Section II Self-development and building confidence

Cultivating a critical understanding of child development

Pa trici a C ia rdiello


This chapter considers two key questions:

  • • How have understandings of child development come to dominate practice with young children?
  • • Are there other ways of knowing about children's development?

What happens during the early years is of crucial importance for every child's development. It is a period of great opportunity, but also of vulnerability to negative influences. In the UK, the Children Act 2004 provides a legal mandate for all practitioners who work with young children to be concerned about their safety and wellbeing. In England, the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE 2017) sets standards for the learning, development, and care of children from birth to five years old. An awareness of key aspects of child development is therefore crucial to the setting of expectations for individual children and for how best to support them and their families.

Unlike other chapters in this book, this chapter does not have a specific 'links to theory' section. Instead, the content is predominantly theory based throughout the entire chapter. Key theories provide a vital framework for thinking about human growth and development within which practitioners can assess children and justify pedagogical choices. However, in the professional arena it is also essential that practitioners are able to reflect on the multitude of perspectives and scrutinise some of the dominant assumptions of the discourse surrounding child development.

This chapter encourages the reader to question and challenge taken for granted constructions and understandings of child development. The chapter therefore incorporates the work of a number of influential thinkers including Erica Burman's use of feminist theory to explore representations of mother and child; Michel Foucault's regimes of truth; Peter Moss's discourse of democracy and ethical practice and Pierre Bourdieu's concepts of capital habitus and field.

Reflection points drawn from student and practitioners' experiences, demonstrate how the deconstruction of normative assumptions can create professional dilemmas and tensions within the competing discourses of policy and practice.

The chapter begins by offering a brief overview of the origins of child development before going on to briefly consider some of the more established and dominant theories students may encounter. Alternative viewpoints and theoretical ideas are then discussed to help the reader appreciate that children's development is complex, open to interpretation, and therefore an area which demands critical thought and attention.

Historical context of child development

It is important to recognise that ideas about children and their development have varied across different periods of history and cultural contexts. Aries (1979: 128) made the debatable claim that 'In medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist: this is not to suggest that children were neglected, forsaken or despised.' Consequently, a prevailing view is that child development was largely ignored throughout much of history prior to the nineteenth century, as children were simply viewed as small versions of adults with little attention paid to children's advancement in physical, cognitive, and language skills. Shahar (1990) was one of various authors to challenge Aries's arguments. In her study of childhood in the Middle Ages she concluded that some thinkers did recognise that childhood is made up of several separate stages. As Giardiello (2013) points out, there were notable early key thinkers and philosophers whose views on children and childhood informed the later study of child development. As far back as the thirteenth century Martin Luther (1436-1546), an Augustine monk and theologian who brought about reformation in education as well as religion, contributed to current pedagogical practice. Luther proposed that methods of teaching, that at the time often subjected children to cruel forms of disciplines, should be adapted to meet children's individual differences and stages of development through a more liberal and pleasant approach (Frost 2010; Giardiello 2013). Building on Luther's ideas, Comenius (1592-1670) a Czech theologian, often referred to as the father of modern pedagogy (lovan 2010), proposed a system of progressive instruction adjusted to the stage of development the child had reached.

In Europe the Enlightenment or Age of Reason (circa late seventeenth to mid eighteenth century) marked the beginning of new ways to understand the world which later became known as 'scientific enquiry'. Two key thinkers of this time were John Locke (1632-1 704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1 712-1778).

Locke is remembered for having the view that at the time of birth a child's mind was a tabula rasa (blank slate) upon which experiences, obtained through the senses, would trigger internal workings of the mind which he called reflections (Campbell 1959). This attention to the mental thought processes of children from birth onwards led to a new field of study in the late eighteenth century called developmental psychology which had a major impact on the study of child development in later years (Sobe2010).

From Rousseau's perspective the main task of the educator was not to make a lasting impression on the children's mind through pre-determined or adult-led activities, but instead to take their cues from nature and allow time for children to develop and learn through self-discovery in the environment and natural unfolding of their abilities (these ideas appear in the later writings of Jean Piaget in the twentieth century). Nonetheless, Rousseau's romantic notions of children running free and connecting with nature is at odds with contemporary policy contexts, dominated by neoliberal principles of reform and competition, i.e. high stakes testing. Children as 'natural, free, playful, uncivilised' compete with current discourse that produces children as economic units, and practitioners as brokers, charged with overseeing the investment (Gibson et al. 2015: 323) (see Chapter 7 for a discussion around the tensions between creative and formal approaches to teaching and learning).

