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Theories of Development – B.M.C.
Child and Human Development can be described in different terms. Development is the orderly process
of moving from undifferentiated movements and reactions of an infant to finely differentiated and
controlled movements and specific responses of a school aged child, teen or adult.
Children develop and grow in four major areas: physical, mental, emotional and social.
Physical development and growth is most rapid in early life or infancy. Overall the rate of
growth slows down as the child ages. The physical development becomes more refined and
overall abilities improve. Physical growth can be divided into gross motor skills-large muscle
movements and fine motor skills - small muscle movements. Children develop gross (large) to
fine (small), inside out and head to toe.
Mental development or cognitive development is the changes in thinking and reasoning, as
well as the development and use of language. It is best described as an increasing store and use
of knowledge. This development occurs as the result of interactions with objects and people. A
child will grow from handling an object to manipulating it; then he will begin to use it as a tool
for a purpose. Young children are not capable of logical thought, nor can they reason in abstract
terms. Logic and reasoning develop as the child ages and matures.
Social development reflects the ability to interact and get along with others. As the child grows
and matures he should become capable of pro-social behaviors such as helping, cooperating,
controlling personal aggression and developing a positive self esteem. (Erik Erikson is a major
theorist we will discuss later in the semester. His work attempts to explain the development of
personal identity and emotions.)
Emotional development reflects the child’s increasing ability to express his emotions in socially
acceptable ways and to control personal impulses. As they grow and mature children develop
sympathy/empathy and a sense of right and wrong.
Children’s growth and development can be explained from several theoretical points of view. Each has
supporters and practitioners, each offer explanations of human growth and development.
I. Behaviorist Theory– John B. Watson, Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner
Have you ever heard of Pavlov’s experiment with dogs and bells? This is classical conditioning;
the learner is presented with a stimulus and a reward. He expects the reward each time the
stimulus is presented.
Operant conditioning is similar but the behavior precedes the reinforcement. In the classroom
if a student exhibits the proper behavior, he is rewarded by the teacher. If he exhibits a
negative behavior he receives a time out or some form of punishment. A chore chart with
rewards used at home to train children to participate in household responsibilities is Operant
Conditioning. Also behaviors can be extinguished by failing to provide reinforcements for them.
If a child is behaving in a negative way, reward only their good behaviors to stop the negative
Shaping behavior involves the following components:
Targeting the desired behavior, ex. Jill needs to put away her toys
Fixing the behavioral baseline, ex. every evening by 6:30 PM her toys should be in their bins
Selecting the reinforcers, ex. She will receive extra story time at bedtime when she puts her toys
away 3 nights
Analyzing the task and sequencing the segments, ex. describe and demonstrate the desired
behavior or show what putting away the toys properly looks like
Systematically applying the reinforcers, ex. keep a record of nights toys are put away correctly
and promptly reward on the third, sixth and ninth nights with extra story time!
The overall goal is for the task to become intrinsically rewarding to the child so the adult does not have
to supply the reinforcements or rewards. Ex. Jill will realize it is wonderful to have extra story time and
to wake up each morning to an organized room. Soon she will do this on her own without needing the
extra storytime.
The Behaviorist theory addresses the emotional, social and mental development of children. It does not
address the physical component, only assumes that children will develop physically based on their
genetics and a healthy environment.
II. Maturationist Theory – Jaques Rosseau
Think of a seed! When given rich soil, water and plenty of sunshine it unfolds into a gorgeous
healthy plant for all to enjoy.
Maturationist believe that each child follows a predetermined inner schedule of development
physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually. A child will develop to his potential when placed in an
optimum environment. This development will be slowed or retarded if the environment is not ideal.
Experience is always filtered by the child’s maturation level. This theory is not widely held, however
many schools do screen children based on developmental tests.
III. Constructivist – Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner and George Forman
Have you ever built a structure with Legos following the directions or guide? You build from the
base up to the top-right? If it does not look or perform correctly, you go back and check the
directions and diagrams.
Children create knowledge through interactions with the environment. Children actively work to
organize their experiences and knowledge into more and more complex mental structures. Vygotsky
specifically points out that intellectual development is influenced more by social context than by
individual experiences. Social interaction is the main force in education and learning. Three main
components of this theory are: assimilation, accommodation and equilibrium.
Assimilation: fitting information into existing schemas or categories. A child is presented with a
furry animal identified as a dog. The next furry animal he sees he assumes (assimilation) to be a
dog until it meows! Then he must add this new knowledge to his existing knowledge - the new
animal is a cat. The creation of a new mental category for cats is accommodation.
Equilibrium is the balance point for thoughts, it is short-lived. We are constantly being
presented with new thoughts, experiences and ideas that we must assimilate or accommodate.
Disequilibrium is the state in which there is imbalance between assimilation and
accommodation. This disequilibrium state drives the learner to achieve equilibrium through
assimilation and accommodation.
Metaknowledge –is knowing or being aware of what one knows. When the above child is
presented with a basenji, a dog that rarely barks, he thinks “Dogs bark, this one does not. But
this animal has 4 legs, fur and is not a cat. Hmmmm, it must be a dog, because he acts and looks
like a dog-he just does not bark.” The child knew what he knew (metaknowledge) about the
characteristics of dogs. He tried to assimilate the basenji and did a mental check of the dog
category in his brain. When the basenji animal did not automatically fit, he restructured his
thoughts to accommodate the new breed of dog.
Constructivists recognize that development of individual children is dependent upon activities and
experiences that will enhance the child’s thinking and development. We must remember that learning
takes place in a social context.
Putting it all together! Visualize a 3 year old child throwing a ball.
The Behaviorist will say that the child will receive “rewards” as he gets closer to the target and improves
his throwing techniques.
The Maturationist will say that the child is physically ready to throw based on his ability to grasp and
The Constructivist will say that repeated attempts to hit the target is evidence the child is actively
seeking information about velocity and angle of release in order to hit the target.
One thing is for sure! The social, physical, emotional and mental development of the child are always