Theories of Child Development

Theories of Child Development

One core role of a school psychologist is to distinguish between typical and atypical child development. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP, 2010) practice model reflects the centrality of this function by identifying knowledge of human development as an essential feature of three core functions: assessment, prevention, and intervention practices. In their role as assessment specialists, school psychologists consider developmental differences in the selection of assessments and use of data to aid in diagnostic considerations. Diagnostic criteria for a specific learning disability', for example, include provisions that the school psychologist considers present levels of child knowledge and skills in the context of nonnative development. In their role to support prevention efforts, school psychologists consider how nonnative and non-nonnative development affect the selection and implementation of preventive interventions. For example, a school psychologist may consider how a behavioral acknowledgement system (implemented as a part of a Multi-Tiered System of Support) operationalizes and acknowledges positive behavior in a manner that is developmentally appropriate. Finally, when implementing targeted interventions in schools, a school psychologist must consider how a child’s developmental level influences the likelihood that a psychological or educational intervention will be beneficial. The school psychologist, for example, may consider a child’s cognitive abilities when considering how to treat anxiety or depression. In doing so, a school psychologist may reach the conclusion that a behaviorally based treatment for anxiety may be more efficacious over a cognitive approach. Given this clearly central role of child development in the routine practice of school psychology, school psychologists must have a thorough understanding of the theoretical and empirical implications of child and youth development research.

In this chapter, we primarily focus on how social and cognitive development interact to describe a child’s development in school. We frame this chapter in terms of ecological theories of child development that focus on the social and contextual factors that influence child development for three reasons. First, the school psychologist must provide assessment, prevention, and intervention services in a school context that is becoming increasingly diverse. As such, it is critical for the school psychologist to be aware of, and attend to, issues of diversity in a manner that is consistent with contemporary formulations of child development. Second, contemporary developmental research suggests that social, emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes are interrelated. Theories of development that describe cognitive development without explaining interrelations with other aspects of development do not provide a complete understanding of the child’s school functioning. Third, the field of school psychology focuses on remediating child deficits and promoting positive development (e.g., psychological well-being, resiliency, and hope) in the schools (Suldo & Shaffer, 2008). A developmental perspective that includes understanding the child in context provides school psychologists with a fuller perspective of the unique strengths of a child and opportunities to provide support in the school environment.

In this chapter we briefly present theoretical models common to the field and discuss contemporary developmental research that encompasses ecological, cognitive, and social-emotional development in the context of practicing as a psychologist in schools. In addition, we bring attention to how contemporary child development research can be applied to common assessment, prevention, and intervention practices of school psychology, with a detailed case study used to provide an illustration of these applications.

Ecological Theories of Child Development: A Brief Review

Over the course of the twentieth century, child development theories evolved from describing development in terms of how cognition grows in complexity over the course of a person’s lifetime, towards describing development in terms of how an individual’s multifaceted development (i.e., cognitive, social, emotional) interacts with their ecological context. We summarize this brief history and describe how contemporary sociocultural perspectives on child development are relevant to schools and the role of a school psychologist.

Piagetian Theory of Cognitive Development

Early theories of child development, such as the one described by Jean Piaget (Piaget, 1936; Piaget & Cook, 1952), explained development strictly in terms of cognitive milestones that children obtain throughout the course of their life. According to Piaget, the first stage of cognitive development, called the sensorimotor stage, is characterized by the child’s ability to manipulate objects and learn based on observed experiences and is thought to last from birth through approximately the age of 2 years. Following the sensorimotor stage, the child develops through the preoperation al and concrete operational stages characterized by a growing ability to use and manipulate symbolic information. From a Piagetian perspective, cognitive development culminates in the fourth and final stage of development, called the formal operational stage, in which the child is able to use symbols to grasp abstract concepts in increasingly complex ways from adolescence through adulthood.

This stage-oriented, Piagetian perspective on children’s growth provides a useful context for describing cognitive development in terms of what may be normative and non-nonnative for a child. Indeed, school psychologists may use this knowledge to give an initial indication about how a child compares with same-age peers. For example, when conducting an assessment to determine eligibility for specialized educational services, a school psychologist may conduct a developmental interview and ask questions about the client’s behavior in early childhood. A parent who describes behaviors and skills that fall outside of what is expected for a same-age peer might be an indicator of non-normative development. At the same time, this perspective on child development has been criticized for neglecting cultural and contextual factors that influence development, concentrating on universal stages that are assumed to apply to all individuals without consideration of opportunities afforded by the environment.

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