The scientific study of child development

The study of children began with Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century whose method at arriving at the theory of evolution was as influential as the theory itself. Darwin published a retrospective account of detailed day to day observations of his own child from birth to around three years of age (Darwin 1877). It was this collection of data, systematically observed, that became the preferred scientific method of psychologists and researchers studying the growth and development of children (Lorch and Hellard 2010). Much of the work in child development focuses on the micro-level and is concerned with the understandings and interpretations of what children can or cannot do and the kinds of explanations that can account for their behaviour (Maynard and Thomas 2009). From this knowledge many theories have been developed with the first to emerge being the Maturation Theory.

Arnold Gesell, an American educator and psychologist, was greatly influenced by the work of Darwin. Using quantitative empirical methods, he collected a great deal of information about children, particularly during infancy. In his seminal text, The First Five Years of Life (1940), Gesell expounded a nativist view that development is governed by genetic processes which determine a sequence of development for all children; this he called the Maturation Theory. This view led to a general adoption of developmental milestones and to descriptive statements about the development and capabilities of children at given ages; for example the Maturation Theory has particularly relevance for charting the progress of early fine and gross motor skills. These did assume a universal truth and subsequent charts of development produced in the UK by Sheridan (1975), received similar criticism that developmental stages implied too much uniformity as if all children go through the stages at the same age (Doherty and Hughes 2014). Another criticism was that the maturational approach to 'normal' child development evolved within a westernised and eurocentric context that did not take into consideration other cultural views of human nature and development. Nevertheless, although Gesell's theoretical work did not receive as much attention as that of some other theorists during the middle and latter part of the twentieth century, he did make major contributions to the field of child development (Bergen 2017). Norms of development, particularly his motor milestones, are Gesell's most enduring legacy to developmental psychology.

Major dominant theories in relation to child development

Since its inception in the nineteenth century the study of children has been predominantly the territory of westernised developmental psychology. This section of the chapter examines how dominant psychological theories, often referred to in the literature as grand theories, have come to privilege practices with children. Those theories that have proven to be widely influential and have stood the test of time are:

  • • Theories of behaviourism
  • • Theories of attachment
  • • Theories of constructivism
  • • Theories of social constructivism

Theories of behaviourism

If the Maturation Theory, discussed above, is based primarily in biology and heredity, theories of behaviourism focus on the other end of the spectrum by basing child development on environmental factors. Essentially, the way a child develops from a behaviourist perspective is determined by the external conditions that influence elements of their development. Despite the more recent influence of constructivism and social constructivism, behaviourism remains a strong force in education. The theoretical principles, derived primarily from the works of Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner, can be seen in current educational policies and pedagogical approaches, particularly in relation to behaviour modification strategies and the use of rewards and sanctions. Behaviourists refer to this form of learning as conditioning and two forms of conditioning were identified, i.e. classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning

Pavlov, well known for his research with dogs, pioneered the scientific study of classical conditioning, a form of behaviourism in which a specific stimulus produces a predictable response. In his work as a neurophysiologist Pavlov observed a dog salivating in response to the sound of food trays being prepared, as there was an association between sound, smell and the appearance of food (Doherty and Hughes 2014). This led to experiments where he conditioned dogs to salivate after pairing the sound of a ringing bell with the appearance of the food. This relationship is known as contiguity; an association between two events that occur closely together in time (Chaplain 2016). Associated learning can be seen in early years settings and schools when using conditioning to establish routine behaviour. For example, pupils can be conditioned to stop and tidy up when they hear the tidy up music playing.

Reflection 1

Bethany is in her second year of the Early Years and Childhood Studies degree and was eager to play a key role in the early development of children within her nursery school placement. The following is a narrative account of how in her first week in placement she found out about the regular daily routines which consisted of:

  • • Welcome time
  • • Register and planning time
  • • Snack time
  • • Free play and activity time
  • • Tidy up and storytime
  • • Home time

This was repeated for the afternoon session. Here is Bethany's narrative account:

