The following essay will examine factors that affect a child’s learning and development. All children are distinctive individuals and differ in pattern and timing of maturation, as well as individual personality, learning style, cultural and family background. Each child has its own varying strengths, weaknesses, specific needs and skills. The age of a child is an effective indicator to the sequence of stages of development; however, it is only an estimation of maturation, as the mentioned independent factors will differ from child to child.
The stages of development in children aged one to five years include the prenatal period, infancy, toddler stage, and early childhood and cover a plethora of progress in all areas of development. Expected changes in growth take place in all areas of development, particularly in the early years, and these include physical, intellectual, language, emotional, and social development. The first five years of life are crucial for expanding the foundations for learning and development. Research has shown that the developing child is learning to discover, communicate, and extend ideas about how things work.
The successful progress of these abilities and skills depend largely on a child’s early environment. Parents, teachers, and care providers promote development and learning when they provide experiences that build on and extend the child’s capabilities. However, it is clear from evidence on both sides of the argument that development and learning result from a contribution of both biological factors and environmental factors. Empiricists believe environmental influences shape learning and development, while nativists emphasise inborn, genetic characteristics influence development (Bee, 2006b).
Development could be described as an interactive relationship between the inherited qualities of an individual and the external environment. A child’s emotional and social development is shaped by internal influences, for example, a child may be inherently shy or outgoing, however the environment will also influence the child’s social and emotional development, such as successful first relationships, cultural values and how family and peers interact with the child, i. e. the child’s immediate social environment. Cognitive development could be influenced by internal factors.
Research has shown that teratogens (legal or illegal drugs), smoking, alcohol consumption can have adverse affects on cognitive development (Bee, 2006 a). A study by Monuteaux, (2006) shows the negative effects of smoking on the development of a child, and there is speculative study that maternal diet and smoking could be causal factors of ADHD (Bakker, 2003). Scarr (1983) summarises the internal and external influences on children’s development, “Both genes and environments are constituents in the developmental system, but they have different roles.
Genes direct the course of human experience, but experiential opportunities are also necessary for development to occur” (Scarr, 1983, pp. 433). It is interesting to consider cognitive development in children and the subsequent affect on learning and behaviour. Piaget was an influential Swiss psychologist who researched cognitive development. Piaget believes cognitive development transpires through a combination of direct experience from one’s environment and an instinctive structure of biological maturation.
Piaget suggested individuals are born with intellect to serve as a basic function that assists adaptation to their environment (Shaffer, 1989). His theory proposes that development proceeds through a set of four stages from infancy to adulthood. Piaget believed that the first stage of cognitive development is the sensorimotor stage; this occurs in the first two years of a child’s life and involves infants using motor skills and all the senses, sight, smell, touch etc to explore and gain an understanding of the environment.
Preoperational stage progresses from the sensorimotor stage and includes the use of language to understand the environment, images and symbols are also used to represent the environment; this is from two to seven years of age. Piaget believed language is egocentric at this stage. The next stage is termed concrete operations and children begin to use logical thought processes to further their understanding and occurs from ages seven to eleven. Formal Operation is the last stage Piaget believes takes place in cognitive development and it involves the ability to use abstract thought processes.
This is from eleven onwards (Shaffer, 1989). The central idea of Piaget’s cognitive theory is the attainment of schemas, and further assimilation and accommodation of these schemas constantly return the child to a state of equilibrium. A schema is any thought or object that one may have experienced and is then organised to aid coherence. Assimilation is the process of adding new information to enhance the understanding of an existing schema, and thus producing a new schema.
Accommodation is the adjustment of an existing schema in order to include new information. Equilibration is the term Piaget uses to describe the balance a child reaches when it satisfied with a schema, new information places the child in a state of disequilibrium or imbalance, until, assimilation and accommodation allow equilibration to take place. As with all theories, Piaget was criticised for placing too much emphasis on environment and not considering social interaction as an impacting force (Cohen, 1993).
It has also been suggested that children appear to have existing understanding of basic principles, e. g. a study by Gibson and Walk, used a ‘visual cliff’ where a checkerboard pattern continued several feet below a glass table. The test showed that infants as young as 5 months were able to perceive depth, and would not proceed when they reached the end of the ‘cliff’ (Bee, 2006b). This shows that many foundations of cognitive ability are already present and further learning will increase cognitive development.
