Developmental psychology is the study of human development and the changes that take place from conception on. Through the study of human development, scientists are able to uncover patterns of development in which they make hypothesis and theories from. In their observations, developmental scientists have offered many theories that explain the growth of a child’s body, mind and personality. There are five major psychological theories which are the psychoanalytic, learning, cognitive, contextual and evolutionary / sociobiological perspectives.
These perspectives guide scientist down a path of study and questioning that best suits their beliefs about the development of children. Of the five perspectives, I have chosen to compare and contrast the learning, cognitive and contextual theories. In this comparison I will discuss the key concepts, similarities and differences of each perspective. In an effort to explain the overall development of a child, I plan to discuss the interaction between the cognitive, physical and emotional changes that take place during development.
Lastly I will explain, how understanding child development can help children reach their full potential. The job of a developmental scientist is an important one; they investigate and study changes or lack of change in the characteristics of children. The distinctive changes of the body, mind and personality are sorted into the physical, cognitive and psychosocial domains of development. What causes these changes to occur, do they occur in stages or are they reactions to the environment and how much influence does the person have on their own development?
These are the questions that developmental scientist seek to answers. By observing how children learn, think, and socialize as guided by the learning, cognitive and contextual perspective, developmental scientists propose answers that explain the changes in the development of children. The learning perspective focuses on the ability of children to learn to anticipate an action through experience. This perspective maintains that development is continuous and that people continue to modify their behavior in response to experiences or adaptation to their environment.
Learning theorists vary on their view of a child’s active or passive role in development. Behaviorists maintain that children are passive in their development and that the environment controls their behavior, where as Social Learning theorists believe, child development involves two way interactions between the child and the environment. Behaviorism is the study of observable behavior as a result of environmental influences. Behaviorists maintain that through the process of associative learning children form connections between events, causing them to respond in certain ways.
Further Papalia, Olds & Feldman (2008) explain that two types of associative learning called classical conditioning and operant conditioning are ways in which children form connections. Papalia et al. (2008) explain, classical conditioning is a key concept of the learning theory and was first proven by “The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) when he devised experiments in which dogs learned to salivate at the sound of a bell that rang at feeding time”(p. 31). Because a bell wouldn’t normally cause a dog to salivate the experiment proved that dogs could be conditioned to respond involuntarily to an improbable stimulus.
A later experiment proved this technique viable in child development and was seen by some as manipulation or mind control. The second form of associative learning, operant conditioning, occurs naturally and elicits a voluntary reaction to positive or negative stimuli. This kind of learning is very common in my house and is very useful in motivating my children to perform better in school. The kindergarten children in our elementary school all receive different colored bucks at the end of everyday indicating their behavior.
When 10 green or white bucks are accumulated the child can cash them in for a prize from the treasure box, however yellow or red bucks are not counted. The use of the bucks is an example of educators using reinforcement and punishment to elicit good behavior. The final concept of the learning theory I’d like to discuss is the Social learning (social cognitive) Theory. Papalia et al. (2008) describes social learning as a process of of reciprocal determinism, which is the bidirectional interaction of the child and its environment. In my experience as a parent this type of learning has been enlightening in that, oo often my own behavior is reflected back to me from my children. My son has recently began grumbling when he doesn’t like something, sadly I have recognized this behavior as something he has learned from me and is an example of what social learning theorists call observational learning or modeling. The learning perspective has shown us how children are affected by outside stimulus and are able to use environmental factors to fulfill their individual needs. How children think, is encompassed by a different perspective that I’d like to discuss which the cognitive perspective as it helps us understand how children process information.
What goes through a child’s mind when they seek to fulfill their desires, how do they process new information and is new information used is specific ways to foster development? These are questions that motivated cognitive theorists like Jean Paiget to ask more questions of children, in his study of a cognitive development. The cognitive perspective looks at the development of thought processes in children and encompasses Piaget’s cognitive-stage theory and Neo-Piagetian theories, Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory and the information-processing approach.
Cognitive theories combine both organismic and mechanistical concepts. For example, researchers like Jean Paiget viewed development organismically, though he proposed stages of cognitive development. In Paiget’s cognitive stage theory he suggests that children organize information into schemes which “are organized patterns of behavior that a person uses to think about and act in a situation” (Papalia et al. , 2008, p. 34). Further, Paiget suggests the addition of new information is handled through adaptation which incorporates assimilation and accommodation.
