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Where does child maltreatment come from? How does it impact development, and what are some prevention strategies you feel are most effective?
While body growth slows during early childhood, the brain increases from 70 percent of its adult weight to 90 percent. Lateralization increases, and handedness develops. Myelination continues, and connections between parts of the brain increase, supporting motor and cognitive development. Heredity influences physical growth by controlling the release of hormones, but environmental factors also play important roles. Emotional deprivation and malnutrition can interfere with physical development, and illness can interact with malnutrition to undermine children’s growth. In industrialized countries, unintentional injuries are the leading cause of childhood mortality.
In early childhood, an explosion of new motor skills occurs, with each building on the simpler movement patterns of toddlerhood. As the child’s center of gravity shifts toward the trunk and balance improves, gross-motor skills are performed with greater speed and endurance. Fine-motor skills also advance dramatically as control of the hands and fingers improves. Drawing begins in the toddler years with scribbling and progresses to representational forms and then to more complex, realistic drawings at age 5 or 6. Both gross- and fine-motor skills are influenced by a combination of heredity and environment.
The beginning of Piaget’s preoperational stage is marked by an extraordinary increase in representational, or symbolic, activity, including language, which is the most flexible means of mental representation. Make-believe play is another example of the development of representation. By around age 2, children engage in sociodramatic play—make-believe with others—which increases rapidly over the next few years as children display growing awareness that make-believe is a representational activity. Gradually, children become capable of dual representation—viewing a symbolic object as both an object in its own right and a symbol.
Piaget described preschoolers in terms of their limitations—for example, their egocentrism, animistic thinking, inability to conserve, irreversibility, and lack of hierarchical classification. Research has challenged this view, indicating that on simplified tasks based on familiar experiences, preschoolers do show the beginnings of logical thinking. Three educational principles derived from Piaget’s theory continue to have a powerful influence on education: discovery learning, sensitivity to children’s readiness to learn, and acceptance of individual differences.
In contrast to Piaget, Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, which emphasizes the social context of cognitive development, regards language as the foundation for all higher cognitive processes. As adults and more skilled peers provide children with verbal guidance on challenging tasks, children incorporate these dialogues into their own self-directed, or private, speech. In this view, children learn within a zone of proximal development, attempting tasks too difficult to do alone but possible with the help of adults and more skilled peers. A Vygotskian approach to education emphasizes assisted discovery, with teachers providing guidance within each child’s zone of proximal development, as well as peer collaboration. In addition, Vygotsky saw make-believe play as the ideal social context for fostering cognitive development in early childhood. Guided participation, an expansion of Vygotsky’s concept of scaffolding, refers to shared endeavors between more expert and less expert participants, allowing for variations across situations and cultures.
Information-processing theorists focus on children’s use of mental strategies; during early childhood, advances in representation and children’s ability to guide their own behavior lead to more efficient ways of attending, manipulating information, and solving problems. Preschoolers also become better at planning. Although young children’s recognition memory is very accurate, their recall for listlike information is much poorer than that of older children and adults, mostly because preschoolers use memory strategies less effectively. Like adults, young children remember everyday experiences in terms of scripts. As children’s cognitive and conversational skills improve, their descriptions of special events become better organized, detailed, and related to the larger context of their own lives. Improvements in representation, memory, and problem solving contribute to the young child’s theory of mind, or metacognition. Through informal experiences with written symbols, preschoolers engage in emergent literacy, making active efforts to understand how these symbols, as well as math concepts, convey meaning.
Children with warm, affectionate parents who stimulate language and academic knowledge and who make reasonable demands for mature behavior score higher on mental tests, especially when they also have access to educational toys and books. At-risk children show long-term benefits from early intervention and high-quality child care. In contrast, poor-quality child care undermines the development of all children. Exposure to educational media—both television and computers—is extremely common in industrialized nations, and both media can have value for emergent literacy and other aspects of cognitive development. However, both media have a more controversial impact on social and emotional development due to the content of much entertainment programming.
Language development, including both word learning and grammar, proceeds rapidly in early childhood and is supported by conversational give-and-take. By the end of the preschool years, children have an extensive vocabulary, use most grammatical constructions competently, and are effective conversationalists.
