Child Development Theories (page 3)
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).
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."
The behavioral theories of Skinner (1974) and Bijou (1989) also continue to influence what goes on in schools, especially for some special education programs. The mechanistic theory of behaviorism emphasizes the role of the environment on an individual's development. Preparing the environment for appropriate reinforcement is a major goal.
Two examples of Skinner's (1974) contribution to education include behavior modification and programmed learning. Both of these rely heavily on immediate reinforcement, in which a child has to exhibit the "right" behavior or produce the "correct" answer in order to be positively reinforced.
Teachers using behavioral theory will consider any difficulties a child has as being found within the environment. As with Gesell's (1925) overemphasis on nature, Skinner's (1974) overemphasis on nurture limits our understanding of children and their differences. Applications of this theory have resulted in an overemphasis on isolated skills and drill, as well as a heavy reliance on teacher-directed and teacher-reinforced activities. Consequently, teachers often ignore children's curiosity and prior knowledge.
Many educators believe the theory behind No Child Left Behind is behaviorism. The methods reported to be scientifically based are rooted in the behaviorist tradition, and so the methodology recommended under No Child Left Behind is behavioral in nature.
Freud's (1935) psychoanalytic theory served as the theoretical basis for analysis of behavior disorders during the 1920s through the 1940s. "Behavior problems displayed by children were viewed as symbolic manifestations of unresolved conflict, often emanating from early caregiver-child interactions" (Hinshaw, 1994, p. 10). Problems with attention and activity levels were attributed to unconscious processes. Play therapy was the recommended form of intervention, with accompanying therapy for the child's parents. Psychodynamic models continue to have an effect on education and intervention for children with special needs.
One of the biggest problems with psychoanalytic theory is the inherent allocation of blame on parent-child interactions—more specifically, on the mother's actions. Fortunately, theoretical shifts have moved from a blame-the-parent model to more bidirectional, transactional, and interactional models of childhood differences.
Although there are several "brands" of constructivism, Pia get's theory (1952) continues into the 21st century to affect what goes on in many classrooms. This theory relies heavily on logical-mathematical knowledge and universal invariant stages of development to the neglect of other forms of knowledge and the importance of context in a child's development. Even though knowledge is constructed from the "inside out" through interaction with the environment, the focus is more on the individual's coordination of relationships rather than on socially constructed knowledge.
Autonomy is the aim of education in constructivism (Kamii, 2000). Constructivist theory, however, has not adequately addressed either individual differences or cultural and contextual contributions to development and education (Delpit, 1988; Kessler & Swadener, 1992; Mallory & New, 1994). Thus, the needs of children who are different often are not met in constructivist classrooms.
The Sociohistorical Approach
The more cultural approach of Vygotsky (1978) affected learning and development through an emphasis on sociohistorical context, language and literacy learning, and the scaffolding of an adult or more able peer within a child's zone of proximal development. Although Vygotsky (1978) emphasized the salience of culture and language, the zone of proximal development concept probably has had the biggest effect on education.
The zone of proximal development is the instructional level of a child, the area in which the child can most benefit from instruction with the help from an adult or more knowledgeable peer. According to Vygotsky (1978), that which a child can do today with help from a teacher (or more able peer), the child can do tomorrow by herself. Trying to figure out a child's zone of proximal development, however, is somewhat nebulous and difficult. Vygotsky (1978) did not expound on the nature of the child's zone of proximal development, how to determine it, or how to work with a child within that zone. For children exhibiting attention and activity-level difficulties, the zone of proximal development may be even more difficult to determine and utilize.
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