Each day the children arrive from 8.30 am with their parent or carer and are greeted by the teacher in the entrance hall. The entrance is then locked at 9 am and the parents then have to ring the doorbell to be let in. The children hang their jackets and coats on their peg which shows their name and they self-register by taking their name tag which has their photo on (and velcro on the back) and stick it on the special name board in the entrance. I noticed the teacher reminds those who forget to do so by saying in a friendly voice, 'you won't get your snack if you don't!' After self-registration the children are free to choose to play either in the classroom or outdoors in the garden. The teacher later told me the self-registering process takes quite a long time to establish when the children first start at nursery. Register time takes place at 10 am and all the children are called to go and sit on the carpet by the teacher's chair for the register to be taken. I notice that some children don't want to come in from outdoors as they are going on a mini beast hunt with magnifying glasses but hurried along by a staff member who asks them, 'can they smell the toast being prepared for snack?'. This seems to be a signal for the children to come in as they all shout 'yes' together. The children are encouraged to sit in a circle on the carpet but some children don't want to sit next to another child, so the teacher has to tell them where to sit. They then discuss the weather and complete the timeline of activities for the morning. 10-30 am is snack time and the children look for their empty cup on the cupboard with the name tag on and take this to the snack tables which have been set out by the staff. There is a rota for the children who serve out either water or milk from small jugs, snacks of toast and cheese spread, sliced bananas and pots of yoghurt.

From about 11 am the children have planned activity time when they can choose what they want to do or join in with small adult led group work. After snack time I noticed one little girl, Jasmine, not really engaged in play or planned activities. Instead she spent her time hovering around a portable radio and CD player placed by the musical instruments. She kept looking towards the teacher and twirling around on the spot and running up and down. As soon as the teacher made a move toward the CD player Jasmine was ready for the tidy up music to start and began going around the nursery reminding everyone it was tidy up time. This behaviour was repeated every day, I was later informed by the teacher. This has left me wondering whether Jasmine's response to the use of tidy up music is hindering her learning as for over half an hour she was just waiting for the music to come on. Once tidy up time had finished Jasmine sat with the other children for story time and then got ready for home.

  • • Reading through Bethany's account, regarding the daily routine seen in her placement, can you make any connections to Pavlov's ideas around conditioning?
  • • Are routines a help or a hindrance to children's development?
  • • What effect is the tidy up music having on Jasmine?

What would you do differently if anything? Routines bring together children and activities in a prescribed space and have a situated and predicable rhythm. However, the danger with routinisation of the classroom is the production of the docile self-managing individual (Bailey and Thomson 2009). It is one of the 'general forms of domination' which create 'subjected and practiced bodies, also known as "docile" bodies' (Foucault 1975: 27).

Bearing this in mind when establishing routines, it is important that practitioners do not become more important than the children themselves and that an equitable power balance between adult and child is maintained. Secondly practitioners need to guard against conditioning children to behave in a certain way which suits adults more than children. Furthermore, although children can learn through routines, such as timings, there can be serious consequences for children's emotional and social development if routines are inflexible, which could cause distress especially if they do not respond to the needs of the children (Lindon 2005) (see the discussion about the use of 'circle time' in Chapter 5).

Operant conditioning

The second approach is operant conditioning which is a term introduced by B. F Skinner following extensive research with rats in his Skinner Box. Skinner (1953) observed that the rats quickly learnt that when pressure is applied to a lever in the box a small amount of food was released. From this Skinner deduced that any behaviour which is followed by reinforcement is likely to be repeated. Positive reinforcement strengthens responses by adding positive consequences such as food, praise, or attention. Responses may also be strengthened through negative reinforcement which, although leading to an increase of a desired behaviour, does so in in a different way by removing unpleasant or adverse stimuli. For example, allowing a child, who dislikes sitting quietly for circle time, to leave for a five-minute break after having listened to other children for a period of time.

Operant Conditioning is used in UK schools but care must be taken not to confuse the terms rewards and punishment with positive and negative behaviour. Skinner argued that rewards and punishment do not necessarily reinforce a behaviour and although utilising both may change a behaviour for a short time, operant conditioning relies on a behaviour being strengthened (Aubrey and Riley 2016). Skinner recommended that instead of punishing children, 'extinction' should be used instead, stating that

if a child's behaviour is strong only because it has been reinforced by 'getting a rise out of' [reaction from] the parent, it will disappear when this consequence is no longer forthcoming.