Lastly equilibration is the cognitive process children use when they are unable to handle a new situation and involves utilizing the first two stages to achieve equilibrium. Paiget’s concept focuses on the use of brain only as the impetus of development leaving out important factors such as social and cultural influences. The sociocultural theory highlights what children think about in relation to their social interactions within their culture and environment. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist suggested that cognitive growth in children occurs primarily through social interactions between adults and children.
Adult support, is initially needed by children to learn new activities, after which the child takes responsibility for their own learning through practice. Papalia et al. (2008) describes “scaffolding as the temporary support that parents, teachers and others, give a child in doing a task until the child can do it alone” (p. 35). My children and I go through this process regularly and currently we are working on learning to tie our shoes and cut food with a knife. How my children process the new information I give them is what Information Processing theorists attempt to explain.
By studying how children react to cognitive tasks, information-processing theorists gather data to figure out what goes on inside the brain. Advances in technology are making it easier for researchers to learn about information processing in children. With the use of brain imaging, cognitive neuroscientists are learning about cognitive growth and brain development. The Information-processing approach focuses primarily on input and output without giving much attention to environmental influences, whereas, the contextual theory primarily focuses the environmental influences that foster development.
Researchers who follow the contextual perspective view children as an active organismic element that is inseparable from their environment. The bioecological theory developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005), breaks down a childs environment into five interlocking contextual systems, organized by proximity to the child. The five system proposed by Bronfenbrenner include the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem and the chronosystem. In the microsystem immediate family, extended family and any adult that has contact with the child have are pivotal in outer influences affecting child development.
The mesosystem though more complex helps care givers stay connected to outside influences on a child’s development. The exosystem is the involvement of unfamiliar people with the child through contact caregivers of the child. The macrosystem is has the furthest proximity to the child however contributes to child development though culture and belief systems. Lastly the chronosystem contributes by dictating a families status in society during a given period in history and economic stability of the environment.
The most distinctive aspect of Bronfenbrenner’s theory is that it incorporates indirect societal influence, as well as intimate social interactions in child development. Papalia et al. (2008) gave the following example “a woman whose employer encourages breast-feeding by providing pumping and milk storage facilities may be more likely to continue nursing her baby” and thus indirectly affects the child’s development. Of the three perspectives discussed all of them have at least one follower that insists bidirectional involvement is necessary for child development.
The social learning theory explains that people learn by observation and imitating what they have seen. Both Piaget and Vygotsky defend that a child’s active engagement with their environment is a significant part of cognitive development. Finally the contextual perspective focuses solely on bidirectional involvement, however on a larger scale. The three perspectives are also similar in that they each contain concepts that view development as continuous. Cultural influences were factored in at least one concept from each perspective.
Differences between the perspectives include the study of qualitative and quantitative changes and the experimental methods used in the learning and cognitive perspectives and not for the contextual perspective. Researchers of the contextual perspective used naturalistic observation to compile data. Each theory focuses on different areas of development, for example the Learning perspective focuses on behavior, the Cognitive perspective focuses on thought processes and the Contextual perspective focuses on overall development as effected by the environment.
The overall development of a child encompasses physical, cognitive and emotional growth. As children grow physically their bodies change rapidly this, in turn initiates changes in thought processes and emotions. One primary example is the changes that the first years of life and puberty. Papalia et al. (2008) explain that “during puberty, dramatic physiological and hormonal changes affect the developing sense of self” thus contributing to emotional development.
As children grow through infancy their physical ability to pick up toys and play with them positively effects their cognitive development. The ability to see and move around also progress cognitive development as proven in a sample of children abandoned in an orphanage, when found the children were “passive and emotionless” (Papalia et al. , 2008, p. 157). Papalia et al. (2008) also demonstrate developmental dependencies in stating that “a child with frequent ear infections may develop language more slowly than a child without this physical problem” (p. 10).
As I watch my children make their own way through kindergarten I find myself wondering about their development in the first five years of life. I see them becoming individuals more and more wondering did I do my best. In truth I know I have and the concepts I’ve learned about their development in this class has reinforced my impetus to foster their growth physically, cognitively and emotionally. I was and will always be the type of parent who seeks to learn more about child development in order to do the best I can to provide a optimal environment for my children.
Understanding normal child development provides parents, educators and all adults the chance to give children the best care and opportunities to be the best they can be. Understanding a child’s capacity to learn and achieve leaves no room for neglect. I can now reflect on my own upbringing and say that some of my experiences as a child haven’t all been as focused as I intend to provide for my own children. However it is those personal experiences that have made me the determined, goal oriented person I am now, who will continue to strive to nurture good citizens for our future.