Page 1-40, 41 pages Page 1 of 8
Chapter 1: The Science of Child Development
SETTING THE STAGE
• Child-Development: Field studying physical, mental, social, and emotional development from
conception to maturity
Historical Views of Children & Childhood
• Plato believed in innate knowledge, and that children’s sensory experiences simply trigger knowledge
from birth; Aristotle believed knowledge rooted in perceptual experience
• John Locke also believed in the blank slate, or tabula rasa claiming that experience moulds the infant,
child, adolescent and adult into a unique individual – therefore parents’ instruction and discipline are
• Rousseau: Innate sense of justice and morality which unfolds naturally, so parents must be responsive
and receptive to child’s needs
Origins of a New Science
• Before the 1700s, children started working at ages 5-7 at home, in the fields, or in apprenticeships.
However, after the urbanization of the industrial revolution, children started working long hours in
factories under horrendous conditions. Reformers enacted legislation to limit child labour and increase
• Darwin’s theory of evolution argued that individuals of a species differ, with some better adapted for
• The similarities between evolution and age-related changes in human behaviour (“ontology reflects
phylogeny”) prompted many to record baby biographies – systematic, detailed observations of individual
children, the subjective precursors of analytic research
• Early scientists:
o G. Stanley Hall generated theories of child development based on evolution, founded first
English child-development scientific journal.
o Alfred Binet devised first mental IQ tests, and linked early experiences with adult patterns of
o John B. Watson wrote on importance of reward and punishment for child-rearing
o James Mark Baldwin set up first psychology laboratory in Canada at U of T in 1891, rejecting
baby biographies’ observations for experiments and theories
• 1933: Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), interdisciplinary organization for
developmental psychology, promoting children’s welfare and development.
• Applied Developmental Science: Using developmental research to promote health development,
particularly for vulnerable children and families. Often contribute to sound family policy by providing
factual knowledge from research, act as advocates to alert policymakers to children’s needs, or evaluate
impact of policies
FOUNDATIONAL THEORIES OF CHILD DEVELOPMENT
• Theory: An organized set of ideas designed to explain and make predictions about development
• Theories lead to testable hypotheses, which can be confirmed or rejected, leading to revisions in the
• 5 major theoretical perspectives in child-development
The Biological Perspective Page 1-40, 41 pages Page 2 of 8
• Maturational Theory (Gesell): Child development reflects a specific prearranged scheme within the
body, a natural unfolding of a biological plan where experience or adult interference matters little.
• Ethological Theory (Lorenz): Views development from an evolutionary perspective, where adaptive
behaviours such as clinging, grasping, and crying for infants are inherited because they elicit adult
• Critical Period: Time in development when a specific type of learning takes place. E.g. Imprinting of
an emotional bond with the mother occurs with the first moving object young see after birth, within one
day of hatching.
• Underlying mechanism is biological, but experience essential for triggering programmed behaviour.
The Psychodynamic Perspective
• The oldest scientific perspective on child development, to Freud in the late 19 century.
• Psychodynamic Theory: Development is largely determined by how well people resolve conflicts they
face at different ages. Conflict emerges between three primary components of the personality.
• Id is a reservoir of primitive instincts and drives, looking for immediate gratification of bodily needs and
wants. The ego is the practical, rational component which often channels the id’s impulses into more
socially acceptable channels. The superego is the moral agent which emerges from adult standards of
right and wrong.
• Development structured in psychosexual stages based on body area of attention: oral (birth-2yrs), anal
(2-3yrs), phallic (3-7yrs), latency (7yrs to puberty, sublimated energy), and genital (11yrs to adulthood,
• Two lasting ideas: enduring impact of early experiences, and conflict between wants and should.
• Psychosocial Theory (Erikson): Development comprises of stages defined by a unique crisis or
challenge, continuing throughout adult life, emphasizing psychological and social aspects. These stages
are about developing an identity and sense of self as separate from one’s parents.
• Early stages provide foundation for later stages, e.g. developing identity before intimate relationships.
Development outcomes reflect manner and ease of surmounting life’s barriers.
The Learning Perspective
• Learning theorists endorse Locke’s view that the infant’s mind is a blank slate on which experience
• Classical Conditioning (Watson): Where a previously neutral stimulus is associated with a naturally
occurring response that eventually elicits a similar response on its own. Watson researched fear
conditioning in children. Page 1-40, 41 pages Page 3 of 8
• Operant Conditioning (Skinner): Consequences of a behaviour determine whether that behaviour is
repeated in the future, voluntary rather than reflexive conditioning.
• Reinforcements increase future likelihood of behaviour; positive by giving of reward or negative by
removing negative things (giving cookies or removing chores).
• Punishments decrease future likelihood of behaviour, either by imposing something aversive or
removing something pleasant and desired (extra chores or no TV). However, punishment does not
explain what is the desired behaviour – poorer outcomes.