(Skinner 1953: 192)

The potential power of praise can be a successful technique for influencing a variety of classroom behaviours, from abiding by classroom rules, paying attention to the practitioners and engaging in positive peer relations. However Bayat (2011) points out there is a contrasting view articulated by Kohn (2001) warning early childhood teachers that praise may in fact harm children's intrinsic motivation and can lead children to believe that their engagement was for the sake of adult approval rather than for the sheer enjoyment of the activity itself.

Considering these discussions, it is apparent that not all kinds of praise are necessarily the right kind, nor are they beneficial. However, provided praise is not subjective and has very little value, such as good boy, good girl, or well done, when done effectively praise can be a valuable tool in motivating children to learn and develop. Bayat (2011: 126) provides useful guidelines on the use of praise suggesting to always praise the behaviour itself and not the person's attributes, and paying positive attention to the behaviour that is valued.

Reflection 2

Alison, a nursery teacher in a 30-place suburban local authority nursery school had been having trouble at storytime with a three-year-old girl called Freya, who was fascinated with the fluffy curly hair of an Anglo Caribbean girl called Isla. Much to the annoyance of Isla, Freya kept pulling the curly hair and winding it round her fingers. No matter how Alison tried to handle the situation amicably by moving the offending child to the front or vice versa Freya would not leave Isla alone. Alison spent time talking to Freya about her fascination with Isla's hair and encouraged her to draw or paint pictures of herself with Isla. Isla liked this as it made her feel special. This led to a topic all about different hairstyles and a mind mapping activity was carried out with the children about setting up a role play hairdressers. From discussions with the children and the parents it was decided to obtain three 'hairdressing styling head toys' of differing hair colour and texture, combs, brushes, hair braiding ribbons and clips. When the hairdressers shop was 'open for business' Alison and the other staff modelled how to take on the role of a hairdresser and customer. This was to introduce new vocabulary; to demonstrate how to use the props and resources carefully and to show how to deal with any conflicts that might arise.

As Freya enjoyed playing at being a hairdresser, along with other children pretending to wash, dry, and style the hair of the head toys and willing 'customers' she quickly lost the urge to touch Isla's hair during story time and this behaviour was eradicated much to the relief of Isla who began to develop a friendship with Freya. Alison praised Freya for sitting so nicely during storytime and took a photograph to place in her 'Learning Journey Profile'. To further enhance the experience for all the children, Alison ordered a range of children's illustrated books celebrating black hair.

When the books arrived there was great excitement, especially from Freya and Isla who both loved listening to the stories and were often found sitting next to each other with the books on their laps.

  • • Why do you think that Alison was so successful in eradicating Frey's disruptive behaviour?
  • • What strategies did Alison apply?
  • • What will happen when the hairdresser role play area has run its course?

It is certainly the case that behaviour can be guided by rewards and sanctions and behaviourist approaches such as classical and operant conditioning. However, in the 1960s critics such as psychologist Albert Bandura argued that learning in social situations is not considered in the behaviourist approach and although acknowledging the role of classical and operant conditioning he proposed that children learn by watching and imitating others.

Social Learning theory

To establish his concept of observational learning Bandura carried out a series of experiments on aggression in which boys and girls aged between three and six years were divided into two groups. The first ('control') group saw a film of an adult playing with toys, one of which was an inflatable 'Bobo' doll, designed to spring back upright when knocked over. The second ('experimental') group saw a film of the same adult, this time playing aggressively with the toys, hitting the doll with a hammer. When allowed to play individually, Bandura observed that children from the experimental group behaved in a more aggressive way toward their own Bobo doll. Bandura concluded that children imitate the actions of others, based on perceived reinforcement which he termed Social Learning theory.

Despite this experiment containing flaws in its methods and ethical viability in exposing children to aggressive behaviour, the premise of Bandura's work, that children learn from significant adults and one another in their lives through observation, replication, and modelling, gave rise to a role model paradigm seen also in subsequent social and cognitive learning theories. As Doherty and Hughes (2014) point out, contemporary advocates regard modelling as a powerful tool for learning that has both negative (imitation of aggressive behaviours as seen on television or in films) and positive outcomes (being kind, sharing, and turn taking). Bucher (1997) taking a different stance, worries about role models and the power of influence that they wield, and the potential for misuse.

The 'role model' model can be an example of what is called a secondary attachment and the next part of the chapter explores theories of attachment. Attachment is a central idea in any discussion of children's social and emotional development.

