Linking Child Development
This reading defines some of the critical concepts for understanding
and studying human development. In the past 100 years, the study of children
moved out of the realm of philosophy and into a careful, thoughtful set
of experiments and observations. Child development research is really
profound and simple. Most of the material has been discovered, rather
than invented. Just as a geologist observes rock formations and astronomers
watch the sky, we began to watch children. In virtually every instance,
it is that observation that led us to realize that children grow in a
Understanding the development of children is critical to good teaching,
and gives us powerful tools for honing the art and craft of teaching.
By recognizing components in the thinking processes, the typical behavior
interests of an age group, the tasks for students at different ages, we
can match curriculum with expectations and enhance teaching success while
increasing the excitement students feel about learning. William James
(why not find a site about him and add 25 points to your total?) was a
pioneer in this field. He took a background in medicine, and a desire
to understand human beings, into the teacher education field. He loved
to teach, loved to make his lessons dynamic and student centered, and
wrote about his insights in Letters to Teachers.
Maria Montessori (why not find a site about her and add 25 points to
your total?) also moved the study of human development into the classroom.
Interestingly, she was the only woman admitted to medical school in her
community and her pioneering work with youngsters was as radical as her
insistence on being a woman doctor. She worked with students who had difficulty
learning and provided developmental steps and didactics that allowed special
needs students to succeed. She provided a learning environment that addressed
the specific developmental level of the child, then combined empathy,
tasks at the student’s success level, and tasks at the “stretching point”
of the youth’s ability. The teaching environment was highly stimulating,
multi-sensory, and keyed to different kinds of intelligences. With that
formula, she was able to take the most backward “idiots” who could not
be trained in schools, the street urchins and delinquents in Rome, circa
1900, and successfully teach them. Her work exemplifies the power of understanding
Linking Nature and Nurture
Child Development considers the nature or genetic predisposition of the
child, the culture and environment or nurturance the child receives, and
the time period when students reach certain milestones or have a life
altering crisis. The critical periods provide the time frame when most
children begin to work on and acquire specific skills and a point of reference
for checking on the development of an individual child.
If the child becomes interested in or acquires skills at
about the same time as peers, we see the sequence of development as normal,
and if the child is slow to walk, to talk, to read or write, we may see
that child as having a developmental delay. Time, nature, and nurture
are integral components in understanding human beings, or children as
a whole, and acquiring sensitivity to the remarkable uniqueness of each
Our human biology directs much of our development. As a species, we mature
in very specific ways. For instance, by the time an infant is born, he
or she will have grown more, physically, than all the rest of life. That
growth occurs inside the womb, substantially without direction or intervention.
Once the infant is born, there are specific biological ways the child
unfolds. As an example, the human being gains control over the body in
a cephalocaudal, and proximodistal progression. That means that invariably,
if the child is normal, control over the head develops before control
over the trunk and control over the trunk occurs before control over the
arms and legs. This is the pattern, and it happens over and over again
from one baby to the next. Of course the environment contributes to the
rapidity of motor development. Practice, encouragement, nutrition, and
freedom to move contribute to the process, of course, but with great regularity,
babies go through this progression of muscle development as though they
are following a blue print, and they do it step by step
.Understanding the nature of a student is a critical part
of classroom management. When we know a student is hyperactive we can
help the student adjust to that fact. We would never belittle a child
who was crippled, or make education requirements such as running track,
if that were impossible for the child who was wheel chair bound, to accomplish.
We would be embarrassed by someone who expected a child without sight
to read a text without Braille. We wouldn’t tolerate the cruelty of a
peer laughing at a youngster with Downs who didn’t know how to tell time.
By recognizing that personality traits and learning styles are also part
of the nature of a child, the teacher and child can work together to recognize
and better utilize inherent strengths. It also is possible to accept the
idea that we each have inborn aptitudes and strengths as well as limitations
and areas of weakness. If we see a lack of musical ability as laziness,
we may become angry with the student who seems unmotivated to practice.
