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Child and Adolescent Development for Educators, 2/e
Judith Meece, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
Student Study Guide by Nancy Defrates-Densch

Studying Children's Development

Chapter Overview

Why Study Children?

  • Child development research can help teachers understand how children change over time and what explains the observed changes.
  • Instructional decisions are influenced by teachers' beliefs about children's development. Teachers have varying points of view about development, but a large number believe that development is primarily a maturational process.
  • Several recent studies have raised questions about teachers' understanding of child and adolescent development. Many teachers appear to have a limited understanding of the age group they teach.
  • Schools play an important role in children's intellectual, social, and emotional development. Schooling not only affects children's level of intellectual development, but also influences their ways of thinking, problem solving, and reasoning. Schooling experiences shape children's feelings of competency, sense of self, peer relations, and social attitudes as well as many other aspects of social development.

Perspectives on Children's Development

  • Cultural beliefs about the nature of children and how they should be treated have changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Before the industrial revolution, children were considered miniature adults. The idea of childhood occurred as a result of social and economic changes during the early decades of the twentieth century. Children's lives continue to be conditioned by social, economic, and historical circumstances.
  • Most theorists believe that development involves systematic and orderly changes that enhance a child's overall adaptation to their environment. Theories of development provide a coherent framework for interpreting, explaining, and understanding those changes. Developmental theories make different assumptions concerning the nature of the child, the nature of development, and the sources of development.
  • Biological theories assume that human characteristics unfold according to a biological timetable. The environment plays little role in shaping the course of development. Development is viewed as either continuous or discontinuous, depending on the theorist. Two early maturational theorists were Hall and Gesell.
  • Psychoanalytic theories focus on changes in the self and personality. At different stages of physical development, new drives, needs, and conflicts emerge that influence the way children relate to the environment. The way in which children satisfy their needs at different ages can set the pattern for personality development. Key psychoanalytic theorists are Freud and Erikson.
  • Behavioral theories emphasize the role of the environment in determining the course of development. Development is gradual and continuous, as a child acquires new skills and behavior through various principles of learning (conditioning, reinforcement, imitation). There are no universal patterns of development because inputs are provided by the environment, which can vary from child to child. Some well-known behavioral theorists who have studied children's development are Watson and Skinner.
  • In Piagetian, information processing, and social cognitive theories, development results from an interplay between a child's developing mental abilities and environmental experiences. Children actively seek out information about their environment and attempt to make sense of it using existing knowledge and cognitive processes. Piaget's theory emphasizes qualitative changes in how children organize information, whereas information processing and social cognitive approaches emphasize developmental changes in the efficiency of children's cognitive processes.
  • Contextual theories emphasize relations between a developing child and a changing environment. Development cannot be separated from the context of culture in which it takes place. In Vygotsky's theory, people structure the environment in ways that facilitate children's cognitive development. Qualitative shifts in children's thinking occur as children transform innate abilities into higher mental functions through interactions with others. Bronfenbrenner proposed that children's development is embedded in a multiplexed environment. Changes in one system (parents' divorce) can influence changes that occur in other systems (child loses interest in schoolwork). For contextualists, development does not follow a universal sequence because the child and environment are constantly changing.
  • There are multiple perspectives on children's development. Because no single theory alone can explain all that we know and observe about children, it is important to have a repertoire of child development theories. A familiarity with several theories provides various ways of thinking and talking about children's development.

Studying Children's Development

  • Studies of children can take several different forms. The most commonly used research designs in child development are case studies, correlational studies, longitudinal and cross-sectional studies, and experimental intervention. Correlational studies examine associations between two events or variables, whereas longitudinal and cross-sectional studies are used to study development over time. Correlational and cross-sectional studies can be conducted with large samples. Longitudinal studies are the most useful for identifying antecedents of developmental changes and for establishing the stability of individual behavior. Experiments are used to test cause-and-effect relations, but their findings may not generalize to other settings.
  • There are numerous methods for collecting data on children's development. Children can be observed in a structured or unstructured environment, and various behaviors can be recorded and analyzed for frequency of occurrence. The advantage of this method is that it provides detailed information on actual behavior, but the observer may influence the person's behavior. Information on children can also be collected through rating scales, questionnaires, and interviews. These methods are efficient, but subjects may not be accurate or truthful in their reporting. Like observations, performance assessments provide behavioral data. These assessments are more accurate than self-reports but do not provide information on the processes involved in performing specific tasks.
  • There are several criteria for judging the quality of a study. Characteristics of the study's sample or setting can influence how well the results generalize to other samples and situations. The reliability (precision) and validity (accuracy) of a measure or instrument are also important for judging the quality of a study. Studies should provide a reliable and valid estimate of the phenomenon being studied. Most theorists, however, judge a study in terms of its ability to be replicated. Research findings are more trustworthy when they are found across studies that use different samples and methods.
  • Research studies involving children and adults must follow a set of ethical guidelines. The perceived benefits of a study must outweigh is potential risks and cost in terms of time and effort. Informed consent must be obtained before the study is conducted, and the identities of all participants must remain confidential. Research participants should be provided with a summary of the research findings when a study is completed, and each participant has the right to the benefits of a treatment provided to other research participants.