Theories of attachment

Early childhood education provision in the UK, throughout most of the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first, was and still is constrained by cost and the recurring view amongst some policy-makers that the best place for most young children before school age is with their mothers in their homes (Blackstone 1974; Brehony 2009). This debate was given momentum when in 1952 John Bowlby first explored the idea that children form 'attachments' to their primary caregivers. Bowlby's theory emerged from his maternal deprivation hypothesis which maintained that a child could be damaged if for any reason it was removed from its mother's care at least for the first three years of its life. He put forward the principle of 'monotropy', which is the claim that infants have an innate instinctive need to form an attachment with just one significant person, which is usually the mother. It was mothers who Bowlby saw as the most crucial ingredient in young children's lives in providing a secure, safe haven in which a child learns the control and regulation of emotions. (Lindon and Brodie 2016; Burman 2016). Bowlby predicted that the experiences of care and support provided by mothers help the child to construct (or not) 'a feeling of security and help-seeking behaviours that function to protect them in situations of distress and to facilitate their exploration of the social world in general' (Duchesne and Larose 2007: 1502). According to Carr and Batlle (2015) these systems of cognition, affective domain, and behaviour are early reflections of what Bowlby termed internal working models, constructed in response to the attachment experiences and unique relationship that infants encounter with their single caregiver.

Bowlby's claims were found to be overstated by other psychologists. For example, Schaffer and Emerson (1964) in their empirical research found that infants often formed multiple attachments, and, in some cases, the strongest attachment was with the father. Rutter (1975) believed that it was very much to a child's advantage to have multiple attachments as it meant they would have several people to turn to during times of difficulty or stress.

Keller (2017) reminds us that from the onset of his theory, Bowlby was criticised (Mead 1954; Vicedo 201 7) for qualifying one view as best for all children in the world and for not incorporating cultural variability in parenting strategies and children's development (see the extensive study carried out by Posada et al. 2013 which offer a test of the universality hypothesis). The rise of social feminist thought (Burman and Stacey 2010) which challenges beliefs about 'normal' family life and the greater awareness of cultural diversity, undermines Bowlby's monotropic principle of seeing mothers exclusively responsible for childcare. Taking a different perspective Tizard (1986) argued that the focus on disputing Bowlby's over emphasis on the role of the mother mitigated the important implications of his analysis on the continuity of care in early years settings.

Attachment theory in the twenty-first century

A significant development informed by attachment theory was the introduction, in 2007, of the statutory key person approach set out in the English Early Years Foundation Stage (2007). The important message is for the key person to be available, attentive, and attuned to infants and young children at times of separation from their primary carer. Despite these interventions Bowlby's attachment theory is said to still cause many women to feel guilty about leaving their infant or child in a day care setting as they return to the workforce (Page 2016). According to Burman (2016) despite women's increasing participation in paid work outside the home, definitions of the mother-child relationship within developmental psychology work to maintain existing social relations and forms of organisations. Sfmonardottir (2016) reinforces this view by noting that parenting has become an increasingly important part of adult identity in Western societies whereby the mother is expected to immerse herself in child rearing and take full responsibility for her child's development while relying on expert guidance and science to show her how.

Reflecting on Foucault's (1977) notion of how ideas and practices become 'regimes of truth', the concept of motherhood has become a social construction with attachment theory fitting neatly into the narrowing and politicised discourse of good mothering. This can be seen in a government commissioned report (the Allen Report) on developing effective interventions with families at risk of multiple disadvantage which states that 'the right kind of parenting [clearly aimed at mothers] is a bigger influence on their [children's] future than wealth, class, education or any other social factor' (Allen 2011: xiv). What is clear from this report is what Furedi (2001: 67) calls 'parent determinism' as it is firmly committed to the idea that there is a direct causal relationship between what parents do and why things go wrong in society (Lee no date).

In the same report much is made of developmental neuroscientific research, and Bowlby's original chartings of the attachment domain holds up well in light of the growing body of studies on the neurobiology of attachment. This recent renovation of attachment theory via neuroscience is a striking re-biologisation of an already psychobiological theory (Mackenzie and Roberts 201 7).

Neuroscientists can be thought of as the new developmentalists as they provide a mechanism by which psychologists' findings make sense. Although it may seem that they are not adding anything of significance to the existing body of knowledge on child development. It may help to learn exactly how experiences affect children. As Diamond and Amso (2008: 137) argue:

Neuroscience research has shown that experience plays a far larger role in shaping the mind, brain, and even gene expression than was ever imagined. This insight is particularly important in advancing theory in cognitive development, where debates have raged about the importance of nature versus nurture.