Vygotsky is another central figure in the domain of constructivist theory; however, he differs from Piaget in that Vygotsky places more emphasis on social learning and its effect on cognitive development. His theory focuses on a term he called ‘zone of proximal development’ and defined it as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.
86). Vygotsky believed that learning takes place in this zone. The idea of ZPD suggests that cognitive development is established by social learning with capable peers or adults and cooperative analytical skills. In contrast to Piaget, Vygotsky stated that development was an intricate lifelong process that could not be defined into stages, but instead is to be examined as a means of development rather than an end. Vygotsky’s theory reflects correlation between learning and development.
Newborn children are constantly learning from their experiences and they form understanding from theses experiences, Vygotsky, believes this learning is directly linked to sociocultural perspective. As they grow older, infants readily learn from observation and cooperative learning with peers and adults (Moyles, Miller) The psychodynamic approach addresses children’s learning by focusing on internal mechanisms, such as instincts, conflicts and unconscious forces. A familiar idea of this theory is that unconscious as well as conscious forces regulate behaviour.
Freud suggested three intuitive drives for survival, the sexual drive to reproduce the human race, hunger and pain trigger the instinct to preserve one’s life and aggressive drives are the third force. Freud’s theory is criticised on many accounts, mostly that he suggests the main underlying cause of problems are sexually related, and secondly it is scientifically difficult to measure the hidden unconscious of a being. Freud’s theory implies that children learn behaviour through the progress of three stages.
The newborn and infant are driven by what he termed the id; this is an inborn instinct, which demands instant gratification. As the child grows older, it learns that it cannot achieve instant gratification all the time, and the ego develops as an intermediary pacifier, which takes social contexts into consideration and delays gratification. The superego is the higher form of moral reasoning and is often considered as a parental restrictor, this last stage develops much later in development (Bee, 2006b).
It can be seen how Freud’s theory affects social and emotional development and behaviour in the first five years, as most children at this age are controlled by the id and the developing ego. Erikson’s theory is often viewed as an extension of Freud’s psychosexual theory of Development. Erikson suggests that development progresses over a lifespan and he portrays this in his theory of the eight stages of psychosocial development. His theory proposes that each stage has a conflict within it that must be resolved before proceeding to the next stage; each stage presents the opportunity for success or failure.
The first three stages are relevant in the first five years of a child’s life and include emotional, social and cognitive development on behaviour acquisition. The first stage is trust versus mistrust and takes place in the period of the first two years of infancy; this stage propounds an emotional crisis in which the child must successfully develop trust and security and emotional well-being. If the care provider does not reciprocate emotional care positively the child becomes mistrustful.
Once the child has learned trust, it advances to the next stage of autonomy versus shame, and approximately takes place in early childhood. This stage concentrates on the child’s ability to develop confidence and a sense of independence. Children at this age (approximately two to four years) begin to manage small parts of their lives, and Erikson suggests toilet training is a huge feat in establishing independence in a child. It also consists of decision-making and choice over things like food, clothes etc, if a child is unsuccessful in this stage then it leads to shame and a feeling of inadequacy.
The third stage occurs from about three to five years of age, and incorporates the child’s ability to play and develop social skills of leadership or subordination, power and a sense of self. If the child cannot overcome the crisis then inhibition, fear and a prolonged development are the result. The successful child proceeds to the next stage and so forth (Brain 2005) The humanistic perspective argues that behaviour is subjective as individuals determine and control their own thoughts and actions.
Maslow hypothesised a hierarchy of need, in which each level of the hierarchy had to be satisfied before the human need moved on to the next level. For example, according to Maslow’s hierarchy it is not perceived that an individual would desire the comfort of a spouse or children, if basic physiological needs such as food and water were not satisfied (Bee 2006a). Children develop and learn most productively in the environment of a community where they are safe and valued, and their emotional and physiological needs fulfilled.
If physical nourishment is transpiring then Maslow’s theory depicts emotional well-being as an important factor, certainly all aspects of development are influenced by successfully accomplishing positive first relationships. This provides the constructive foundation for effective social and emotional development, which will inadvertently affect cognitive development as well. Skinner constructed a theory he termed operant conditioning, and based it on the notion that learning is a means of behaviour modification.