If we recognize the student as having a different array of gifts and music
as an exposure experience rather than an area of expertise, we bring a
different kind of expectation to the class room. Some students have a
gift for music, some do not. Some doodle, some are limited in natural
art talent. Some are great at math, for others, arithmetic is page after
page of ciphers.
Culture, social class and environment are factors that contribute to student
behavior and the expression of personality and nature. When we first studied
children at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the question of nature
and nurture was frequently argued. Today, after several decades of behaviorist
theories that suggested environment was the critical factor, we are back
to a more balanced view. We realize that determining a formula for how
much nature or nurture contributes to a student’s being is not the essential
question. Instead, we recognize that a child’s genetic nature accounts
for many personality traits. In fact, twin studies and our ability to
locate genetic traits in human DNA has dramatically increased the number
of traits we see as inborn. As we become more clear about genetic input,
we can more fully and honestly address the importance of culture and community.
Dyslexia sometimes runs in families. By recognizing such
a pattern, we might learn what other family members did to learn to read,
and thus enhance the work we do to encourage reading. If diabetes or cancer
or heart problems appear to be in the future of a person, we can change
diet, increase exercise and monitor the person’s health. The same tools
can be tapped for learning. If a parent was ADHD, we can learn from those
life experiences and help the student establish similar coping skills
to the ones the parent found to be successful.
A student’s life experiences include contributions from family, community
and social interactions. Children’s needs and perceptions color the way
they see school, how they feel about their gifts and talents, how resilient
they are in the face of frustration. Understanding environmental forces
allows a teacher to facilitate growth. Those of us who entered the teaching
profession to “make a difference” will find energy in realizing how vital
nurturance is for helping students self actualize and reach full potential.
In disciplining students, this developmental insight can change
the way we view misbehavior or lack of motivation. As Piaget and Erikson
note, children want to please themselves, but they also want very much
to please others and gain acceptance for themselves and their actions.
This is one of the most powerful forces for children. They need safety,
a sense of belonging, validation of worth. Knowing this, we can be pretty
certain that something is wrong when a child will not cooperate, can’t
or won’t finish assignments, isn’t constantly seeking and inquiring. We
can shape a youngster’s learning environment and tasks to enhance natural
interests. When a youngster is off task, we can support the need for a
change of pace and also provide support for moving back into meaningful
Konrad Lorenz studied ducks and found that immediately after hatching,
they imprinted, or established a bond. We often see pictures of this gentleman
being followed by a row of ducklings, as though he was the mother fowl.
From his work and the observation of youngsters, we know that there are
specific times when learning seems to get a biological push. When a child
learns to walk, we can see the natural progression of developing muscle
groups that take the child from a prone position to upright and running
in a matter of months. The course seems preset and the child goes from
one skill to the next. A person who tries to learn to walk later, has
much greater difficulty and often needs therapy and protracted periods
of time to accomplish the task. The body’s center of gravity changes,
the tasks do not seem to come naturally, and the seeming miracle of walking
only occurs through a series of hard fought torturous exercises.
Can an infant be taught to walk earlier than expected? Probably
some acceleration is possible, and maybe it will be good for the baby.
Can an older child learn to walk if they miss those first years? Yes,
it happens occasionally. The “natural” or critical time seems to be the
best use of time and resources. It is difficult to say what might be lost
by pushing an infant to sit before it is natural or walk before the muscles
are fully ready. In schools, we seem to ignore readiness in favor of a
set curriculum of instruction. The more we match ability and timing with
students, the fewer discipline problems we are likely to encounter.
The more we match student ability and capture critical
periods -- utilize the right timing , the fewer discipline problems we
are likely to encounter.
There is also the question of what happens if a critical period is missed.