The contribution from attachment theory and the impact of neurosciences can now begin to flesh out new ways of understanding how the infant brain is sculpted through experiences; this is very exciting and neuroscientific research is changing our understanding of developmental psychology. But in terms of implications for care and education, it is still in its infancy and we need to keep in mind that it is just one voice in the study of child development (Hall and Curtin 2016).

The importance of the attachment bond between caregiver and child is especially relevant for theories of theories of constructivism which emphasise environmental and social influences on cognition. The chapter now moves on to discuss the three ideas of constructivism.

Theories of constructivism

Constructivism is a theory about knowledge and learning which describes both what 'knowing' is and how one 'comes to know'. There are three main areas of constructivism which are:

  • • Cognitive constructivism (dependent on Piaget's theory)
  • • Social constructivism (dependent on Vygotsky's theory)
  • • Co-constructivism (dependent on Bruner's theory)

Using constructivism as a theoretical lens, the child is viewed as active in their own learning through exploration, problem solving, collaborating with others, interacting with the environment, and building on previous experiences.

Cognitive constructivism

In cognitive constructivism, ideas are constructed in the individual child through a personal process, as opposed to social and co-constructivism where ideas are constructed through interaction with the adult(s) and other children. Cognitive constructivism came directly from Piaget's work and his theory about cognitive development has probably had the biggest impact of any dominant theory on child development and education in the UK. This was brought about mainly by the highly regarded (in the education community) Plowden report (1967) which relied heavily on Piaget's theory of children as active learners.

One of the main educational tasks of the primary school is to build on and strengthen children's intrinsic interest in learning and lead them to learn for themselves rather than from fear of disapproval or desire for praise.

(Plowden 1967: 532)

In the acquisition of knowledge, Piaget (1953) proposed that children cannot be given information which they immediately understand and use but instead they must construct their own knowledge. This construction of knowledge has three key elements which refer to the way individuals:

  • • Modify or assimilate new information to make it fit our existing ideas (schemas)
  • • Adjust our thinking or ideas (schemas) to accommodate new learning
  • • Deal with the conflict (disequilibrium) which occurs and drives us to assimilate and accommodate new ideas (schemas)
  • (Pound 2011)

Piaget characterised a child's development by the constant effort to refine and expand a range of mental actions which he referred to as schemas. Piaget specified that children's schemas are constructed through a process of assimilation and accommodation when going through four stages of development. This became known as stage theory with the first two stages most relevant to early child development which are referred to as the sensorimotor stage (from birth to two years of age) and preoperational stage (from two to seven years of age). The third and fourth stages are concrete operational (from seven to eleven years of age) and formal operational stage (from eleven years of age to adulthood).

Piaget's positivistic study of cognitive processes based on logical and linear development was ground-breaking at the time in that it took children seriously as thinkers and made a scientific effort to understand their thinking as a group equal to but differing from adults (Woodhead 2009).

Piaget's results, regarding children's modes of understanding, were based on a narrow sample of interviews involving questions and experiments carried out with his own Swiss children and those of colleagues. This was widely criticised not only for the research methods but also as being culturally biased; consequently, his findings based on these data were deemed as unreliable (Lourenço 1996; Aslanian 2017). Donaldson (1978) argued that under different circumstances children can demonstrate at an earlier age possession of the qualities associated with operational thought if they were given help. Matthews (2008) argues that Piaget's stage theory of development supports a deficit conception of young children's capabilities in which the nature of the child is understood as a configuration of deficits—missing capacities that normal adults have but children lack.

The stage theory approach underpins the majority of assumptions of curriculum documents for the early years and primary education in the UK as it has largely been accepted as an unquestionable truth. This has led to practices which identify what children cannot do, often through commercially produced developmental tracking sheets which in England are aligned to the Early Years Foundations Stage (EYFS) early learning goals (DfE 2017). The dangers of using this form of assessment is that there is a tendency to look for 'gaps' in children's development based on pre-determined outcomes (informed by stage theory) rather than focusing on the competencies of the child and what they can do on their own or with other children. This leads the discussion onto social constructivism which:

through relationships in a supportive context ... children and adults 'construct new connections between thoughts and objects that bring about innovation and change, taking known elements and creating new connections'