His experiments show how he conditioned rats to pull a lever to release food, the incentive for the rats was the food and the required behaviour was pulling the lever. The theory illustrates that changes in behaviour are the consequences of an individual’s reaction to incentives that occur in any given environment; subsequently the reaction will produce an outcome. When a specific response is reinforced, behaviour is conditioned, and the individual will respond to a stimulus to achieve its incentive; the result will be consistent each time.
The crucial aspect of Skinner’s model is reinforcement, a particular behaviour can be acquired through reward, and certain behaviours prevented through punishment (Brain, 2005). Skinner’s theory belongs to the Behaviourist approach and is effective in explaining some of the causes and modifications of behaviour; it is often used in schools to elicit particular behaviours from children (usually in the form of sweets or stickers). Social learning theory clarifies behaviour in terms of consistent equal correlation between cognitive, behavioural, and environmental influences.
Social learning theory has four main components, attention, retention, motor reproduction and motivation, which cover physical, cognitive and behavioural development. Attention requires concentration so that the events are observed accurately. Retention includes the intellectual organization of information in order to store it effectively in the memory and remember the correct processes of events. Motor reproduction includes the physical ability to imitate the behaviour, for example, a human is not physically able to fly like superman.
Motivation involves the child to be willing and motivated to imitate the behaviour. The observed consequences of a particular behaviour (whether punished or rewarded) may influence a child’s decision to imitate or not, Bandura called this modeling (Brain 205) One of the famous experiments conducted by Albert Bandura, known as the ‘Bobo doll’ experiment revealed that children imitated aggressive physical and verbal behaviour towards the dolls, exactly as they had observed, whereas the children who observed non-aggressive behaviour displayed practically no aggressive behaviour (Shaffer, 1989).
Bandura suggests that social behaviour is learned primarily by observing and imitating the actions of others. Children are often observed imitating adults in role-play. Punishment and reward are also influences on behavioural development as mentioned in Skinner’s theory, for example, a child may observe a peer being rewarded with a sticker for tidying up and then learn that to obtain a sticker s/he must also tidy up.
This theory facilitates an understanding of how behaviour is acquired and how it may be modified. John Bowlby developed attachment theory and he suggested that first relationships are the basis for young children’s development, predominantly their social and emotional development. Bowlby (1979: 129) states “… attachment behaviour is held to characterize human beings from the cradle to the grave”; much of Bowlby’s work was on the maternal bond that develops with a child.
He believed that the connection between mother and child, or caregiver and child has a basic gentle and evolutionary basis, in order for the child to receive appropriate care, protection and nourishment; it has a tendency to maintain nearness to the main caregiver. Bowlby maintained that a child displays attachment behaviour when separated from the main care provider, first as protest, then despair and finally as detachment. First relationships can be summarised as “a deeply rooted motivational system that ensures close contact between babies and adult caregivers who can protect, nurture, and guide their development” (Shonkoff, 2000, p 230).
Bowlby expanded and utilised various research to support his theory, one of his early works included research on delinquent adolescents and discovered maternal deprivation to be a recurring matter. Michael Rutter (1981) criticized Bowlby’s theory, and suggested that early experiences cannot be held as direct underlying causes for later emotional distress, Rutter believed it is more significant how children are looked after in the period of severance not the actual severance itself (Cowie, 2002).
Bowlby introduced three stages of attachment, during the first pre-attachment phase (0-2 months) babies do not develop a particular attachment, and are content to be cared for by anyone. In the second phase (2-7 months) babies show a firm attachment to the main caregiver and cling to this figure when in the presence of a stranger, Bowlby termed this ‘stranger fear’. The last phase is around two years of age and is labelled separation anxiety, the infant is confident to move away from the main caregiver provided they
remain physically present for the child to return to Brain (2005). Bowlby suggested that constant loving care and nurturing was essential during the crucial phase between approximately 6 months and 3 years of age, maternal deprivation or separation from the primary caregiver would result in considerable detrimental effects on social and emotional development of the child (Cowie, 2002). Harlow and Harlow’s famous experiment on Rhesus monkeys provided support to Bowlby’s theory (Bowlby, 1973).
In these experiments, young monkeys were separated from their mother shortly after birth. Two wire monkeys were substituted as artificial surrogate mothers. The first monkey was made of wire mesh and provided food; however, the second monkey was covered with foam and cloth and only provided comfort. The young monkeys nursed at the wire monkey but sought contact with the cloth monkey. The experiment showed that infants need a mother’s love and comfort, and it proved that infants prefer proximity and comfort from a mother, rather than just using the mother for nourishment.
