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Early Childhood Stage Critical Phase Of Human Development Psychology Essay

Early Childhood Stage Critical Phase Of Human Development Psychology Essay


The study of human development focuses on the changing behaviours and levels and forms of maturity over the life span. Changes in behaviour occur rapidly in the early years of life theories. Thus, empirical research into early human development draw largely on the discipline of developmental psychology. Other disciplines have a contribution to make to a fuller understanding of the processes involved. The complexity of the field of study is illustrated by the common understanding that the kinds of behaviour found in disturbed children are frequently quite different from the behaviours found in disturbed adults. Also, different methods are used to treat children as opposed to adults. To develop a critical understanding of occurrences of behaviours , how they may be prevented and treated, a thorough review of research and evidence gathering in the field of child psychology is vital

Recent evidence points to the fact that it is not always the intrinsic nature of children that determines individual development. It suggests that the way they have been nurtured and their social and economic circumstances is also highly influential. The individual development does not only occur only during formative years, but is a continuous process stretching throughout the life cycle.

For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the early childhood stage as a critical phase of human development. Theories of eminent psychologists, namely Piaget and Bowlby, will be discussed as these have different perceptions of early childhood. Their theories of Cognitive Development and Attachment, respectively have value although they have been subjected to extensive criticism.

Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory emphasises the critical importance of the assessment of a child’s current level of maturity, ‘or readiness’ before starting the instructional process. While, Bowlby’s Attachment Theory attempts to explain how the relationships that are formed in the early years shape the entire life span and subsequent development. Descriptive research holds a significant place in development studies. This research attempts to explain the entire phenomenon of human development. Developmental psychology is divided roughly between those who study personal-social (emotional) development and those who study intellectual and linguistic development.

Psychological development theories focus on personalities of people, relationships and behaviours and discuss the changes that take place in an individual’s life during his/her development throughout his/her life. (Wilson et al., 2008). In contrast, the attachment theory formulated by J. Bowlby and extended by M. Ainsworth, the study of intellectual development at all ages is dominated by Piaget’s theory of cognitive constructivism.

This discussion will be contextualised with a brief overview of the study of child development.

Key components of Development:

Theories of development can be broadly classified into biological, sociological and psychological perspectives. Biological theories underline the importance of physical changes such as the change in size, shape and bodily characteristics. This domain also encompasses the changes in which individuals sense and perceive the physical world. Sociological theories focus on the importance of social and economic factors in determining the individual development. In particular, these theories explore the individual interactions with the surrounding social structure, encompassing issues of class, income, race, gender and culture and deprivation. The third stream of psychological theories focus on personalities, relationship and behaviour of an individual (Wilson et al., 2008). The cognitive domain includes the changes in thinking, memory, problem solving and other intellectual skills. Researchers in this domain try to study how memory deteriorates with old age (Bee and Boyd, 2002.)

Study of human development:

Human development is a scientific study of age related changes in behaviour, thinking, emotions and personality. In the 17th century, John Locke proposed an empirical philosophical approach, stating that the child is a blank slate, with no innate tendencies. This view sees the child as a passive recipient of external environment. (Boyd & Bee, 2002)

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In the 18th century, Rousseau argued that protection and nurturing was all that is required to develop children to their fullest potential. He also believed that human beings are born with innate goodness and experience helps them grow. Poor outcome is a result of the frustration that a child undergoes while making efforts to express the innate goodness. (Bee and Boyd, 2002.)

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin proposed that a wide variety of life forms evolved as a gradual interplay between the environmental factors and genetic processes (Bee and Boyd, 2002).

Defining Child Development

“Child development is a multifaceted, integral, and continual process of change in which children become able to handle ever more complex levels of moving, thinking, feeling, and relating to others.” (Inter-American Development Bank: Sustainable Development Department, 2005).

Theoretical perspectives on Child Development

There are several theories on child development which focus on different stages of development from infancy to adolescence. These theories range from the child’s physical development to stages of language development in children, cognitive development, social emotional development and moral development. There have been major contributions in the development studies field by Jean Piaget, John Bowlby, Freud, Erik Erikson and Vygotsky. They all draw on the different physical and cognitive stages of childhood (Bee and Boyd, 2002).

Jean Piaget in the cognitive development theory propounded that the education/learning should be imparted to children depending upon their own level of understanding and logic. The aim of learning is not to feed them with indigestible information when their minds are not ready to take it. The key ideas of Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development have been ‘Assimilation’ and ‘Adaption’ to the environment/society, which are two sides of adaptation. Raw minds should be given opportunities to look around, think and accordingly accept or reject ideas. Children should be allowed to engage in activities that interest them and are appropriate to their stage of development, that is, ‘readiness’. Based upon his observations, he concluded that children are not less intelligent than adults. Children simply think differently. Albert Einstein called Piaget’s discovery “so simple only a genius could have thought of it” (Cherry, 2010).

