Social Development Theory

Though Piaget’s work was strongly influenced by constructivist thinking, his theory focused on how children’s cognition developed through active engagement with their physical world. Subsequent research on child development continued in this constructivist tradition, embracing the importance of individuals making meaning of their world through experiences within their environment; however, in contrast to the Piagetian focus on increasingly challenging activities, it placed a premium on children’s active role in learning through collaborative social interactions. Specifically, Lev Vygotsky’s social development theory (SDT; Vygotsky, 1978) underscores the integral role that social context plays in academic learning and cognitive development across the lifespan. This sociocultural perspective has since become the foundation for decades of developmental research, focusing on how learning is socially (i.e., embedded in interactions with others) and culturally determined (i.e., tools for cognitive adaptation may differ across cultural contexts). There are several key principles of SDT that are critical to understand as a school psychologist. First, there is an emphasis on understanding children’s developmental ceiling at any given point in time, in order to ensure that learning opportunities and expectations in their immediate environment are aligned with their capacity. This idea, called a zone of proximal development (ZPD), suggests that each child is ready to master a certain range of skills with appropriate guidance from a more skilled and knowledgeable other. Second, SDT proposes that social interaction is necessary for maximizing cognitive development. For learning to occur, children must interact with others; self-exploration and discovery alone are not enough for them to reach full potential. Third, children hold an active role in learning, wherein they must be engaged contributors in order to gain knowledge and understanding. Children cannot learn content and fully understand the material by passively listening to a teacher’s lecture; they must be more active in the learning process.

A core facilitator of this active learning process is scaffolding, whereby a more knowledgeable other (MKO), such as a teacher, caregiver, or more competent peer, helps a child by providing guidance that allows a child to build on what he or she already knows. Through scaffolding, the MKO provides just enough information and support to facilitate the child’s learning and slowly fades as appropriate until the child can accomplish the task on his or her own. At the core of this process is the premise that children need “challenges” to stretch them beyond what they already know into the upper reaches of their ZPD. An MKO can cultivate learning by identifying what thinking skills are emerging and applying scaffolds to help facilitate learning. For example, in the case of a 6-year-old learning subtraction, the child’s parent or teacher can scaffold learning by demonstrating tools, such as using counter chips, or strategies, such as counting backwards aloud, to build the child’s understanding and fortify their ability to solve subtraction problems. Eventually, the MKO will fade assistance (e.g., by only prompting the child to use the counter chips, rather than counting aloud with the child) until the child is able to solve these problems independently. Once the child has demonstrated competence and confidence in their ability to perform basic subtraction successfully, the MKO may prompt further learning by challenging the child to a slightly more complex subtraction problem, such as two-digit numbers. The key here is that a child’s ZPD is constantly shifting, which means that educators must be regularly assessing skills (see discussion of formative and curriculum-based assessment by Hawkins, Barnett, Morrison, & Musti-Rao, 2012) in order to identify the next set of learning targets that will challenge a child to further develop their thinking.

Bioecological Systems Theory

Another developmental theory that shares and expands SDT’s appreciation for socio-cultural context is Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory, which describes development as a process that occurs through interactions between individuals and their ecological context (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). The bioecological systems theory suggests that proximal ecological factors, such as individuals who have direct contact with the child (e.g., parents, teachers, and peers; called the microsystem) are a primary source of supporting children’s development. Additionally, more distal ecological systems also play a role, including factors that indirectly influence the child development that are described as the exo- and macro-systems within a child’s environment. The exosystem includes social settings that do not directly impact development but yet have an effect on the child’s microsystem (e.g., parental leave policies that increase time a parent can spend with an infant). The macrosystem is defined as the cultural context in which a child develops (e.g., institutional racism that may limit opportunities for racial/ethnic minority youth).

A systems theory approach, such as the model described by Bronfenbrenner and Morris (2006), can provide a usefill framework for understanding interrelationships between child development and the ecological context. This theoretical framework suggests that micro-, exo-, and macro-systems can interact in complex ways that have different implications for child development. Thus, school psychologists who approach assessment and intervention from a systems theory framework should consider how contextual factors interact to explain a child’s current developmental level. For example, a systems approach to understanding a student’s academic performance in school would not only include considerations about how to design an academic intervention to target their ZPD (as suggested by SDT), but would also consider how other systems in the child’s environment may facilitate or inhibit their academic process (e.g., how neighborhood safety concerns might influence the child’s ability to progress academically).

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