Language development research gives us insight into this. We know that
there is a brief period of time, approximately until 18 months, when an
infant seems wired to hear faint nuances in language. Over time, that
facility fades. The children who move to a country and acquire a second
language often do well picking up and reproducing language sounds until
about eight years old. After that time, few speak a language without a
marked accent from the first acquired speech patterns. Certainly they
can learn another language, but it seems to require more effort, more
time and the accent remains.
Montessori called these times “sensitive periods.” This chart shows her
findings about sensitive periods of development in her work with children
in Italy. They suggest an optimum time frame, or critical period for language
and motor skills.
concern for details
need for structure and order
|unconscious awareness of language
conscious awareness of language
large muscle control
Erikson suggested that critical periods extend to social
and emotional development. Human beings are really quite resilient, so
it is difficult to determine how lasting a trauma may be.
Critical periods may impact classroom management. This true story about
Stephanie is one example: Stephanie was criticized for a foolish response
in first grade. It only happened one time, but it was the last time Stephanie
raised her hand to answer a question, not just that year, but for the
rest of her school life. She moved to the rear of the classroom when given
a choice, and despite above average intelligence, she took every chance
she could to stay home.
First grade is a time when initiative and industry vie with
shame and doubt. Was this a critical period in Stephanie’s development?
If she shared her distress, could the teacher “undo” the emotional wound?
Was it the teacher, or did Stephanie have esteem problems elsewhere? Was
Stephanie born more emotionally fragile than her friends, or did others
in the grade also respond as she did to an overly critical experience?
We can’t be sure, but it begs the question of critical periods as a function
of understanding and properly working with youth.. Again, nature, nurture
and time are integral parts of personality.
Critical periods also are important in developing curriculum. Most youngsters
in the primary grades are consolidating large muscle control. Many do
not have enough eye-hand coordination to find writing or reading exciting.
Instead, many youngsters are pushed to cut, paste, draw, color, write
and make sense out of symbols before the internal push and readiness are
in place. This means students are not ready to relish tasks, may find
learning drudgery rather than stimulating. We could literally destroy
the likelihood that a person will love learning, writing, reading, by
pressing a personal or politically established time frame for learning.
Once a student experiences a series of learning failures, school challenges
may appear overwhelming. If the student also sees attempts to work effectively
as futile and finds productive means of controlling the school environment
to be unfulfilling, a new set of less positive and productive ways of
relating. If this happens once or twice, most students rise above the
failure and frustration, but if it is a consistent part of trying to learn,
who can blame them for day dreaming, rebelling, talking to neighbors rather
than staying on task, and sometimes, even lashing out in frustration?
Critical periods may have a great deal
to do with discipline!
Ages and Stages
Once we began the scientific study of human development, observation became
a critical tool. As data were gathered and compiled, a pattern emerged.
Gesell’s work is specific about the ages when skills or behaviors emerged.
His institute produced books alerting parents to “terrible two’s” and
seven year olds as whiny, while eight year olds were more social and settled.
ages and stages correspond?
the stages follow one another, or do some children skip certain stages?
ages and stages go together, do they occur in all cultures, or are the
findings more likely to apply to the cultures studied?
boys and girls grow at different rates?
girls go through stages boys don’t? What about oldest or youngest children?
they grow differently?
precocious youth able to jump over stages?
a child becomes fixated, does that mean he or she will have to catch up
by going through all the stages, or might a jump to peer appropriate stages
occur once safety and health are restored?
There are many views about these questions. At this point,
there is sufficient documentation to show that there are patterns of development,
and that many children in the same grade are grappling with similar issues.
Many fourth graders start clubs and are enthusiastic about playing and
working together, while a great number of four year olds play next to
rather than with other four year olds. Some in each group don’t match
the general trend. Some fourth graders cannot play well in groups, and
some fours love group play.
