks at whole child under different areas of development for example Physical, Intellectual, Language, Emotional, Social and Spiritual (PILESS). Whilst the traditional approach to child development has been to look at normative development; the stages and milestones of development and the ages in which a child will normally be able to achieve them. Many psychologists have studied how we develop and these studies led to theories. Theories help people to predict how a child may develop in the future. The theories behind the study of child development came from the work of a few people and the ideas they got from the research they conducted. This research has provided us with evidence for and against the differing theories of how children develop.

Historically theories of child development have tended to fall into two groups, the ā€˜leave it to natureā€™ or ā€˜Laissez Faireā€™ theory, where they take the view that learning is closely linked with development, and the social-constructivist theory, which says that children learn what they are shown by adults. In the 18th century the ā€˜leave it to natureā€™ theory was born, it stated that children learn naturally and that they were biologically programmed to learn certain things at a certain time. In this approach adults help children to learn by making sure the environmentĀ supports the childā€™s learning, but adults may not be necessary for the learning to take place. The social construct theories have also been discussed since the 18th century, the theory that a childā€™s learning is an interaction of the childā€™s development and its environment. The terms social learning or social pedagogy came from this belief that learning occurs as a function of observing, retaining and replicating behaviour observed in oneā€™s environment and in other people.

Psychologists continue to study human development and they are learning more about what people are like and how they develop. Over the past century, many psychologists have provided theories that are considered practical guides. Since a variety of theories exists, we need to understand these different approaches for working with children. The following are just a few of the many child development theories that have been proposed by theorists and researchers.

Psychoanalytic child development theories proposed by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century, stressed the importance of childhood events and experiences, but almost exclusively focused on mental disorders rather that normal functioning.

Cognitive learning theory is the theory that humans generate knowledge and meaning through sequential development of an individualā€™s cognitive abilities, such as the mental processes of recognize, recall, analyze, reflect, apply, create, understand, and evaluate. It also looks at how these thought processes influence how we understand and interact with the world. The Cognitivists include Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. The foremost cognitive thinker was Jean Piaget, who proposed an idea that seems obvious now, but helped revolutionize how we think about child development: Children think differently than adults.

Jean Piaget was born in Switzerland in 1896. Piaget began his career at the age of 22; it had a profound impact on both psychology and education. Piaget developed an interest in the intellectual development of children. Based upon his observations, he concluded that children were no-less intelligentĀ than adults, they simply think differently. Piaget created a theory of cognitive development that described the basic stages that children go through as they mentally mature. In Piaget’s view, early cognitive development involves processes based upon actions and later progresses into changes in mental operations.

His key Concepts were:
Schemas – both the mental and physical actions involved in understanding and knowing. Assimilation – The process of taking in new information into our previously existing schema. Accommodation – involves changing or altering our existing schemas in light of new information, Equilibration – Piaget believed that all children try to strike a balance between assimilation and accommodation, which is achieved through a process which Piaget called equilibration. As children progress through the stages of cognitive development, it is important to maintain a balance between applying previous knowledge (assimilation) and changing behaviour to account for new knowledge (accommodation). Equilibration helps explain how children are able to move from one stage of thought into the next.

Piagetā€™s theory includes four stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal operations. The first three stages occur during early childhood and the early school age years. The sensorimotor stage takes place between birth and two years of age. Infants use all their senses to explore and learn. The preoperational stage takes place between ages two and seven. Children during this stage are very egocentric. Concrete operations begin during the ages of seven to eleven years. Children develop the capacity to think systematically, but only when they can refer to actual objects and use hands-on activities. formal operations, takes place from eleven years of age to adulthood, young people develop the capacity to think in purely abstract ways.

Piagetā€™s stages of cognitive development are the same for all children. Most children proceed through the stages in order. Each stage builds on a previous stage. However, the age at which a child progresses through these stages is variable due to differences in maturation. Although Piaget did notĀ apply his theory directly to education, he did strongly influence childrenā€™s early education. Many teaching strategies have evolved from his work. Care workers and teachers now know that learning is an active process. Providing children with stimulating, hands on activities helps them build knowledge .

Piaget’s focus on cognitive development had an important impact on education. While Piaget did not specifically apply his theory in this way, many educational programs are now built upon the belief that children should be taught at the level for which they are developmentally prepared. In addition to this, a number of instructional strategies have been derived from Piaget’s work. These strategies include providing a supportive environment, utilizing social interactions and peer teaching, and helping children see inconsistencies in their thinking.

