Theories of development offer insights into the forces guiding childhood growth and what can affect them. Each offers insight but each has limitations, which is why developmental scientists use more than one theory to guide their thinking about the growth of children. Current practice is based on many years of knowledge and experience. This helps us to understand children learning, development and behavior. Research is ongoing and new information becomes available all the time. This means it is important that we keep our knowledge up to date and use new ideas in practice. Research into child development is an ongoing process. It is continuously influenced by new ideas which are based on established theory.
Some of psychology’s best known theorists have developed theories to help explore and explain different aspects of child development. Today we can draw on a variety of theories and perspectives in order to understand how children grow, behave and think. There have been several theorists who have given many different theories that we know and use today. These theories try to explain how children develop and at what rate or pattern. This gives us a framework for understanding the process of development. Working with just one framework could stop us from exploring other views, so it is important that we look at and learn from theories from several different areas –
* Cognitive theories focus on internal states such as motivation, problem solving, decision making and attention. * Social learning theories focus on how children learn and acquire new knowledge. * Behavioural theories, also known as behaviourism are theories based upon the idea that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning. Today behavioural techniques are used in therapeutic settings to help children learn new skills and behaviours. * Psychoanalytical theorists believe that childhood experiences and unconscious desires influence behavior. * Attachment theories focus on the importance of early years attachments between babies and their caregivers. * Humanist theories emphasize the basic goodness of human beings.
Primary child development theorists and their theories include –
Influences on current practice –
Importance of hands on play and active learning
Importance of adults scaffolding children’s learning
Importance of asking open ended questions
Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934)
Main theory – development is primarily driven by language, social context and adult guidance. Vygotsky was a Russian theorist who died prematurely. He developed ideas on cognitive development whilst at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow (1924 – 1934). He focused on the relationship between language and thinking. His writings emphasised the role of historic, cultural and social factors in cognition and argued that language was very important. He suggested that children are born sociable and that adults play an extremely important role in extending children’s learning and to achieve their full potential. This is known as their Zone of Proximal Development.
The Reggio Emille approach interpreted the zone of proximal theory as the idea of learning and operates the theory in nurseries throughout Europe. The teachers take on the role of the child’s learning partner and offer strategires to help solve problems.
Robert M Gagne (1916 – 2002)
Main theory – different types of learning exist and that different instructional conditions are most likely to bring about these different types of learning. Gagne was an American educational psychologist best known for his ‘conditions of learning’ theory. He believed there are eight ways to learn –
1. Signal Learning: A general response to a signal. Like a dog responding to a command. 2. Stimulus-Response Learning: A precise response to a distinct stimulus. 3. Chaining: A chain of two or more stimulus-response connections is acquired. 4. Verbal Association: The learning of chains that are verbal. 5. Discrimination Learning: The ability to make different responses to similar-appearing stimuli. 6. Concept Learning: A common response to a class of stimuli. 7. Rule Learning. Learning a chain of two or more concepts. 8. Problem Solving. A kind of learning that requires “thinking.”
Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980)
Main theory – development takes place in distinctive stages of cognitive development. Adults influence but the child is building their own thinking systems. Piaget is known for his research in developmental psychology. He was involved in the administration of intelligence tests to children and became interested in the types of mistakes children at various ages were likely to make. He began to study the reasoning processes of children at various stages.
He theorized that cognitive development proceeds in four genetically determined stages that always follow the same sequential order. Piaget used the term Schema to define this.
A Schema describes both the mental and physical actions involved in understanding and knowing. In Piagets view, a schema includes both a category of knowledge and the process of obtaining the knowledge. As experiences happen, this new information is used to modify, add to or change previously existing schemas. An example of this is a child may have a schema about a type of animal, such as a dog. If the child’s sole experience has been with small dogs they may believe that all dogs are small, furry and have 4 legs. Then if that child sees a very large dog they will take in this new information and modify the previously exiating schema to include this new information. Chris Athey (1924 – 2011)
Athey moved Piagets’ work on as she believed that Schema dominated children’s play and the way they learn. She showed how children’s forms of thought develop through experiences and develop a framework for teaching which extends scheme through the curriculum experience. Athey suggests that in Piaget’s early work, he used schema to mean the general cognitive structures that are developing in children under the age of five. She sees schemas as a means to arrive at categories and classifications. For example, a baby will try out a wide range of schema on one object for example, sucking, shaking and throwing. This demonstrates the need and importance of a wide and varied range of experiences. Schemas are happening in practice all of the time.
