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For the journal, see Child Development (journal)

Childhood development is a subfield of developmental psychology focusing on the physical, cognitive, personality and psychosocial processes of growth between birth to twelve years of age. It is followed by adolescent development.

  • Emotional development in childhood
  • Personality development in childhood
  • Social development in childhood

  • Education and childhood development

Walter de Maria Vertikaler Erdkilometer


Child development refers to the biological and psychological changes that occur in human beings between birth and the end of adolescence, as the individual progresses from dependency to increasing autonomy. Because these developmental changes may be strongly influenced by genetic factors and events during prenatal life, genetics and prenatal development are usually included as part of the study of child development. Related terms include developmental psychology, referring to development throughout the lifespan, and pediatrics, the branch of medicine relating to the care of children. Developmental change may occur as a result of genetically-controlled processes known as maturation, or as a result of environmental factors and learning, but most commonly involves an interaction between the two.

There are various definitions of periods in child development, since each period is a continuum with individual differences regarding start and ending.

Child development stages

Approximate outline of development periods in child development.

Some age-related development periods and examples of defined intervals are: newborn (ages 0–1 month); infant (ages 1 month – 1 year); toddler (ages 1–3 years); preschooler (ages 4–6years); school-aged child (ages 6–13 years); adolescent (ages 13–20).[1] However, organizations like Zero to Three and the World Association for Infant Mental Health use the term infant as a broad category, including children from birth to age 3, a logical decision considering that the Latin derivation of the word infant refers to those who have no speech.

The optimal development of children is considered vital to society and so it is important to understand the social, cognitive, emotional, and educational development of children. Increased research and interest in this field has resulted in new theories and strategies, with specific regard to practice that promotes development within the school system. In addition there are also some theories that seek to describe a sequence of states that comprise child development.


Ecological Systems Theory[]

Main article: Ecological Systems Theory

Also called "Development in Context" or "Human Ecology" theory, Ecological Systems Theory, originally formulated by Urie Bronfenbrenner specifies four types of nested environmental systems, with bi-directional influences within and between the systems. The four systems are Microsystem, Mesosystem, Exosystem, and Macrosystem. Each system contains roles, norms and rules that can powerfully shape development. Since its publication in 1979, Bronfenbrenner's major statement of this theory, The Ecology of Human Development [2] has had widespread influence on the way psychologists and others approach the study of human beings and their environments. As a result of this influential conceptualization of development, these environments — from the family to economic and political structures — have come to be viewed as part of the life course from childhood through adulthood.[3]


Main article: Jean Piaget

Piaget was a French speaking Swiss theorist who posited that children learn actively through the play process. He suggested that the adult's role in helping the child learn was to provide appropriate materials for the child to interact and construct. He would use Socratic questioning to get the children to reflect on what they were doing. He would try to get them to see contradictions in their explanations. He also developed stages of development. His approach can be seen in how the curriculum is sequenced in schools, and in the pedagogy of preschool centers across the United States.

Piaget Stages[]

Sensorimotor: (birth to about age 2)
During this stage, the child learns about himself and his environment through motor and reflex actions. Thought derives from sensation and movement. The child learns that he is separate from his environment and that aspects of his environment—his parents or favorite toy—continue to exist even though they may be outside the reach of his senses. Teaching for a child in this stage should be geared to the sensorimotor system. You can modify behavior by using the senses: a frown, a stern or soothing voice—all serve as appropriate techniques.

Preoperational: (begins about the time the child starts to talk to about age 7)
Applying his new knowledge of language, the child begins to use symbols to represent objects. Early in this stage he also personifies objects. He is now better able to think about things and events that aren't immediately present. Oriented to the present, the child has difficulty conceptualizing time. His thinking is influenced by fantasy—the way he'd like things to be—and he assumes that others see situations from his viewpoint. He takes in information and then changes it in his mind to fit his ideas. Teaching must take into account the child's vivid fantasies and undeveloped sense of time. Using neutral words, body outlines and equipment a child can touch gives him an active role in learning.

Concrete: (about first grade to early adolescence)
During this stage, accommodation increases. The child develops an ability to think abstractly and to make rational judgements about concrete or observable phenomena, which in the past he needed to manipulate physically to understand. In teaching this child, giving him the opportunity to ask questions and to explain things back to you allows him to mentally manipulate information.

Formal Operations: (adolescence)
This stage brings cognition to its final form. This person no longer requires concrete objects to make rational judgements. At his point, he is capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning. Teaching for the adolescent may be wideranging because he'll be able to consider many possibilities from several perspectives.


Main article: Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky was a theorist who worked during the first decades of the former Soviet Union. He posited that children learn through hands-on experience, as Piaget suggested. However, unlike Piaget, he claimed that timely and sensitive intervention by adults when a child is on the edge of learning a new task (called the zone of proximal development) could help children learn new tasks. This technique is called "scaffolding," because it builds upon knowledge children already have with new knowledge that adults can help the child learn.[4] An example of this might be when a parent "helps" an infant clap or roll her hands to the pat-a-cake rhyme, until she can clap and roll her hands herself.[5][6]

Vygotsky was strongly focused on the role of culture in determining the child's pattern of development.[4] He argued that "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals."[4]

Vygotsky felt that development was a process and saw periods of crisis in child development during which there was a qualitative transformation in the child's mental functioning.[7]

Attachment theory[]

Main article: Attachment theory

Attachment theory, originating in the work of John Bowlby and developed by Mary Ainsworth, is a psychological, evolutionary and ethological theory that provides a descriptive and explanatory framework for understanding interpersonal relationships between human beings. Attachment theorists consider the human infant to have a need for a relationship with at least one caregiver for normal social and emotional development to occur.

