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What is Child Development?

Watch Laura Steckley discuss the concept of child development, with reference to Freud, Erikson, Piaget, Bronfenbrenner, and Bowlby,
Hi, all. Thanks for turning up. My name is Laura Steckley, and I work for CELCIS and for the School of Social Work and Social Policy here at the University of Strathclyde. And today I’m just going to do a very brief introduction to child development. So what is child development? Basically, it’s a term that refers to growth and development from birth through to adolescence. There’s a whole area of study called child development, and it falls within a wider umbrella of human development.
Child development really comes from this long-standing human desire– from the days of ancient philosophers– as to why some babies are born and develop into what, in present day terms, we might refer to as law-abiding, productive citizens and why other babies are born and grow and develop into people who have troubles or people who break the law or that sort of thing. And so for a long time in human history, we’ve been very interested in why this happens and how human beings develop. So there are some key themes in child development that have been around for a long time– and in philosophy before the development of child development. And probably the key one is nature versus nurture.
Are we the way we are because of how we’re born? Or our we the way we are because of our environment and how much nurture or not that we get in that environment? Other key themes that you’ll run into if you start studying child development more deeply have to do with like medical versus social. So do we understand the way a child is struggling to develop, for instance, from a medical point of view as some sort of impairment? Or do we understand it in terms of the impact of society on that child as they are growing up in a slightly different way than the rest of the population? Psychodynamic versus behavioural is a third on that slide.
And that’s really referring to an interest in what’s going on in the child’s inner world versus what goes on roundabout that child in order to help them learn right from wrong.
Psychological versus sociological– again, that’s kind of a bit of a replication of understanding from the internal world and the microrelationships between the child and his or her carers, his or her teachers or understanding it from the impact, say, of stigma or of poverty or of oppression on how some children struggle to develop as opposed to others who aren’t encountering those social difficulties Infant determinism versus lifelong learning– are we born the way we are or is the die cast, say, in the first two years of life? Or can we grow and develop throughout our whole lifetime and can deep-seated ways of being actually change– even later in life, say, in adolescence or even in adulthood?
And finally, I’ve include pathology versus growth on there because certainly in the last few decades, we’ve shifted from focusing on what’s wrong and looking at that as some sort of pathology in children and young people to focus in on how we can better support children’s growth and development. And we’ll get into that a little bit more toward the end of this brief talk. So I’m just going to touch on some seminal contributors to the field of child development. There’s many more that I could go into, but in the short time we have, I’m going to start with Sigmund Freud. And Sigmund Freud is considered the father of psychology– certainly the father of the psychodynamic tradition.
And in terms of just beginning to think about child development, he was very interested and argued that parental responses to the child really shape that child’s development and really shape who that child becomes in terms of his or her personality. He’s known for the the psychosexual theory of development, and he was very interested in terms of sexual urges that he felt children had from a very early stage but that were socialised out of children in the way that they were raised and how that affected. He also developed a stage theory of development, which was certain things were supposed to happen during the first stage of development. And when those were accomplished, a child would go on to the next.
And actually, the first few I’m going to introduce to you were very interested in thinking about children’s development in terms of stages. So Erik Erikson is a second one that I’ve chosen to introduce to you.
He came after Freud, and he was very interested in Freud’s work. But he added this whole social dimension to what happens for a child and how they develop their personality. And for Erikson, even more importantly, he was interested in how they developed their identity. So if you’re interested in how we develop the identities that we have he’s a good starter. He also thought that children developed in stages as well, and he didn’t believe that– all of our stage development theorists think that if things went wrong during an early stage, that it affected the development in later stages.
But for Erikson, he really started talking about how you could revisit and work through the kind of things that you needed to develop during, say, stage two as a way of helping a person work through issues at later stages of their development. Another contribution of Erikson was that he didn’t just focus on child development. He was one of the early pioneers of a whole lifespan approach to human development. Piaget is the next seminal contributor that I’ll just introduce. So Freud was interested in psychosexual, Erikson’s psychosocial. Piaget was interested in how we develop cognitively, how our thinking develops.
And he then stressed as you might imagine the importance of education and learning on how children develop– especially on how they develop the ability to think and learn. He also was a stage development theorist, and you might associate them with cognitive development. Now, there are some problems with developmental theory. One of the biggest problems is there’s no single theory of child development that really captures development in a holistic way. Each of them looks at different dimensions of what it means to be human and of the human experience, and trying to understand and make sense of how children develop and what they need in order to develop well and flourish.
But also, probably more problematically, is that a lot of the early applications– and probably still sometimes– the way that child development theory is applied tends to pathologise it– focuses on what’s wrong or where the deficits are. And actually, most of the early pioneering child development theorists were privileged white guys who had one particular view of what healthy development should look like and applied that across all people, across all cultures in an indiscriminate way. And so all of these theories have been subject to criticism and have developed in positive directions as a result.
The final criticism that I’ll touch on to do with child development theory is that in focusing on what’s going on individually for children or individually for their families, it takes away our focus from the impact of society– from social structures, from social injustices– and how all of that external stuff affects the developing child. And it can really encourage people just to think on individual terms and to forget about actually the wider structural influences that are also responsible for how we turn out the way that we turn out. And so Bronfenbrenner comes along, Urie Bronfenbrenner, and he proposes this ecological model of child development.
For all of these, we could do an entire course on each one of these individual theorists of child development, and this is just really a taster. But Bronfenbrenner encourages us to look at what’s going on at the individual level. And for him, for a child, has to do with those settings where the child has the most activity and the most interactions– so in school, at home, maybe in their neighbourhood with their friends. But he also encourages us to think about what’s going on– what he would have called the next layer or the next setting– so those interactions between home and school.
And if those interactions between home and school are going well, then that’s going to have a positive impact on that child’s development. Conversely if the school really thinks this is kind of a useless family and the interactions between school and family are going poorly or there’s no interaction, that also is going to have an impact on that child’s development. So the next layer has to do with how the settings interact and relate with one another and how then that impacts on the child’s development. Next layer out has to do with what goes on outside the child’s awareness and outside his direct involvement but still impacts the child.
And then we get out to the widest level of all which is culture and how culture and social institutions also have an impact on child’s development. So currently we’re experiencing significant austerity and there’s a lot of evidence coming out that that’s having an impact on the development of children who are being raised in the most vulnerable, marginalised families here in Great Britain. Another more dominant theory of child development that is become very prevalent in our thinking in the way that children develop is attachment theory. It was originally developed by John Bowlby, and there are still a lot of people who are very actively theorising from an attachment perspective.
And again, we could do a whole course on attachment theory, but just a basic what you might want to take away from this is it really stresses the importance of very early experiences of care that children have as central to the development of their identity, of their ability to learn, their ability to socialise with other children. So those early experiences of caregiving, if they went well, enables a child to then develop socially, emotionally, cognitively, and even physically. And if they are going poorly, actually has a knock-on effect on all other forms of development.
And therefore a child’s ability to trust the caregiver, to feel safe, and to feel that they could rely upon that care profoundly affects self-esteem and their understanding of all future relationships. And I’m going to end very positively with resilience theory. Actually resilience theory is very connected with attachment theory. And really all these theories have something to tell each other. And it’s interested in why some children in adverse circumstances bounce back or even thrive and why other children, actually their development is more adversely affected. Why is that? And so there’s this whole area of research and theorisation that’s trying to answer that question. It’s partially a response to the traditional focus on deficits and pathologising children and their families.
And it’s really focused on where is this child resilient? What’s strong in this child? What’s strong in this family? And how can we support and promote that further? It also does deal with the adversities, but not exclusively. So it’s an attempt to balance out. There’s many other theories as well. I’m not going to go into them today. But we’ve got sociocultural from Vytgotski. We’ve got behavioural theories. We’ve got Melanie Klein or Winnicott. And we’ve even got Bion’s Containment theory, which I’ll be doing a different video on in the coming weeks. So which one’s the right one? How do you pick? And I guess what I would say is they all contribute to our understanding of how children grow and develop.
And they all have their limitations. And sometimes some of them even got it wrong in the past, or we might find that some of them have gotten a certain part of it wrong currently as we develop more understanding. But to be able to engage with all of them helps us understand the various dimensions of child development and also kind of the human experience. And so I guess I would encourage you to keep learning about all of them in the weeks to come. Thank you.

This presentation is delivered by a guest speaker, Dr Laura Steckley. Laura is a Senior Lecturer based jointly in the School of Social Work and Social Policy and CELCIS, the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection, at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

In this talk we begin to consider what we mean and understand by child development. We begin to think about some of the key concepts involved in this, including the key question of nature versus nurture. Do children and young people grow and develop the way they do because of how they are born or because of how they are brought up?

Laura will introduce you to some of the seminal contributors to the study of child development including Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, Urie Bronfenbrenner and John Bowlby, outlining what they had to say as well as some of the criticisms and limitations associated with the different concepts and frameworks they proposed. She concludes by suggesting that all have something to offer as we think about assessing the development and growth of vulnerable children and young people.

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