John Bowlby’s work is psychodynamic and profoundly influenced by Freud. His Attachment theory synthesises the social, emotional and cognitive aspects. He draws heavily on Freudian ideas of infant-mother relationships and adult-adult relationship of the same kind. Attachment is an emotional bond to another person. He described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1969: 194). His major empirical finding was that to grow up mentally healthy, “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment” (Bowlby, 1951).

Freud saw infants as needy because they were attached to the mothers instinctively and required their mothers to feed them, engage with them and so on. Infants were also seen by him as clingy and dependent, since the presence of mother around the infant is seen like a safety net for the infant. Bowlby recognized that emotions play an important organizing role in secure base relationships (Lay et al., 1995).

Erickson was influenced by Freud and he gave a psychosocial dynamic perspective to the psychosexual stages listed and defined by Freud. In Erikson’s view, each stage is experienced by each person in the course of normal ageing, only the time and age might vary for each stage depending upon several circumstances in individual’s life. Complete maturity in old age can only happen through the successive resolution of these successive ‘crisis’ stages. Based on both pleasant and malignant experiences at each stage, an individual develops into a complete mature being (Lay et al., 1995).


The work of socio-cultural theorists such as Vygotsky therefore, adds to our understanding of the multiple factors which influence child development for Vygotsky, connections between people and the socio-cultural context in which they act and interact in shared experiences are key to understanding human development. Vygotsy, unlike Piaget, suggests that adults should not wait for ‘readiness’ but stretch children beyond their current developmental level through the provision activities and other stimuli (Vygotsky,1896-1934).

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The key tenet of Vygotsky’s social development theory is that a child learns and develops by ‘doing’ and by coming in contact with society. Hence, his major theme is that a child’s social development must include social interaction as the fundamental component in cognitive development. The child learns through guidance from more knowledgeable people, be it the peers, teachers, coach or even- in the modern age- a computer, though self and independent learning is also acknowledged by him (The More Knowledgeable Other) (Vygotsky,1896-1934)

The place where children expand their social and cognitive learning and acquire a larger repertoire of skills alongside helping and encouraging ‘others’ was termed as ‘The Zone of Proximal Development’ by Vygotsky. (Vygotsky, 1978).

The theory sees the child as the key protagonist in the story, i.e. s/he has a central role to play in his/her learning and developing process, unlike the conventional mode of teacher student and child parent sort of instructional relationship. Both Piaget and Vygotsky were regarded as constructivists (Crawford and Walker, 2008).

However, recent facts gathered also show that poverty is the greatest risk factor for affecting children’s outcomes in the early years both positively and negatively. More than 2.9 million children in the UK are affected by it and those from ethnic minority backgrounds are disproportionately represented.

A child’s upbringing and socialisation is largely affected by the family’s origin of ethnic, religious, social and economic backgrounds. High quality early learning has a positive impact of all children whereas children from disadvantaged backgrounds show negative trends in health, education and overall development (Anon, 2009).

The Mamrot review report, commissioned by the Department of Health post 2010 has recommended early years spending should be prioritised above other children’s services, including models of intensive home visiting by nurses and social workers to all families with children under the age of three as needing additional support. The report also recommends ensuring disadvantaged children were enrolled in high quality pre-school programmes, which had been proven to promote mental health more than high quality primary education, and introducing a full year of paid parental leave, after a baby was born, to increase bonding between parents and children and prevent family breakdown in future years. (Murali and Oyebode, 2004)

The next section discusses the key stages and key tenets of development by Jean Piaget and John Bowlby to increase understanding on the subject

Theories of Cognitive Development & Attachment

Piaget’s promulgated the theory of Cognitive Development, wherein he proposed that the thinking process develops through each of the stages until a child can think logically. According to Piaget, it was not appropriate (?) to begin the instructional design process before assessing a child’s level of maturity. Piaget’s stage theory describes the cognitive development of children, which involves changes in cognitive process and abilities over time. In Piaget’s view, early cognitive development involves processes based initially upon actions and later progresses into changes in mental operations (Cherry, 2008).

Piaget’s development theory was based on the key tenets of assimilation and accommodation in the surrounding environment. Assimilation is the process of taking in new information into our previously existing knowledge or experience. The process is somewhat subjective, because we tend to modify experience or information somewhat to fit in with our pre-existing beliefs. For example, young children are taught to identify with animals and their names at their nursery levels. The child then learns to assimilate with what is taught and relates to it on seeing the real animal s/he had studied in the books (Bee and Boyd, 2002).

