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Infant Toddler Development Training
Module 1, Lesson 2

What are the Major Theories of Child Development? (Part II)

Cognitive Development Theory

Jean Piaget's cognitive development theory views children as "busy, motivated explorers whose thinking develops as they act directly on the environment" (Berk, p. 212). This theory focuses on mental growth as being the most important element in a child's development. Piaget believed that individuals progress through four ages of cognitive development: sensorimotor (0-2 years of age), preoperational (2-7 years of age), concrete operational (7-11 years of age), and formal operational (11 years of age - adulthood).

Baby in tubAt the sensorimotor stage the thinking involves forming knowledge via the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. It is at this stage that object permanence (objects exist whether perceived or not) is developed. Also, during this stage, goal-directed actions occur using trial and error attempts to reach a particular goal (i.e. reach a toy or open a box). During the preoperational stage, preschoolers begin to use internal thought and symbols to solve problems but rely heavily on perception and physical cues and are therefore easily fooled by the "appearance of things." This perspective suggests that we can get to know about how children think by listening carefully and observing ways in which they solve problems and that children should be guided in actively constructing knowledge.

Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky's sociocultural theory considers the effect of culture when looking at child development and child behavior. This theory suggests that social interactions need to be understood as a part of the cultural setting and not separately in order to understand the contribution of social interaction to cognitive development and thinking. Vygotsky's theory places a greater role of language, social interaction, and society in child development than Piaget's cognitive development theory. Whereas Piaget emphasized children being active, constructive beings independently, Vygotsky supports that guided participation as an interactive process by adults is vital for cognitive development. Vygotsky maintains that caregivers and parents scaffold (use language to guide thinking) children's learning. If tasks are too difficult for a child, Vygotsky maintains that the adult intervene by asking questions or giving hints that assist the child in completing the task or solving the problem. These periods of indirect guidance are called "zone of proximal development." Vygotsky maintains that indirect guidance, when a child is within the zone of proximal development, promotes powerful learning. From the sociocultural perspective, knowledge construction can be enhanced by use of rich language and provided for peer interactions.

Bioecological Systems Theory

Children looking at insectsThe bioecological systems theory focuses on the interactions and influences of the outside environment on the child's development. This theory differs from other major theories in that it emphasizes the influence of the outer world (community, school, and political systems). Urie Bronfenbrenner suggests that all settings need to be considered when explaining child development. This theory is typically graphically represented as circles within circles (like target rings) each ring depicting a different interactive system. The inside circle represents the child. The first layer outside the child's circle is the microsystem which suggests the most influence on the child's development. The microsystem consists of the family, school, child care providers, peers, and all experiences and influences that have a direct affect on the child's immediate environment.

The second layer is the mesosystem which depicts the interactions and linkages of the interconnections of the microsystem (i.e. parents are affected by child care providers and child care providers are affected by parents). The third layer is the exosystem which depicts additional ecological systems that affect child development more indirectly. The exosystem consists of such systems as legal services, social services, neighbors, extended family, and work place. Even though that don't actually "touch" the child's life, they indirectly affect the child's experiences. The last layer in the bioecological system is the macrosystem. This level contains laws, customs, and values of a particular society or cultural system. Even though these institutions don't directly affect the individual child, they can have a strong influence on the child. The chronosystem reflects the dimension of time in regard to the child's environment and is illustrated with a line that cuts across the entire circle which emphasizes the effect of time across the entire system. This system can be external factors such as a death of a parent or internal factors such as the aging of a child and the changes that occur over time. This theory has been viewed as culturally sensitive in that it focuses on all of the influences (social, political, and economic contexts) in which development occurs. From this perspective, positive child development occurs when all influences, both direct and indirect, are considered. Refer to Activity #3 for a diagram of the bioecological systems theory.


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