• Observational learning (imitation) occurs with children learning by watching, without reinforcement or
• Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura): Observation does not lead to simple imitation; imitation is more
likely if the person is seen as popular, smart, or talented and if they see the behaviour rewarded –
outside information about appropriate behaviour is used rather than sheer mimicry.
• Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment showed that children modeled aggressive behaviour of adults against
the doll – versus old view that watching aggression led to catharsis. Children further developed novel
ways of aggression.
• Self-Efficacy: Beliefs about one’s own abilities and talents, which will determine when children imitate
others. E.g. Child who believes he is athletic will imitate Steve Nash’s basketball skills, but not another
who believes they are not athletic even if Nash is talented and popular
• The social cognitive child actively interprets events, while the operant conditioning child responds
The Cognitive-Developmental Perspective
• This perspective focuses on how children’s thinking changes over time. According to Piaget, children
naturally try to make sense of their world both physically and socially; in this process, they create
theories that they test daily by experience. When predicted events do not occur, the theory must be
• At a few critical points, children realize their theories have basic flaws and revise them radically, forming
4 distinct stages in cognitive development with progressively sophisticated types of reasoning.
• Sensorimotor (Birth-2yrs): Knowledge based on senses and motor skills.
• Preoperational (2-6yrs): Using symbols such as words and numbers to represent aspects of the world.
• Concrete Operational (7-11yrs): Using logical operations to experiences of the here and now.
• Formal Operational (adolescence and beyond): Abstract thinking with speculation on hypothetical
situations, and deductive reasoning on what may be possible.
The Contextual Perspective
• In the contextual (socio-cultural) perspective, direct influences from parents or teachers are just part of
a larger system of influences that include extended family, schools, the media, etc.
• This is culture, the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour of a group of people, that informs the context
in which a child develops.
• Vygotsky studied how adults conveyed the beliefs and customs of their culture to children, so their
children may acquire the values and skills that allow them to flourish in their society.
The Developmental/Dynamic Systems Approach
• Interactions among all systems – biological (genetic
activity/expression, neural activity), behavioural, and
environmental (physical, social, cultural)
• Interactions are mutually-dependent with bidirectional
influences Page 1-40, 41 pages Page 4 of 8
THEMES IN CHILD-DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH
Early development is related to later development, but not perfectly
• Continuity-versus-Discontinuity: Are early aspects of development consistently related, or predictive
of, later aspects? Once a child begins down a particular developmental path, do they stay on that path
throughout life? Are there qualitative differences at various stages, or is there just growth?
• Dis/continuity depends on the time period we’re looking at and what we’re measuring. Total height
increases continuously, but height gain (amount of change) does not.
• What a child learns about spatial information needs to be relearnt for each motor skill, e.g. crossing a
gap when crawling vs. walking
Development is always jointly influenced by heredity and environment
• Nature-Nurture Issue: Biology and environment both play a role in child development in an interactive
manner. A major goal of child-development research is to understand how this occurs.
• Nature is concerned with genes only, while nurture includes all physical and social environment,
• Canalization (Waddington): Path taken in developmental landscape is influenced by both genetics at
environment, with many choice points during critical periods. However, the landscape may be more
tightly canalized if genetics is stronger (e.g. developmental disorders), with less options overall.
Children influence their own development
• Active-Passive Child Issue: Are children at the mercy of their environment, or do they actively
influence their own development through unique individual characteristics? Is the child a blank slate, or is
there a natural unfolding?
• A child’s interpretation of experiences shapes their development
• A child’s unique characteristics may cause them to have some experiences over others, such as their
reaction to an activity influencing whether parents will continue that activity in the future.
• The relationship between child and parents is interactive and bi-directional
Development in different domains is connected
• Researchers study development in different domains: physical growth, cognition, language, personality,
social relationships, etc. Development in these various domains is intwertwined.
• These themes show up in the major theories of child development in various ways to various degrees.
• According to the cognitive-developmental theory, as children interpret all aspects of their lives with a
unified view of the world, everything is linked.
• Quail chicks’ reaction to mother’s call (preference over other bird calls) affected by whether they
received premature visual stimulation when they shouldn’t have (eggshell thinned artificially); if there was
premature visual stimuli, had no preference for mother’s call
Perspective Researcher Core Concepts Nature/Nurture Dis/Continuou Active/Passive
s ? s? ?
Maturation Gesell Development as Nature N/A Passive
Theory natural unfolding of
Ethological Lorenz Development evolved Nature Discontinuous – Passive
Theory to adapt to specific Critical periods
Psychodynami Freud Conflict between Both Discontinuous – Passive – At Page 1-40, 41 pages Page 5 of8
c Theory impulses and Distinct stages mercy of culture
biological forces and of development and
societal moral unconscious
Psychosocial Erikson Life crises based on Both Discontinuous – Active – Child
Theory social relationships, Distinct stages actively makes