The Impact of Psychological Sciences on Early Childhood Education: Developmental Influences

While there are many theories in psychology that can apply to early childhood education, they are limited in scope. Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson have offered the only truly comprehensive theories of human development. These three theorists have, however, each addressed a different facet of the developing child. Freud focused upon the emotional, clinical side of development, Piaget centered upon the development of cognition and intelligence, while Erikson presented a view of the whole life cycle from a social and cultural interaction perspective. As such, each has contributed unique but complementary views of the child that led to unique but balanced early childhood education structures and strategies.

These three theories complement one another and, taken together, give us the most comprehensive depiction of early child development we have today. Some may object and argue that these writers are out of date and their work does not take account of the contemporary trends in research and theory. While that is true to some extent, it is also nonetheless true that we are still biological beings and no amount of innovation is going to change that. Human development is still limited by our biology and that is why the work of these innovators remains relevant today. Indeed, many of their conceptualizations are now part of our everyday discourse. The critical evidence of their lasting significance.

Within the constraints of a chapter, I will limit the presentation to only those parts of their work that pertains to early childhood - development and practice. A concluding summary will attempt to bring together some of their insights to provide a holistic conception of early childhood psychological development and practice.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Like Charles Darwin’s theories, those of Freud brought about a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1996) in our ways of thinking about our common humanity and our personal selves. Darwin deflated the biblical account of creation, while Freud challenged our belief that we are entirely rational beings. Significant parts of both theories are now widely accepted.

Freud, showing his talents early, like so many individuals of genius, was an outstanding student, and in his early teens he had a working knowledge of Greek, German, and Hebrew. He also taught himself the basics of English and Italian. At age 17, he entered the University of Vienna to study medicine. However, after attending a conference in Paris, he decided to become a natural scientist, to understand biological, and, eventually, psychological phenomena. He received his MD in 1881. During the 1885—1886 winter months, he went to study with famed neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Freud became fascinated with Charcot’s work with psychological disturbances with no known neurological causes, termed hysterias. He was also intrigued by Charcot’s use of hypnotism to cure these disorders. He returned to Vienna and opened a private practice as a neurologist.

Initially, Freud had few patients and worked together with a fellow neurologist Joseph Brewer. Brewer had a female patient with hysterical paralysis, which he cured with what he called the “talking cure,” allowing the patient to talk freely about her condition. Freud had similar cases and he too used the talking cure. Together they published a book, Studies in Hysteria (Breuer, 1995/2000), documenting their cases, their methods, and the findings.

Freud continued seeing patients and soon acquired a reputation for his success with those with hysterical symptoms. With further clinical experience, he refined the talking cure, to the method of “Free Association,” which encouraged the patient to say whatever came to mind. He also analyzed patients’ dreams and kept a record of his own. In 1900 he published his now classic book, The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900/1913). As Freud’s fame grew, he attracted a number of followers who eventually formed a Society for Psychoanalysis, what Freud called his method and theory of treating psychiatric patients.

Over the years, Freud’s theories evolved, and he created four different models of the human personality: the dynamic, the developmental, the structural, and the functional. These models introduced the major concepts of psychoanalysis.

At the heart of Freud’s theorizing was the importance of the sexual drive, which he believed was the cause of hysterical symptoms. His concept of sexuality, however, is much broader than the adult understanding of sex as physical attraction and sexual intercourse.

In the second essay in his book, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (Freud, 1905/1962), Freud makes it clear that when he is speaking of infant sexuality, he is speaking of it in the broader sense of cyclical drives like hunger, thirst, and excretion. From this perspective, all of these cyclical drives follow a similar pattern of gradual build-up of pressure, followed by a sudden pleasurable release of tension. Freud did add that the sexual components of the hunger, thirst, and excretory function zones were more in the nature of fore-pleasure and not comparable to that associated with orgasm.

Freud's Four Models of the Personality

The Dynamic Model

This is the first model Freud introduced, and he used it to explain the appearance of hysterical symptoms. The sexual drive in all of its sequential manifestations creates pressure to be discharged but is kept from doing so by psychological repression. As a result, the built-up pressure finds its release in physical symptoms that have no physical determinants. The symptoms displace and redirect the pressure from the sexual drive to the body’s musculature, which can produce paralysis of the arms, legs, or vocal cords.

The Developmental Model

In the Three Essays book, Freud also introduces a developmental model of the personality. He argues that the sexual drive, in the sense described above, moves from the oral, to the anal, and finally to the genital zones during the first five years of life. During the genital stage, the child is sexually attracted (Catheter) to the parent of the opposite sex. Freud labeled these attractions the Oedipus Complex for boys and the Electra Complex for girls. From the ages of 6 to 12, the sexual drive is in a state of dormancy. Freud termed this the Latency Period. In adolescence the sexual drive is reawakened but now the young person must give up the parent as a sexual love object and look elsewhere for a person to love.

The Structural Model

Freud’s book. The Ego and the Id (Freud, 1923) describes his threefold structure of the mind. The Id represents the unconscious impulses, desires, and wishes of the individual (the seething cauldron of desire). The Ego emerges from the failure of the Id to realize its goal and serves as an adaptive mediator between the Id and external reality. For example, if the infant’s cries for food are not immediately met, the ego emerges to delay gratification. At the age of about 4 or 5 the child identifies with the parent of the same sex as a means of establishing his or her sexual identity. Through this identification, the child internalizes the moral precepts of the parent, which becomes the Superego. The Superego is our conscience and the Ego must mediate between the demands of the Id and the constraints imposed by the Superego.

The Functional Model

Freud’s functional model describes the mechanisms the Ego uses to mediate between the Id and the Superego. These are the ego defenses: Repression, Projection, Reaction Formation, and Externalization. Each of these mechanisms can distort reality in such a way that the Ego feels comfortable in satisfying the Id, even though the means to that end might not be entirely acceptable to the Superego. Yet the excessive use of such mechanisms may itself bring about mental pathology.

These four models give a fairly comprehensive picture of the dynamics of early childhood emotional life. For example, Freud’s concept of infant cathexis to parents was translated by John Bowlby (1983) into the concept of attachment and all of the research on security of attachment stemming from that concept. Likewise, his concept of the Ego has now been translated and studied as the Executive Function. Moreover, his description of how over or under parental concerns with feeding and toilet training can lead to lasting personality orientations has also been studied. In addition, the concepts of the Oedipal and Electra Complexes help us to understand infantile dynamics. To illustrate, if a child’s parents were to divorce during the early childhood period, the child may blame himself for having brought about the split thanks to his attachment to the opposite sex parent. Such children may become accident-prone. These are but a few examples of how Freud has helped us understand the emotional side of early childhood and the ways in which these ideas were integrated into the scientific knowledge upon which early childhood education was built.

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