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Part 2 of 4 Theories and Models of Child Development

At Play
Catherine Al-Meten

“Education should consist of a series of enchantments, each raising the individual to a higher level of awareness, understanding, and kinship with all living things.” -Anonymous

A Developmental model of child development provides a framework for understanding the process of human development. A variety of models exist, and each provides helpful ways of understanding the different stages and interactions. Among the theoretical models that exist, the following are some of the most influential: 1)Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; 2) Erik Ericson’s psychosocial, social-emotional development; 3) Maria Montessori’s ideas on the absorbent mind; 4) Carl Jung’s cognitive development and personality profile ideas, 5) Lev Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory; 6) Arnold Gessell’s Maturational Theory and his work with Louise Bates Ames on child development; 7) Vygotsky’s Socio-Historical approach; 8) Skinner’s behaviorist theories; 9) Bronfrenbrenner’s ecological systems theory; and 10) Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. Each theory offers a perspective on how children develop and learn,however no theory alone is meant to be followed as a lifestyle or as the basis for the only ways to develop and learn.

In the early years of my education and career in education and psychology, the behaviorists were proclaiming that all issues related to child development could be explained and controlled through behaviorist theory and methods. I worked in two different psychiatric clinics- one out patient and the other in patient- where behaviorist practices were used, exclusively. The token economies and reliance on only using behaviorist practices resulted in a deadening experience--both for the student and the instructors alike. The problem with using any one theory of child development or educational theory as the basis for educational, parenting, or psychological treatment is that doing so results in leaving out essential elements that affect behavior, learning, and all areas of development. Using theory as practice also results in ignoring individual differences and failing to develop other important skills, talents, habits, and patterns.

The following are brief overviews of some of the major players in the field of child development.

Jean Piaget’s Model of Cognitive Development:
Birth to two, Sensorimotor: the physical exploration of the world through the senses, physical interaction, experimenting (trial and error). Exploring “everything has to be tasted, touched, manipulated” stage. As mobility increases, exploration increases, Early language development. At about 7-9 months, object permanence occurs, a sign that memory is developing and growing. Infants learn that a person or object exists even when they cannot see it. This is also a period when imitating actions and behaviors happens. Children begin responding to the actions and behaviors of others reflects in smiles, game playing (hide and seek, pat-a-cake). This is a crucial stage for taking in information as Maria Montessori referred to it, like a sponge. Whether you believe children are able to comprehend language, actions, behavior, and emotional responses and reactions, they are taking it all into their little beings.

Pre-operational, ages 2-7: Begins anywhere from 18 months to 2 years or so. The sensorimotor stage does not stop; but new learning and skills are being added. Piaget originally speculated that a child at this stage is entirely ego-centric, seeing everything from their own viewpoint, but more recent studies have shown that this is not the case. Children grow in their capacity to see from the viewpoint of others. As make believe activities demonstrate, children are capable of understanding differences between the past, the present and the future. Cause and effect are beginning, but are not fully established yet. Piaget believed the ego-centric stage lasted longer than we now believe. There is ample opportunity to see that children begin learning to differentiate the cause of their actions and the effect, at a lower level than they will as they mature more, but nevertheless, they are capable of distinguishing differences between more complex ideas.

In the latter stages of the Pre-operational stage, children begin attempting to understand complex reasoning, including ideas about aging and death, social interactions, differences between selves and others, and reasoning concerning why they must do what they are told to do. For example, children begin questioning some aspects of why they must follow certain rules but not others, why they must learn certain subjects in certain ways. Intelligence combines intuitive knowledge gained through the sensorimotor development, and the growing ability to determine differences between themselves and others. Their worlds are still egocentric, a necessary time needed to identify the gifts, talents, and needs of a child, and to solidify their personal identity separate and apart from their parents, and their siblings, classmates, friends, and other caretakers. They do not have the more advanced abilities for

Children use play to work out ideas about relationships and emotions. They learn to establish sequences and discover relationships between objects and people. They build on their past experiences and observations to solve problems and achieve goals. During this period children not only have preferences but also are able to communicate those choices. This is a period when children seek to put order into their environment; however, order looks different depending upon the individual differences of each child. According to Jung’s personality typology, most schools are run by teachers and administrators who rely heavily on extroverted, sensate, thinking, and process and end-results structure to organize and develop curriculum. After many years of teaching, I will tell you, this works for some students. It does not work for many. W

7-11 Concrete Operational. As children move into the Concrete operational phase of development, their intellectual skills grow to include the systematic use of logic when manipulating concrete symbols. Children now have the ability to move out of a purely egocentric mode of observation, interaction, and decision making. They begin being able to make connections to their current experiences-the concrete now-and external and historic references.