(Rinaldi 2006: 117)

Social constructivism

Social constructivism stems from Vygotsky's socio-cultural theory which claims that learning and development is fundamentally a social activity and language and culture play an active part. Vygotsky (1978: 88) stated, 'human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them'. Developmentally, Vygotsky (1978, 1986) affirmed that verbal communication among children and between children and adults is a powerful force in helping them acquire conceptual knowledge. He incorporated his thinking into a theory which he called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which is the gap between what a child can do on their own, unassisted, and what a child can do with hints and guidance from a more knowledgeable other (MKO). Rejecting a sequential ordering of learning and development in children (i.e. stage theory) Vygotsky proposed an interrelated, dynamic process (Wink and Putney 2002). This requires knowledgeable practitioners who, by adopting the role of a sensitive listener and observer, know when to stand back and when to intervene. However, the flexibility, time, and space needed to support children's development are often impeded by the top-down system of government mandated curriculum. For example, the English EYFS's (DFE 2017) emphasis on children achieving specific early learning goals by the end of Reception year, and the National Curriculum that spells out every detail of the curriculum through key stages and standardised assessments, is underpinned by a positivist, technical view of learning (Moss 2019). It privileges development in a linear manner, as opposed to notions of learning as both a socio and co-constructed model.


Co-constructivism relates to Bruner's theory of learning (1990). Like Vygotsky, Bruner believed that effective teaching involved starting from what children know already and providing them with guidance that moves their thinking forward. Bruner drew from Piaget and Vygotsky on his ideas about child development. Like Piaget, he emphasised action and problem-solving in children's learning, and mirroring Vygotsky, he stressed the importance of social interaction, language, and instruction in the development of thinking. Contrary to Piaget's linear approach based on a gradual move towards more abstract forms of thought, Bruner argued that logical thinking is not the ultimate destination. In representing young children' experiences and their growing understanding of the world rather than a stage theory Bruner suggested three categories of representation:

  • • Enactive representation: when children represent through their actions
  • • Iconic representation: when children represent through looking at or making pictures or images of things
  • • Symbolic representation: when children use symbolic systems such as written language or mathematical symbols to represent thinking

Bruner emphasised that the three ways of representing are available to young children at any one time with the adult's role in scaffolding the process being vital. Although Bruner's theory is much narrower in scope that Piaget's, Bruner's ideas have been applied more directly to education. This is notably through his notion of a 'spiral curriculum', which basically argues that ideas can be presented to children at almost any age, provided they are coached in an appropriate mode of representation. However, there are questions around what is involved in scaffolding such as who takes the lead and whose intentions are paramount? Scaffolding has been interpreted to imply a one to one relationship in which the practitioner or more knowledgeable other remains in control of what is to be learned and how the teaching will be carried out—a transmission model akin to Vygotsky's notion of ZPD. Contemporary interpretations of scaffolding include more of a focus on joint problem solving and intersubjectivity— the novice and expert establishing mutual motivation, abilities, goals, interests, and disposition (Ortega 2003; Wood and Attfield 2005). The scaffolding metaphor is popular with practitioners as it provides an easy to understand justification of the quality of adult intervention in children's learning. However, due to the metaphorical nature of the term, scaffolding has a potential to be interpreted as any kind of help in general or even as a variation of direct instruction in an attempt to accelerate learning. Rogoff (1990) has suggested the term 'guided participation' is more inclusive than scaffolding. The characteristics of guided participation are the provision of a bridge between existing skills and knowledge to those needed to perform tasks requiring new skills and knowledge; learning can occur in this way whenever children participate in helping more capable others.

Alternative perspectives

It is useful to keep in mind the two key questions identified at the beginning of the chapter in order to reflect on the role of child development theories in guiding our understanding of children and the importance of re-visioning child development for the twenty-first century.

The dominant theories covered in this chapter from behaviourism to constructivism have shown how developmental psychology has shaped practitioners' understanding of child development. Encouragingly Vygotsky's and Bruner's dialectical theories, taken up by Rogoff have provided a framework for beginning to understand how cognitive processes are determined by culture. This shift in approach is also acknowledged by the more recent versions of Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory (1998) and it is certainly the case that mainstream developmental psychology now pays far more attention to cultural influences on development. Bronfenbrenner (cited in Bronfenbrenner and Morris 1998) argued for the importance of studying children in the real context within which they develop; a transactional view whereby the child and the environment continually influence one another. In contrast developmental psychological theories, based on narrow westernised perspectives, can be especially frustrating for practitioners who are not carrying out complex experiments on children but instead are working alongside children with their differing physical attributes, cognitions, emotions, and behaviours, with their families, peer groups, early childhood settings, and schools and wider cultures (Slee and Shute 2003).