For some theories, Erikson’s socio-emotional stages, Gesell’s
observations of physical development, Piaget’s work on cognitive development,
the sequence may be fairly stable, but the rate of acquisition varies
widely. We also are not quite sure that stages are hierarchical [that
students must go through the stages in sequence and don't jump around
or skip some steps]. We think that level four moral reasoning is
more complex than level three, but in all circumstances? Does everyone
go through level three and advance to level four reasoning? What about
cognitive development and learning styles? Are there some children who
approach life in a linear more abstract manner and some who always approach
learning from a more hands on way, seldom or never gaining the
ability to or interest in reasoning abstractly? These questions lead us
to use care in over generalizing about ages and stages, but in fact, a
wide range of children do fit the ages and stages, and take those stages
Having an idea of the typical behavior for an age group is a critical
tool in managing the classroom. This is a good example. Whining and tattling
are typical behaviors for children in the second half of first grade and
most of second grade. Children this age are beginning to develop an awareness
of right and wrong -- not what will get them in trouble, but rather the
notion that black and white rules apply to everyone. They are terrific
judges of one another. They want adult approval and seem torn between
getting their own way and gaining approval, often paired with following
rules. Many children chew pencils, still suck on fingers or thumbs, chew
their nails and pick their noses.
Some of this may just be age appropriate, some of the behaviors increase
with frequency from stress. Gesell calls this stage, “life in a minor
key.” It is in stark contrast to the “know-it-all” six year old and the
social and more self assured eight year old. In a typical class, there
will be a blend of youngsters expressing this range of behaviors. A teacher
can establish procedures that deal with tattling. Students can be given
guidance about social feelings about touching the nose and the time and
place for self soothing. Music, exercise and treats can help keep spirits
high. The teacher can watch for students who are less secure and build
a strong bond with those children who seem more fragile.
As the teacher learns more about behavior, community building becomes
easier. Though we laugh with Murphy’s law, human beings do not behave
in that way. Our bodies repair themselves, often without any help. We
want to be happy, to care for others, to make good choices. When we do
not, we feel sad, disappointed, and work to regain stasis. Children want
to be successful, have an inborn curiosity, are resilient in efforts to
mature and hope to be liked, to have friends, to belong to and contribute
Studying human development is complex. During early childhood, educators
see themselves working with social and emotional well being. To gain the
attention of students and prepare them for more difficult tasks, physical
development is also a function of teaching. However, as the child moves
beyond the primary grades, teachers are less likely to see the child from
a holistic perspective, and more often, the emphasis is on cognitive development
as the important thrust. This is further underscored by the changes in
testing and grading. During the early grades, we often find report cards
that mark social behavior, work ethic, and developmental milestones. We
seldom test in these areas but we monitor closely enough to observer and
report on them.
By junior high, cognitive development is obviously the focus, and in
high school, each teacher instructs, tests and grades content, with few
exceptions. This seems sensible, since it narrows the focus of school,
but it cannot be considered good practice when one recognizes the importance
of educating the whole child.
This begs three questions:
What areas do we
know we can recognize as developmental?
Which ones should
education become involved in?
Where will we find
In this course, the scope is set at five areas.
||Biological forces, height, weight, coordination,
||Personality, ego strength, sense of self, traits
||Super ego, reasoning about behavior, internal voice
||Relationship, Second person perspective, esteem referent
||Cognition, way of reasoning, problem solving paradigm,
All of these areas have a developmental component. Each is the subject
of research, and each is includes a range of abilities that forms a recognizable
and observable frame for describing a class of related behaviors. Since
it is the whole child who comes to us, not a being reducible to an intellect,
it is the whole child we teach.
Read the following examples of how different areas of development impact
the cognitive or intellectual focus.
Luis has diabetes. When his blood sugar drops, he becomes listless
and can’t seem to pay attention. The physical part of him is tied
to his behavior and to learning.
Yolanda has cerebral palsy. She is very bright but cannot hold a pencil
to write out her letters. Her physical limitations make it difficult
for her to express what she knows, verbally, but she belongs in the gifted
program, intellectually. She gets teased and left out of recess
activities, so her social development is hampered.