Along with Piaget, Jerome S. Bruner (1915- ) is one of the best known and influential cognitive and educational psychologists of the twentieth century. He has made a profound contribution to our understanding of the process of education and to the development of curriculum theory. Bruner was born in New York City and later educated at Duke University and Harvard. After obtaining his PhD he became a member of staff at Harvard, serving as professor of psychology, as well as cofounding and directing the Centre for Cognitive Studies at the University.

In the 1960s Bruner developed a theory of cognitive growth. His approach (in contrast to Piaget) looked to environmental and experiential factors. Bruner suggested that intellectual ability developed in stages, through step-by-step changes in how the mind is used. For Bruner the purpose of education was not to impart knowledge, but instead to facilitate the child’s thinking and problem solving skills which can then be transferred to a range of situations.

His Book ā€˜The Process of Education ā€˜(1960) was a landmark text. It had a direct impact on education policy formation in the United States and influenced the thinking of a wide group of teachers and scholars. The books gave Burnerā€™s view of children as active problem-solvers who are ready toĀ explore ‘difficult’ subjects. He believes that a child (of any age) is capable of understanding complex information. Bruner said ‘We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development’. In his research on the cognitive development of children, he proposed three modes of representation: * Enactive representation (action-based)

* Iconic representation (image-based)
* Symbolic representation (language-based)
Modes of representation are the way in which information or knowledge are stored and encoded in memory. Rather than neat age related stages (like Piaget), the modes of representation are integrated and only loosely sequential as they “translate” into each other.

In accordance with his understanding of the learning process, Bruner proposed the concept of the spiral curriculum. This involved information being structured so that complex ideas can be taught at a simplified level first, and then re-visited at more complex levels later on. Therefore, subjects would be taught at levels of gradually increasing difficultly (hence the spiral analogy). Ideally he believed teaching his way should lead to children being able to solve problems by themselves.

He thought the role of the teacher should not be to teach information by mechanical repetitious learning, but instead to facilitate the learning process. This means that good teachers will design lessons that help students discover the relationship between bits of information. To do this a teachers must give students the information they need, but without organizing it for them. In 1967, Bruner turned his attention toward the subject of developmental psychology. Bruner studied the way children learned and coined the term “scaffolding”, to describe the way children often build on the information they have already mastered.

Many 20th and 21st century child development researchers have written and expanded on Brunerā€™s idea of ā€˜scaffoldingā€™ and how it helps schools today organise how they teach. Providing meaningful contexts linked in with theĀ child’s stage of development, and the need for the adult or some other to interact with the child. The popularity of the scaffolding metaphor indicates its conceptual significance and practical value for teaching and educational research. Educators find the metaphor appealing as it “resonates with their own intuitive conceptions of what it means to intervene successfully in students learning”

At Oxford University in 2007, a building in the education department was named in his honour; he also gave a lecture on his theories of story-telling as a vital learning tool. Bruner at 97 is still going strong, teaching in the law department at New York University.

In the 1920ā€™s a group of theorists began the Behaviourist movement, they believed that language had to be put into children, who naturally started out as empty vessels. A man named Burrhau Fredric Skinner was one of the main influences on this movement with his research on operant conditioning. Skinner was a behavioural psychologist from the USA who in 1937 coined the term operant conditioning. It relates to a form of learning in which individualā€™s behaviour is modified by its consequences. The voluntary behaviour may be changed in frequency or strength.

Until the mid 1980ā€™s this theory had great influence, skinner believed that adults shape children behaviour, so that children conform to the expectations and conventions of the culture in which they grew up. He believed adults did this through positive or negative reinforcement, praising wanted behaviour and causing pain either physically or emotionally to get rid of unwanted behaviour.

Today in our schools we use many of skinners theories, positive rewards or reinforcements for good behaviour are the basis for many behaviour management programmes. We find examples of operant conditioning at work all around us. For example: children completing homework to earn a reward from a parent or teacher. Operant conditioning is also used to decrease/ remove an undesirable outcome or the use of punishment can be used to decrease or prevent undesirable behaviours. For example, a child may be told they willĀ lose playtime if they talk out of turn in class. This potential for punishment may lead to a decrease in disruptive behaviours.

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