Adolescence Formal Operational. This stage of development occurs in adolescence and continues growing throughout adulthood. At this point children use symbols to communicate and understand abstract ideas. Cognition becomes more complex, and children learn to take into consideration many aspects when forming hypotheses, considering abstract relationships and concepts, and learning to discern a variety of options, choices, and complex decisions.

Children’s cognitive development is diverse and is affected by a multitude of variables, any one of which can have an impact on a child’s development. When children are allowed to manipulate their environment, and use a variety of approaches in an environment suited to their individual needs, they have a greater chance of learning and perhaps even more important, loving the process of learning. When children are placed in an unsafe, threatening, or stressful environment, their cognitive skills are affected. We all know of people who have survived extremely stressful and abusive childhoods who have developed despite the stressors. However, it is more likely that children use survival and coping mechanisms to survive, and do not necessarily

Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development:

Infancy, birth to 18 months, Trust vs mistrust
Early childhood, 2-3 years, Autonomy vs shame and doubt
Preschool, 3-5 years, Initiative vs guilt
School Age, 6-11 years, Industry vs inferiority
Adolescence, 12-18 years, Identity vs role confusion
Young adult, 19-40, Intimacy vs isolation
Middle adult, 40-65, Generativity vs. Stagnation
Maturity, 65-death, Ego integrity vs despair

Erikson, a student of Anna Freud, expanded his ideas about development into the social context of a person’s development, and across the entire life span. Whether or not his theories and observations remain valid as humans develop during a period of rapid and intense social, scientific, and technological development, remains to be seen. As our lifespan increases, our abilities, opportunities, and expectations may also expand the scope of such a theory of development.

Maria Montessori’s concept of the Absorbent Mind.

Montessori observed that children from birth to about 6 years of age, learn in unique ways. A child learns by unconsciously taking in everything in the environment. Each child then constructs their own ideas about who and what they are based on what is taken in. Each child absorbs their environment like a sponge, taking in everything through their senses. According to Montessori, from birth to about 3, children unconsciously take in or absorb their environment. Montessori believed that at first, newborn children were “like an object turned out by hand."6 Once he is born, the baby's specific interaction with his surroundings casts his mental life and uniquely shapes him. It is now that he absorbs his mother tongue and comes to love his place of birth. Thus, this spiritual embryo needs a concentrated relationship with his parents and milieu to form his individual self." Montessori further observed that adults often fail to do what is essential at this time because adults sometimes fall into the pattern of thinking that children have no mental life. This is far from the truth, and illustrates how crucial the first year of life is for development. The first year of life is essential for a child to"acquire their basic skills. It is during this stage that children learn to become independent of their adults, learning to walk, talk, feed themselves, gain control of their bodily functions, and manipulate (with their hands and movement) their environment. Somewhere around the age of 3, children move into the more conscious absorbent mind. This is when the mathematical mind develops, and when the child’s work and development is all about attaining freedom-learning to do and think for themselves.

Carl Jung and Personality Functions.

Carl Jung’s ideas about personality temperments and the 8 cognitive skills that are part of our cognitive, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual functioning, is helpful for understanding individual differences-our own and those of our children and students. Again a model that can be used like the Sun sign astrology reading if not understood properly, the MBPT (based on Jung’s theories of the 8 functions), is a model to help understand the whole person and the scope of individual differences. It observes 8 functions and attitudes that go into creating our personal preferences, behavior, and modes of thinking, feeling, and expressing ourselves. The 8 functions include: Extraverted sensing (acting on concrete information in the present, trusts the present and then lets it go); Introverted sensing (trusting the past, storing information from past experiences, applying to present), Extraverted intuition (sees and connects possibilities in external world with flashes of intuition; shares with others), Introverted intuition (looks for consistency of ideas and intuition, and relies on intuition that others may not perceive or understand); Extraverted thinking (looks for guidelines, laws, rules, limits in external world; internal logic based on congruent connection with order on the outside); Introverted thinking (trusts own internal framework, rules; makes sense of things internally and finds it difficult to explain to others); Extraverted Feeling (seeker of harmony and balance with others; focused on interpersonal and cultural values); Introverted feeling (seeks harmony and balance from within in light of own values and may not share those ideas). This model, like others, is wholistic in nature, and not meant to pigeon-hole people into robotic categories. It is an organic model that can be used to help us develop a balance with all of the 8 functions.

Lev Vygotsky Cultural-Historical Model of Development.

Belurusian Psychologist, Lev Vygotsky’s model expanded on concepts of his contemporaries including Piaget. Vygotsky saw that both social and cultural aspects had an impact on development and learning. He introduced the idea of internalization to describe the mastery of skills. His ideas about language acquisition and thought are very interesting. He talks about distinctly different types of language developing within children-the inner dialogue and the interactive dialogue with those in the external world. His work, Thinking and Speaking, is one of his most well known pieces of work. While controversial during his lifetime, his ideas became important during the 1970s, and have influenced many who continue to explore cognitive and developmental psychology and educational implications.