Erikson identified the psychological conflict of the preschool years as initiative versus guilt. Through play, children practice using new skills and cooperating to achieve common goals. Conscience development prompts children to feel guilt for disobeying society’s standards; excessive guilt interferes with initiative.
As preschoolers think more intently about themselves, they construct a self-concept, or set of beliefs about their own characteristics, that consists largely of observable characteristics and typical emotions and attitudes. Through conversations with adults, children develop autobiographical memory—a life-story narrative that is more coherent and lasting than the isolated memories of the first few years. By age 4, children develop several separate self-judgments based on performance in different areas; together, these make up self-esteem, which affects long-term psychological adjustment.
Between ages 2 and 6, children make gains in emotional competence, experiencing self-conscious emotions, such as pride and shame, as well as empathy. By age 4 or 5, children can correctly judge the causes of many basic emotions and understand that thinking and feeling are related. Emotional outbursts decline as children use effortful control to achieve emotional self-regulation. Temperament plays a role, as do children’s observations of adult strategies for handling their own feelings. To induce adaptive levels of shame and pride, parents should focus on how to improve performance and should avoid labeling the child.
The capacity for empathy, an important motivator of prosocial behavior, increases as children develop the ability to take another’s perspective. Preschoolers form first friendships with peers and move from nonsocial activity to parallel play and then to social interaction. The beginnings of moral development are evident by age 2, when children can evaluate behavior as good or bad. Conscience gradually comes to be regulated by inner standards. Children whose parents discipline with physical punishment or withdrawal of affection tend to misbehave more often and feel little guilt. A more effective disciplinary approach is induction, in which an adult supports conscience formation and encourages empathy and sympathy by pointing out the effects of misbehavior on others.
According to social learning theory, morality is acquired through reinforcement and modeling—observing and imitating people who behave appropriately. Children are most willing to imitate models who exhibit warmth and responsiveness, competence and power, and consistency. Punishment is an ineffective disciplinary tactic, promoting momentary compliance but not lasting change. Positive alternatives, such as time out and withdrawal of privileges, are more effective. Unfortunately, use of corporal punishment is common in North America.
All children occasionally display aggression. Proactive aggression occurs when a child wants something and attacks a person who is in the way, while reactive aggression is intended to hurt another person. Proactive and reactive aggression come in at least three forms: physical, verbal, or relational. A conflict-ridden family atmosphere and exposure to media violence promote aggressive behavior, leading children to see the world from a violent perspective. Treatment for aggressive children should begin early to break the cycle of hostilities between family members and promote effective ways of relating to others, while also teaching parents effective techniques for interacting with an aggressive child.
Gender typing develops rapidly in the preschool years. Heredity, through prenatal hormones, contributes to boys’ higher activity level and overt aggression and to children’s preference for same-sex playmates. At the same time, parents, teachers, peers, and the broader social environment encourage many gender-typed responses. Masculine and androgynous identities are linked to better psychological adjustment. Neither cognitive-developmental theory nor social learning theory provides a complete account of the development of gender identity. Gender schema theory is an information-processing approach to gender typing that combines social learning and cognitive-developmental features. It emphasizes that both environmental pressures and children’s cognitions combine to shape gender-role development. Parents and teachers help children avoid gender stereotyping by modeling and providing alternatives to traditional gender roles.
Child-rearing styles can be distinguished on the basis of three features: acceptance and involvement, control, and autonomy granting. The most successful style is authoritative child rearing, which combines high acceptance and involvement, adaptive control techniques, and appropriate autonomy granting. Authoritarian child rearing is low in acceptance, involvement, and autonomy granting, and high in coercive control. The permissive style is warm and accepting, but uninvolved. Uninvolved parenting is low in acceptance, involvement, and control; at the extreme, it can be considered neglect.
Child maltreatment, which can take the form of neglect or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, is the result of many interacting variables at the family, community, and cultural levels. Interventions at all of these levels are essential for preventing it.
Berk, Laura E. (2018). Development through the lifespan, 7th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN: 9780134419909
- Chapter 7: Physical and Cognitive Development in Early Childhood
- Chapter 8: Emotional and Social Development in Early Childhood
Length: 400 words
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