Loosely aligned with aspects of Bronfenbrenner's model, Bourdieu's analytical concepts of habitus, field, and capital enable practitioners to develop a critical ecology of child development, taking account of power and the interplay between agency and structure (Houston 2015). Habitus incontrovertibly shapes the way practitioners interact with children, their approach to child development, and the routines and rhythms within the familial domain of experiences. Using a Bourdieusian lens, the [educational] field can be viewed as an arena in which children are socially positioned and subject to rules defining behaviour, attitude, and performance. Bourdieu calls for a disruptive insistent interrogation of established truths and in doing so practitioners must challenge their own normative assumptions about child development (Garrett 2013).

Post-structuralists and postmodernists, such as Foucault and Bourdieu, have produced influential ideas about culture and society. The importance of these ideas is that they challenge dominant discourses of behaviourism, attachment, and Piaget's constructivist stage theory which insist 'that they are the only way to think, talk and behave, that they are the only reality' (Moss 2019: 5). Dominant child development theories are often so ingrained in practice they exclude other ways of understanding and according to Unger (2005) seek to impose a form of dictatorship of no alternative. In this respect early childhood education can be viewed first and foremost as a technical practice, defined in terms by what children cannot do or what they need to acquire. But there are alternative ways of knowing about children and their development. For example, the postmodern transformative view is that children are agents in their own learning in the way they can challenge rather than conform to adult expectations and so create change that is dynamic and in motion (Dahlberg, Moss, and Pence 2013). For this view to translate into practice Moss (2007: 20) calls for 'an openness to uncertainty, unpredictability and wonder'. Choosing values of wonder and uncertainty contests a predictive pedagogy that purports to knowing everything there is to know about children beforehand. These values offer a challenge to theory and practice that makes the child the 'other' if they do not fit into expected developmental outcomes.

Moss (2010) stresses the need for practitioners to adopt pedagogical approaches and practices that value diversity and democracy, and that reflect an ethic of care. This ethical approach owes much to feminist thinkers such asTronto (1993, cited in Moss 2019) who describes an ethics of care as combining two elements: (1) practice rather than a set of rules or principles and (2) general habit of mind which includes values of responsibility, competence, integrity, and responsiveness. This requires a child's rights-based approach to practice that takes into consideration the evolving capacities of the child rather than solely applying conventional child development theories.


This chapter began by asking two key questions:

  • • How have understandings of child development come to dominate practice with young children?
  • • Are there other ways of knowing about children's development?

It has shown how dominant theories about a universal process of child development have been increasingly challenged. Questions are being asked not only about the taken for granted assumptions of the universal applicability of these theories, based on a limited range of childhood experiences from a limited cultural environment, but also the failure to reflect the complexity of factors influencing child development. The social construction of children as passive players is being tested by the argument that children take part in the social world and possess individual agency, capable of interpreting and influencing their own lives (Lansdown 2005). However, this can only be realised in environments based on reciprocal relationships where children's optimal capacities can thrive. Rather than playing it safe by following the rules of dominant discourses of child development there is a need for practitioners to find new ways of listening, consulting with children and interpreting what is seen and heard. 'This requires addressing the power balance so a more creative open process of working in collaboration with children is taken by educators' (McLeod and Giardiello 2019: 17). By reaching out beyond that which is familiar presents the opportunity to not only investigate how learning and development occurs but also to examine why such processes offer new ways of re-visioning children and their capabilities. Changing times and postmodern perspectives have disrupted the taken-for-granted relationship between child development knowledge and the role of practitioners. In considering the views presented in this chapter it is important to recognise there are strengths and limitations for every theory which means it could be unwise to always rely on one perspective about children's learning and development. In trying to make sense of child development, Moss (2008: 20) provides a hopeful way forward by reminding us

that in the development of new theories, adherence to 'grand theories' or in challenging others' theoretical stance—all require us to get close enough to others to listen and to learn from them. Thereby not in the search of finding one true way, 'but the possibility of finding many ways to many truths.


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