B.F. Skinner, Behaviorism.

B. F. Skinner, psychologist, behaviorist, philosopher, inventor, innovated his own field of science, Radical Behaviorism. B.F. Skinner’s developmental theory is based on his view that behavior is best understood by understanding the cause and effect of actions. His theories of Operant behavior and conditioning, as he termed them, are based on Thorndike’s Law of Effect. An entire field of psychology is devoted to behavior modification and aspects of Skinner’s theories. The problem is when taken to the extreme and when used without consideration for other variables, behavioral techniques in education, curriculum development, or therapeutic modalities tend to become robotic. If you have ever used the term ‘positive reinforcement’ then you have used a term coined by Skinner to explain how we are shaped by our responses to what has occurred in the past. Ideas about positive reward, negative conditioning, and behavior modification have become a major part of what underlies educational thinking. If used alone, behavior modification is one ingredient for disaster. If used as Skinner intended, it is one of many useful tools for understanding what motivates and shapes behavior. Skinner himself said of education: “We shouldn’t teach great books. We should teach love of reading.” In Skinner’s book, Walden Two, he writes: “No one asks how to motivate a baby. A baby naturally explores everything it can get at, unless restraining forces have already been at work. And this tendency doesn't die out, it's wiped out.” And he also wrote: “A fourth-grade reader may be a sixth-grade mathematician. The grade is an administrative device which does violence to the nature of the developmental process.” And finally, when observing how behavior modification, token economies, and operant conditioning figure into developing curriculum, testing learning, or providing better classroom discipline, it might be well to remember Skinner’s words, “The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount.”

Arnold Gessell, Gessell Developmental Observation.

Pediatrician and psychologist, Arnold Gessell with his colleague from Yale, Louise Bates Ames, laid the groundwork for child development ideas, most notably the Gessell Developmental Observation and the revised version. Gessell based his theories on his observations of children starting with his younger siblings, his students in the years he taught, and in his pediatric practice. While working with Louise Bates Ames at the Yale Child Study Center in the early 1950s, Gessell created a comprehensive, multi-dimensional system for observing and understanding children’s behavior and growth patterns between the ages of 2 1/2 and 9 years. This model was intended to help parents and educators identify areas of strength and mastery as well as areas that might need additional support. After leaving Yale and the Child Study Center, Gessell devoted his latter years to a psychoanalytic approach of working with children. Their classic book, Child Behavior, is worth reading.

Louise Bates Ames, Child Behvaior and the Gessell Developmental Observation tool.

Dr. Louise Bates Ames, along with Dr. Frances Ilg, created the Gessell Institute in honor of Dr. Gessell upon his retirement from Yale. Louise Bates Ames pioneering work on the discrete and predictable stages of a child’s development. Some of her methods were criticized as focusing too much on uniformity of development, when the opposite was true. Her idea of testing was designed to identify individuality not to promote conformity. Ames, Gessell, and Ilg wrote the definitive works on child development, and Ames was a prolific writer, journalist, and innovator. She wrote Child Behavior in 1981 (reissued by Harper Perennial in 1992), and she wrote a syndicated column for many years. She hosted the first television series on child development. Her work has influenced many of our contemporary educators--some who seem to understand Gessell and Ames’ intent, others who do not. Currently, the Gessell Institute hosts a regular podcast, Body, Mind, and Child.

As I have reviewed the roots and depth of these theories of child development, what comes to mind is that our ideas about child development, learning, education, and parenting are a bit like our approach to religion. We take the ideas that fit our own conception of how the world works, what is right or wrong, or what we hope will be for the best interests of our children, students, grandchildren, and we hope we get it right. Another way these theories are similar to our religious choices is in how we look at the source of the ideas. Do we truly understand the underlying principles that we are trying to follow? Do the principles, the theories, apply practically and ethically to those with whom we interact and teach? Again, do we understand the meaning behind a measurement or the purpose of identifying an area of strength or weakness, for example? At the heart of much of what each of these theorists and practitioners (for all practiced what they preached) infer in their work is the need to allow for indiviudal differences, to nourish each child, to free children to learn, and to support and affirm their gifts. Learn more about what each developmental psychologist actually wrote and believed, and make up your own mind. And look at how ideas are being used, or not, in your schools to see how the spirit of their ideas are being used or not. Like our choice of religious or spiritual traditions, our ideas about human development are a basic part of how we view and understand the world, and how we treat and interact with our children and grandchildren. What are some of the basic ideas underlying your own view of development, growth, and learning? How have your own experiences in learning shpaed you and influenced how you view the educational process? What is calling for you to change or learn more about in order to support and help your grandchildren and children in their experiences of learning, growing, and experiencing life?

“It is in fact a part of the function of education to help us escape, not from our own time -- for we are bound by that -- but from the intellectual and emotional limitations of our time.”
T.S. Eliot

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