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Child Development Theories

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Dec 8, 2010

Theories of development are much more specific than paradigms or worldviews (Miller, 1993). A theory of development deals with change over time and is usually concerned with three things. First, it should describe changes over time within an area or several areas of development. Second, it should describe changes among areas of development. Third, it should explain these changes.

No one theory has proved adequate to describe and explain learning or development. Numerous theories of development have influenced educational practices during the 20th century (Aldridge, Kuby, & Strevy, 1992), and currently a shift is affecting theories of child development and education. Some of the historical and current theories that have influenced education include Gesell's (1925) maturational theory, Skinner's (1974) behaviorist approach, Freud's (1935) psychoanalytic theory, Piaget's (1952) constructivist theory, Vygotsky's (1978) sociohistorical approach, Bronfenbrenner's (1989) ecological sysstems theory, and Gardner's (1983) multiple intelligences theory. More recently, critical theory (see Kessler & Swadener, 1992) has influenced education and child development practices, even though critical theory is not a theory of development. Finally, postmodern conceptions have changed the way we think of children and how to educate them (Elkind, 1995,2000/2001).

Maturational Theory

The maturational theory of Arnold Gesell (1925) continues to affect what goes on in schools, particularly in early childhood classrooms in some parts of the United States. Gesell based his theory on three major assumptions: (a) development has a biological basis, (b) good and bad years alternate, and (c) body types (endomorph, ectomorph, mesomorph) are correlated with personality development (Thomas, 1992). Maturational theory strongly influenced the teaching of reading in the mid 1900s (Morphett & Washburne, 1931). Children were not thought to be ripe for reading until they had a mental age of six and a half years. Consequently, readiness activities were developed for children who were not yet ready to read. Some of this nonsense still occurs in preschool, kindergarten, and even primary-level classrooms. Today, maturational theory is partially responsible for the existence of prekindergartens and pre first grades aimed at children who supposedly need the" gift of time," because of immaturity or a late birthday. These classrooms tend to have a ratio of boys to girls of anywhere from 7:1 to 10:1 (Aldridge, Eddowes, & Kuby, 1998).

Practitioners subscribing to maturational theory consider any difficulties a child experiences as being found within the child. This oversimplistic explanation for anything from reading problems to Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (AD[H]D) is extremely limiting to children and to those who work with them. If a problem lies within a child, then what value does a supportive (or, for that matter, a nonsupportive) environment have?

Another, perhaps unintentional consequence of maturational theory is the recently popular "late birthday" phenomenon. Children in classrooms who are the youngest and have a "late birthday" are often branded by the teacher as slower and less ready for instruction. Many teachers report other instructors as saying, "I knew the child would have problems. He has a late birthday."

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