The young monkeys clutched to the soft cloth doll and explored more when in the presence of the soft cloth doll, and the doll seemed to provide them with a sense of security. Infants reared without normal social interaction with other monkeys, displayed either fearful or aggressive behaviour and the effects were apparent from two years of age, well into adulthood (Brain 2005). The experiment portrayed the importance of warmth, love and comfort that a nurturing mother or primary carer provides is essential for intellectual, social and emotional development.
Mary Ainsworth’s research was based on an experiment to observe attachment behaviour between a child and the primary caregiver (usually the mother) the experiment is known as the strange situation. The procedure involves a child playing in a room, meanwhile the caregiver and stranger alternately enter and leave the room, the child’s play behaviour and responses to caregiver and stranger are observed. The experiment placed children in four categories of attachment, secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-resistant and disorganized.
Attachment theorists are realizing that children differ from birth, but individual personalities and development are influenced by social experience, environment, and the attachment relationship is affected by the characteristics of both child and caregiver (Parkes, 1993) Cultural differences in child-rearing practices have various implications and meanings across cultures. Culture defines a set of beliefs and patterns of behaviour; this can be in a social, religious, societal or ethnic context.
Culture clearly has an influence on the development of children, Edwards and Gandini (1989) point out that culture organises and translates children’s behaviour and development (Hinde, 1993). “To understand development we must come to terms with the ways in which individuals, in developing their own self-concepts and participating in social relationships, both shape and are shaped by their social and cultural environment” (Hinde, 1993). In a research paper Reebye, (2006) found various studies on cultural differences in child rearing and the impact this had on child development.
Chen et al. (1998) studied reticent behaviour in Chinese and Canadian children and the child-rearing attitudes of the relative mothers. The results showed that Chinese babies were significantly more withdrawn and shy than their Canadian counterparts, and the underlying cause of this behaviour difference lay in parental styles and attitudes. Taciturn behaviour was positively associated with the Chinese mother’s approval, whereas the Canadian mothers negatively received it, which implies a variation of the connotation of behaviour inhibition across both cultures (Reebye, 2006).
Another example Reebye (2006) presents is a study conducted by Marcovitchet al (1997) which assessed the development, attachment and behavioural problems in adopted Romanian orphans between three to five years of age. The study revealed that children who had spent less time I institutional car displayed better development outcomes and more securely attached compared to the group of children who had spent more than six months in institutional care. The latter group were insecurely attached and scored less on development outcomes.
The disadvantage of cross-cultural studies is the limitations of the range of studies in measuring attitudes, beliefs, cultural practices etc. Reebye (2006) continues to describe the importance of relationship development and its effects on affective, cognitive, social development and moral and ethical attitudes. Child-rearing practices and attachment directly influence these developmental factors, and it is important to remember that parenting practices are in turn influenced by social and cultural traditions.
”The factors such as parental intuition, parental attitudes, attributions and beliefs, learned parenting skills, accepted cultural and societal parenting norms, family factors, and environmental factors such as extended family support, poverty or unemployment – are the most influential ones. Each of these or all collectively, can be considered from a cross-cultural perspective. ” (Reebye 2006). In today’s modern and often changing world, many cultures also change and adapt, from generation to generation.
Changes in societal norms, immigration and such alike affect child-rearing practice considerably, such single parenting is a common family structure, yet in the Victorian times was extremely rare and frowned upon, other changes include inter-racial adoptions, parenting by same sex couples, use of surrogate mothers etc. It can be suggested that children’s social, emotional and cognitive development is indisputably influenced by environmental factors, genetic compositions, attachment and first relationship, cultural traditions and this is reflected in their unique personalities and behaviour.
“In general, there is a need to understand multiple outcomes of child development (cognitive, physical, social, and emotional) within the context of multiple factors (social, economic, cultural, and community-level)” (The National Institute of Health, 2006). The first five years are important to understand the influences and causal links of child development in the early years. This may facilitate children’s well-being and ensure that government policies regarding children are reflective of child development needs, in particular families living in poverty or deprived areas.
For example, quality of schools and education will affect cognitive development, and racial, gender, and religious integration will have positive effects on social development. It can be inferred that positive emotional development underpins all other areas of development, and if emotional development is defective then it will be replicated across other areas of development. In essence, all areas of development are interwoven and interdependent. The first five years are crucial for positive development, basic needs such as
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