Samantha was tiny at birth due to maternal drinking. She was slow to walk,
and her physical agility is limited. She went from the hospital
to foster care, and her infancy was marked by stays in the hospital interspersed
with moves from one foster care situation to another. Her ability to trust
never materialized so her emotional development is sporadic. She
does seem to engage well with the teacher, and her ability to complete
her work seems to depend on the amount of time the teacher can work with
her, one on one. When the teacher provides support, Sam works, but when
the teacher leaves, Samantha loses focus and work efforts stall.
Dom sits in the back of the room and stares off or doodles on a paper.
He doesn’t seem focused on school work and it’s hard to tell if he is
listening to the teacher. He wasn’t very successful in kindergarten or
first grade. At times, the teacher goes to his desk, explains the task
and gets him started. Every time that happens, he completes the work,
but then doesn’t go on to the next task. His emotional development
is solidly at initiative vs. shame and doubt.
Leonard is in trouble again! He took colored pencils from another student’s
desk and when asked about it, he replied that he didn’t have any and he
needed them, so why all the fuss? His philosophical development
is still pre-moral, a stark contrast from the black and white view of
the other students in the sixth grade. He has trouble fitting in with
peers. They laugh at his antics and think his fabrications are amusing,
but they don’t view him as part of the group. Sometimes, Leonard gets
so upset at not belonging that he strikes out at students or plays practical
jokes on them rather than participating in the group activities. Leonard
always seems to be at the bottom of class misunderstandings or uproars.
His lack of progress in moral reasoning also contributes to problems in
his social development.
Tiffany sits near the library, reading a book. She’s alone most of the
time. Her friends began to ostracize her when she spoke up in class about
the importance of preserving life and against hunting the local deer.
She developed philosophical reasoning that leads her to believe
that all life is sacred. Her teen aged friends can’t see what all the
fuss is about, and find her impassioned remarks amusing, giving them a
great way to tease her and get under her skin. Lately, her work has been
slipping, and she seems detached during class. She no longer offers any
opinions, even when called on. Though she is very bright, her lack of
social acceptance, in part due to her precocious life view, affects
her intellectual development in the school setting, for her lack
of social acceptance saps her energy and desire to move forward with school
Luke acts like he’s a bubble on a hot stove. The chemistry teacher finds
him especially trying. Students can’t focus on experiments if Luke is
in their group. Recently, one of the more mature student came up after
class and told the teacher that he would like to help with the teacher’s
request to keep Luke in the group, but it just isn’t working. Luke always
insists on his own way, doesn’t follow directions, and then alienates
the other students by his verbal antics. Luke’s social age seems
to be closer to seven than seventeen.
Each of these scenarios shows ways development is having an impact on
teaching content. Each of these youngsters has a developmental level
that differs from the majority of the class, and in each case, the behavior
emerges as a discipline issue. Sometimes the student is “acting out” and
other times, it is the response of peers that is problematic. Viewing
children as growing, developing, even stalled or regressed, provides a
positive perspective for understanding and thus for redirecting the behavior
by helping the student "grow into" age appropriate responses.
Our view of children suggests that growth, change, and learning are inherent.
The more holistic our view, the more behavior we are likely to understand.
As we become fluent in recognizing the behaviors and typical age appropriate
actions of youngsters, we gain facility in helping youngsters make productive,
age appropriate advancements.
This healthy school environment can include children empowering each
other and facilitating growth of community. It can work together to build
networks, a great foundation for productive, fully function, fully mature
individuals who are prepared to work productively in situations with rapid
change and who are ready to envelop personal challenges, international
community, what ever the future brings. We not only graduate knowledgeable,
life long learners, we move together to a more dynamic, emotional philosophical,
social and intellectual maturity.
You should now:
Go on to Development of Will
Go back to Essentials
Ellsworth at Janne.Ellsworth@nau.edu
Web site created by the NAU OTLE Faculty Studio
Course developed by J'Anne
Northern Arizona University
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED