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ESE504 : The Class : Essentials : Linking


Linking Child Development

to Teaching

J'Anne Ellsworth

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 sequential way.

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 child development.

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 individual youngster.

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 work.

Critical Periods

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.

new born 1 2 3 4 5 6 years



concern for details

need for structure and order
unconscious awareness of language
conscious awareness of language
large muscle control
hand coordination

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.

Do ages and stages correspond?

Do the stages follow one another, or do some children skip certain stages?

If ages and stages go together, do they occur in all cultures, or are the findings more likely to apply to the cultures studied?

Do boys and girls grow at different rates?

Do girls go through stages boys don’t? What about oldest or youngest children?

Do they grow differently?

Are precocious youth able to jump over stages?

If 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 consecutively.

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 to community.

Holistic View
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 the time?

In this course, the scope is set at five areas.


Physical Biological forces, height, weight, coordination, puberty
E Emotional Personality, ego strength, sense of self, traits
P Philosophical Super ego, reasoning about behavior, internal voice
S Social Relationship, Second person perspective, esteem referent
I Intellectual Cognition, way of reasoning, problem solving paradigm, IQ

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 tasks.

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.

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