Arnold Gesell (1880 – 1961)
Main theory – development is genetically determined by universal maturation patterns which occur in a predictable sequence. Gesell was an American psychologist and pediatrician who helped develop the field of child development. His classic study involved twin girls, both given motor skills but one give training for longer than the other. He discovered that there was no measurable difference in the age at which either girl acquired the skills. This suggesting that development had happened in a genetically programmed way, irrespective of training given. A child learns whether or not an adult teaches them.
This suggests that physical development at least is largely pre-programmed. Through his study of 1000s of children over many years Gesell came up with milestones of development, stages by which normal children can accomplish different tasks. These are still used in practice today.
Jerome Bruner (1915 – 2011)
Main theory – sensation and perception are active rather than passive processes. Bruner was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to human cignitive theory. His approach looked to environmental factors. Results of his studies showed the difference between poor and rich children in several tests. He developed ideas about children’s thinking and problem solving skills. He believed in Scaffolding, the process of adults providing a framework or support to encourage children’s learning and thinking.
Bruner suggested that children gradually aquire cognitive skills through three modes of thinking –
Social Learning theorists
Influences on current practice –
Importance of being a good role model for children
Albert Bandura (1925 – )
Main theory – learning takes place by imitation.
This theory differs from skinners because there is more emphasis on inner motivational factors. Bandura is a Canadian psychologist best known for his ‘social learning theory’. This was renamed ‘social cognitive theory’ to accommodate later development of the theory. His work suggests that children learn from observing and imitating others and that adults need to be good role models for children and young people. Children learn behaviour from the main people in their life including parents, carers, siblings and friends. Bandura’s social learning theory has had important implications in the field of education. Today teachers and caregivers recognise the importance of modelling appropiate behaviours.
Social learning that takes a holistic approach to a child’s learning and is used in social work and education. Social learning process must –
1. Demonstrate that a change in understanding has taken place in the individual involved. 2. Demonstrate that this change goes beyond the individual and becomes situated with wider social units. 3. Occur through social interactions and processes between individuals within a social network.
It takes place at a wider scale than individual or group learning and is done through social interaction between peers. This method of teaching is used throughout Montessori schools.
Influences on current practice –
Importance of praise and encouragement
Positive reinforcement to encourage acceptable behaviour
Ivan Pavlov (1849 – 1936)
Main theory – classical conditioning and behaviour can be measured, thought cannot. Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who developed the theory of classical conditioning (conditioned reflex) from his study of dogs responses when they are being fed. He concluded that when a bell was rung in subsequent time with food being presented to a dog, the dog would eventually associate the ringing of the bell with food and salvate when hearing it. This is known as Conditioned Response and Pavlov suggested that it forms an important part of the learning process. It is a learned reflexive response.
An example of this is a child who has had several vaccinations / injections from a doctor in a white coat and it was a painful experience. The child mnay then associate the white jacket with the pain and become upset or afraid when seeing anyone wearing a white jacket.
John B Watson (1878 – 1958)
Established the Psychological School of Behaviousism.
Watson was an American psychologist who furthered Pavlovs’ theories in his work. He carried out the ‘Little Albert’ experiment in 1920 to prove that classical conditioning could be applied to create a fear or phobia (in this case of a rat). The experiment was carried out on a child known as Albert. Watson exposed the child to a series of stimuli including a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey, masks and burning newspapers and observed the boy’s reactions. The boy initially showed no fear of any of the objects he was shown. The next time Albert was exposed to the rat, Watson made a loud noise by hitting a metal pipe with a hammer. Naturally, the child began to cry after hearing the loud noise. After repeatedly pairing the white rat with the loud noise, Albert began to cry simply after seeing the rat. His work focused greatly on helping children to deal with phobias, irrational fears. He believed that behaviors can be measured, trained, and changed.
Burrhus Frederik Skinner (1904 – 1990)
Main theory – reinforcement and punishment moulds behaviour. Children are conditioned by their experiences. If the main carer in a child’s life implemented behaviour modifications, the child would quickly learn the correct way to behave. Skinner was an American psychologist who maintained that learning occurred as a result of the organism responding to, or operating on, its environment. He further developed the Operant Conditioning theory that Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949) started. He believed that internal thoughts and motivations could not be used to explain behaviour but that we should only look at the external, observable causes of behaviour. He did extensive research with animals, mainly rats & pigeons.
He invented the Skinner Box in which rats learned to find their way to a lever and press it to obtain food. The box would also punish the rats with an electric shock if they travelled in the wrong direction. Skinner discovered that rats were encouraged to do the correct thing by Positive Reinforcement, which rewarded the correct behaviour with food. Positive reinforcement is a compound of operant conditioning. It is favourable events or outcomes that are given after the behaviour. A behaviour can be strengthened by praise or a direct reward. This theory has a direct influence on the way we understand children’s behaviour today and that we focus on positive actions such as praise, encouragement and reward.
Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishment for behaviour. Through operant conditioning association is made between a behaviour and a consequence for that behaviour. The word operant refers to any active behaviour that operates upon the environment to generate consequences (B. F. Skinner 1953). This explains how we acquire the range of learned behaviours we exhibit each and every day. An example of this is a child completing a task such as their homework to receive a reward or praise from their parent or teacher. The promise of a possible reward causes an increase / change in behaviour. Operant conditioning can also be used to decrease a behaviour. For example if the child does not complete the homework there is the potential for punishment. This method can lead toa decrease in disruptive behaviour.
While behaviorism is not as dominant today as it was during the middle of the 20th-century, it still remains an influential force in psychology. Parents, teachers and many others make use of basic behavioral principles to help teach new behaviors and discourage unwanted ones
Influences on current practice –
Understanding how the unconscious mind can influence children’s behaviour
Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)
Main theory – experiences in early childhood influence later development. Assumes that sexual factors are major factors, even in early childhood. Freud was an Austrian psychoanalyst. He regarded the development of personality as being the balance between the ID, the Ego and the Superego. His work has been heavily criticised for its lack of substantial evidence and his theory that basic sexual instincts are the driving force behind virtually all behaviour. He also theorised that characteristics like generosity and possessiveness were related to childhood experiences such as parental attitudes to potty / toilet training. His work has given rise to many terms that we use today such as, ‘the oral stage’ to describe the way infants use their mouth to explore objects.
Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994)
Erikson was a German-American psychologist best known for his theories on stages of psychosocial development. He believed that there are 8 stages of development (not 5 as Freud theorised) and later added another making 9 due to the increase in life expectancy. They became known as live stage virtues. He argued that each stage needs to be understood.
Influences on current practice –
The importance of a strong attachment relationship
The key person system
John Bowlby (1907 – 1990)
Main theory – early relationships with caregivers play a major role in child development and influence how children react to social interactions with other people. Bowlby was a British psychologist who developed attachment theory. He believed that children who are securly attached to their main carers and whose mothers are available and responsive to their needs establish a sense of security, generally have high self esteem and will be able to enjoy intimate relationships, share feelings and seek out social support. This is particularly important during the first year of life as a firm foundation is built during this time. This can have a huge impact on a child that continues throughout life. It also serves to keep a child close to the mother to improve their chances of survival. Attachment theory underpins the level of the key-person approach in many settings and helps us to understand separation anxiety when children are separated from their main carer.
Bowlby believed that there are four distinguishing characteristics of attachment: * Proximity Maintenance – The desire to be near the people we are attached to. * Safe Haven – Returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat. * Secure Base – The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment. * Separation Distress – Anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.
Mary Ainsworth (1913 – 1999)
Main theory – securely attached children are able to explore when they have the knowledge of a secure base to return to in time of need. Ainsworth was an American-Canadian developmental psychologist known for her work in early emotional attachment and attachment theory. In the 1970s she devised a procedure called ‘a strange situation’ to observe attachment relationships between a child and caregiver. This involved strangers coming into the room for different periods and the caregiver leaving the room over a period of 20 minutes. This led Ainsworth to the conclusion that a child who is securely attached to its mother will explore freely and engage with strangers when the mother is present. The child will be visibly upset when the mother leaves and happy to see the mother return. A child will not engage with strangers if the mother is not in the same room. Humanist theorists
Influences on current practice –
The importance of satisfying children’s basic needs in order for them to
develop and learn
Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970)
Main theory – hierarchy of needs, the theory of self actualization. Maslow was an American psychologist who stressed the importance of focusing on the positive qualities as opposed to treating them as a ‘bag of symptoms’. He explained the importance of meeting fundamental needs in order for people to reach their full potential (self actualization).
This theory is shown in the Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid which depicts the levels of human needs, psychological and physical. When a human being ascends the steps of the pyramid he reaches self actualization.
Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987)
Main theory – humans have one basic motive – the tendency to self-actualize (fulfil their potential). Rogers was an American humanist psychologist who agreed with most of what Maslow theorised. He added that for a child to grow they need an environment that provides them with * Genuineness
Without these relationships and healthy personalities will not develop as they should. He believed that every child can achieve their goals, wishes and desires in life. This is when self-actualization takes place. He also practiced a person centred approach to his therapy.
Rogers Acceptance Cycle
Today, the concepts central to humanistic psychology can be seen in many areas including other branches of psychology, education, therapy, political movements and other areas.