Piagetian Development theory talks of the four stages of development. The stages are: Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years), where an infant ‘thinks only by doing’ and gains physical knowledge; Preoperational Stage (2-7 years), where the stage whereby a child perceives, touches and learns about an object. Decisions of children at this stage are governed by their perception; Concrete Operational Stages (7-11 years, where children learn to think logically and the operational thought is reversible; and Formal Operational Stage (11 years and beyond), where the children’s ability to grasp things from more than one dimension improves and the child learns to think abstractly. They can solve complex and hypothetical problems involving abstract operations. They have the ability to use planning to think ahead (Bee and Boy, 2002).

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According to Piaget, the environment in which the child grows has a deep impression on child’s psyche. Children observe and adjust themselves to the existing norms and systems of the environment they inhabit. Hence, a child acquires logical thinking after crossing over all the above mentioned stages in life and attains maturity. The Piagetian theory of development attaches importance to the surrounding environment, which may lead a child to develop by building different responses to it. Another part of adaptation involves changing or altering our existing knowledge, ideas in light of new information or new experiences, a process known as Accommodation. New knowledge may also be developed during this process (Piaget and Inhelder, 1969).

As a child gradually advances though the varying stages of cognitive development, it is suggested that he/ she becomes better equipped to solve problems of increasing complexity. It should be noted that Piaget looked at each child in relation to individual processes of development and did not attempt to explore the potential impact of external environmental and social factors in interaction with intrinsic factors, on child development.

On the other hand, we have John Bowlby’s theory of Attachment, which has tried to explain relationships that are formed in the early years of a child, which shapes up the entire life and perception of a child towards his/her life. Attachment is an emotional bond to another person. Bowlby described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1969, p. 194). His work is psychodynamic and therefore heavily influenced by Freudian theory.

Borrowing from Freud’s (1905/1953) notion that mature human sexuality is built up of component instincts, Bowlby proposed that infants’, especially I-2-month-olds’ attachment behaviour to their mothers and vice versa, is composed of various natural components responses that include sucking, clinging, and following, as well as the signalling behaviours of smiling and crying. These component behaviours mature relatively independently during the first year of life and become increasingly integrated and focused on a mother figure during the second 6 months. Bowlby saw clinging and following more possibly more important for attachment than sucking and crying. ( Bee and Boyd , 2002).

The basic premises of Attachment theory comprise (i) intimate emotional bonds between individuals have a primary status and biological function; (ii) the way a child is treated has a powerful influence on a child’s development and later personality functioning; (iii) Attachment behaviour is to be viewed as part of an organizational system that utilizes ‘internal working model (s)’ of self and other to guide expectations and the planning of behaviour; and (iv) while attachment behaviour is resistant to change, there always exists a potential to change.( Crawford and Walker , 2008)

Attachment theory differentiates between Secure and Insecure attachments. Insecure attachment is further split into Ambivalent and Avoidant attachments, each having an enduring effect on a child’s psyche and development. In secure attachment, the child feels secure in his/her relationship with the caregivers and therefore, shows minimum distress due to their dependency on caregivers, who are there to support and protect them. Such a child is seen to be performing well academically and in other co-curricular activities. While a child undergoing Insecure-Ambivalent attachment would be distressed owing to the absence of caregivers when required by him/her. Such a child tends to develop an argumentative add aggressive disposition towards the elders or caregivers who try to guide them and instruct them with their activities, and is disorganized and disoriented. Children with Insecure-Avoidant attachment reject caregivers or parents, turning or moving away from them (Crawford and Walker, 2008).

Points of similarities & dissimilarities between the two theories:

Piaget’s theory of Cognitive development leads us to the attachment model. Social and emotional development that takes place in the infants’ first year results into the formation of attachment between them and their caregiver. Both Piaget and Bowlby believed that the quality of attachment varies depending upon the quality of care received. How they relate to their attachment figures is critical for their emotional well-being, how they feel about themselves, how secure they feel and how ready they are to explore the world around them (Wilson et al., 2008).

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Limitations of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development

Problems with Research Methods

Piaget’s theory earned a lot of criticism because of the research methods he employed. Piaget’s observations of his own three children were a major source of inspiration for his theory. In addition, the other children in Piaget’s small research sample were all from well-educated professionals of high socio-economic status. Since this sample was unrepresentative , there is limited generalisability.

Problems with Formal Operations

Research has disputed Piaget’s argument that all children will automatically move to the next stage of development as they mature. Some data suggests that environmental factors may play a role in the development.

Limitations of Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Nature versus Nurture

Bowlby’s attachment theory was also not free from criticism. One of the main critics of Bowlby’s attachment theory is J. R. Harris. She disapproved of this assumption that kind, honest, and respectful parents will children with the same traits, and parents that are rude, liars, and disrespectful will have children that are the same way. Even if children are raised in the most loving and respectful families, the chances are that if they associate with delinquents, they will become one, because a child’s peers have more influence on them than their parents. Children try to fit in with their peer group and in a bid to make themselves acceptable to their peers, they do what their peers want them to do (Harris, 1998).

Harris also disagrees with the assumption that lack of nurturing can trash nature’s best effort, i.e. the children (Harris, 1998:2). She held that people needed to realize that a lot of personality traits come from their genes, not their parents nurturing. For example, identical twins separated at birth and brought up in separate homes are more likely to have the same habits, hobbies, and styles than identical twins raised in the same household. This shows the power of nature but not of nurture. Children learn how to behave, for the most part, from other people in their social group. Adults do the same; they act more like the people in their social groups rather than their parents. Children from the same parents reared in the same home are no more alike than if they were raised in separate homes (Harris, 1998).

Another criticism came from Field, who believed that behaviours directed towards the attachment figure during departing and reunion times cannot be the only factors used when defining attachment. A broader understanding of attachment requires observation of how the mother and infant interact and what they provide for each other during natural, no stressful situations” (Field, 1996).

In the attachment model the mother is viewed as the primary attachment figure, whereas, a father or sibling can have the same type of attachment with the infant at the same time. This relates to adults having more than one primary attachment, such as to their spouse and child. “Attachment is confined to the infancy and early childhood period, ending, as noted by Bowlby, during puberty. It does not consider attachments that occur during adolescence (the first love), during adulthood (spouses and lovers), and during later life (the strong attachments noted between friends in retirement)” (Crawford and Walker , 2008:45).

How these theories help social workers in delivering services to children?

Social workers work hand-in-hand with other professionals in safeguarding the welfare of children and for enhancing their well being. An understanding of theories helps social workers in communicating effectively and professionally (Wilson et al., 2008). Social workers need to be sensitive to all aspects and levels of development and the ability of the child to deal with concepts of varying kinds. Working with children demands the building of relationship of trust and commitment. New ideas are required to build on what the child already knows (Crawford and Walker, 2008).

These theories lay the foundation of development studies. Social workers can then ensure the welfare of children in real sense by developing the ability to comprehensively assess the needs of different children and accordingly. They need to plan their interventions focused towards promoting the safety and well being of children. It is understood that the promotion of the welfare of children and young people is a multi professional and multi agency task in which social workers have a key contribution to make.

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Which theory is most relevant to the tasks of social workers working in complex, multi-cultural societies?

This discussion of human and child development has addressed the varying theories of development propounded by eminent psychologists and others who made significant contributions to our understandings of the factors that influence child development. In relation to the key focus of this essay, it is pertinent to ask which theory is most useful for social work practice.

In applying Jean Piaget’s theory of development to my own experiences, while working with children, the following observations arise. During my BSW in India, I was placed in a Boy’s Children Home run by a voluntary organisation and certified by the Government of Delhi. Children living in the home were in need of care and protection as per the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act, 2000. This category comprised children who were victims of some natural calamity or armed conflict, abandoned, missing, run away children etc. I used to observe the counsellor interact with these children who hailed from across the country. Each child had a different temperament and problems, and accordingly, the counsellors and educators designed their activities and non formal education curriculum. It was important to maintain the confidentiality of the child’s history before other children, as it could make the child insecure and hostile also, in some cases, as I witnessed during my field work.

However, it is essential to acknowledge that both Piaget and Bowlby surely contribute to my understanding of human development in their own ways. Both elaborate on crucial aspects of child development by emphasising on the importance of self learning, cognitive development and emotional stability. One cannot be subtracted from another. If I read both and follow both Piaget and Bowlby, then I see a holistic view of child and human development unravel before me.


Growth and development within early childhood are rapid and involve a complex interaction of ‘internal’ process supported with ‘external’ stimulation. Understanding the nature of development will guide the social workers in their assessment, intervention and review in children’s and families’ lives. Children live in a good environment amid all the required facilities in contrast to those that live in adversities. The development needs of the child need to be incorporated in the assessment, i.e. health, identity, education, family and social relations, emotional and behavioural development and self care skills.

Human development is a broad phenomenon and in it to address child development, it is important to understand different child development stages and their respective characteristics. It is only then that social workers and professionals will be able to intervene with different children and their families in coping with the issues involved with the growing children, with varying temperaments, environment, attitude and gender.

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