Erik Erikson[]

Main article: Erik Erikson

Erikson, a follower of Freud's, synthesized both Freud's and his own theories to create what is known as the "psychosocial" stages of human development, which span from birth to death, and focuses on "tasks" at each stage that must be accomplished to successfully navigate life's challenges.[8]

Behavioral Theories[]

John B. Watson’s behaviorism theory forms the foundation of the behavioral model of development.[9] He wrote extensively on child development and conducted research (see Little Albert experiment). Watson was instrumental in the modification of William James’ stream of consciousness approach to construct a stream of behavior theory.[10] Watson also helped bring a natural science perspective to child psychology by introducing objective research methods based on observable and measurable behavior. Following Watson’s lead, B.F. Skinner further extended this model to cover operant conditioning and verbal behavior.

Other theories[]

In accordance with his view of a basic human motivation being the sexual drive, Sigmund Freud developed a psychosexual theory of human development from infancy onward, divided into five stages. Each stage centered around the gratification of the libido within a particular area, or erogenous zone, of the body. He also argued that as humans develop, they become fixated on different and specific objects through their stages of development. Each stage contains conflict which requires resolution to enable the child to develop.[11]

The use of dynamical systems theory as a framework for the consideration of development began in the early 1990s and has continued into the present century.[12] Dynamic systems theory stresses nonlinear connections (e.g., between earlier and later social assertiveness) and the capacity of a system to reorganize as a phase shift that is stage-like in nature. Another useful concept for developmentalists is the attractor state, a condition (such as teething or stranger anxiety) that helps to determine apparently unrelated behaviors as well as related ones. Dynamic systems theory has been applied extensively to the study of motor development; the theory also has strong associations with some of Bowlby's views about attachment systems. Dynamic systems theory also relates to the concept of the transactional process,[13] a mutually interactive process in which children and parents simultaneously influence each other, producing developmental change in both over time.

The Core Knowledge Perspective is an evolutionary theory in child development that proposes "infants begin life with innate, special-purpose knowledge systems referred to as core domains of thought"[14] There are five core domains of thought, each of which is crucial for survival, which simultaneously prepare us to develop key aspects of early cognition; they are: physical, numerical, linguistic, psychological, and biological.

Continuity and discontinuity in development[]

Although the identification of developmental milestones is of interest to researchers and to children's caregivers, many aspects of developmental change are continuous and do not display noticeable milestones of change.[15] Continuous developmental changes, like growth in stature, involve fairly gradual and predictable progress toward adult characteristics. When developmental change is discontinuous, however, researchers may identify not only milestones of development, but related age periods often called stages. A stage is a period of time, often associated with a known chronological age range, during which a behavior or physical characteristic is qualitatively different from what it is at other ages. When an age period is referred to as a stage, the term implies not only this qualitative difference, but also a predictable sequence of developmental events, such that each stage is both preceded and followed by specific other periods associated with characteristic behavioral or physical qualities.

Stages of development may overlap or be associated with specific other aspects of development, such as speech or movement. Even within a particular developmental area, transition into a stage may not mean that the previous stage is completely finished. For example, in Erikson's discussion of stages of personality, this theorist suggests that a lifetime is spent in reworking issues that were originally characteristic of a childhood stage [16]. Similarly, the theorist of cognitive development, Piaget, described situations in which children could solve one type of problem using mature thinking skills, but could not accomplish this for less familiar problems, a phenomenon he called horizontal decalage.[17]

Mechanisms of development[]


Girl playing in a play ground

Although developmental change runs parallel with chronological age, age itself cannot cause development. The basic mechanisms or causes of developmental change are genetic factors and environmental factors. Genetic factors are responsible for cellular changes like overall growth, changes in proportion of body and brain parts, and the maturation of aspects of function such as vision and dietary needs. Because genes can be "turned off" and "turned on", the individual's initial genotype may change in function over time, giving rise to further developmental change. Environmental factors affecting development may include both diet and disease exposure, as well as social, emotional, and cognitive experiences. However, examination of environmental factors also shows that young human beings can survive within a fairly broad range of environmental experiences.[17]

Rather than acting as independent mechanisms, genetic and environmental factors often interact to cause developmental change. Some aspects of child development are notable for their plasticity, or the extent to which the direction of development is guided by environmental factors as well as initiated by genetic factors. For example, the development of allergic reactions appears to be caused by exposure to certain environmental factors relatively early in life, and protection from early exposure makes the child less likely to show later allergic reactions. When an aspect of development is strongly affected by early experience, it is said to show a high degree of plasticity; when the genetic make-up is the primary cause of development, plasticity is said to be low.[18] Plasticity may involve guidance by endogenous factors like hormones as well as by exogenous factors like infection.


Child playing with bubbles

One kind of environmental guidance of development has been described as experience-dependent plasticity, in which behavior is altered as a result of learning from the environment. Plasticity of this type can occur throughout the lifespan and may involve many kinds of behavior, including some emotional reactions. A second type of plasticity, experience-expectant plasticity, involves the strong effect of specific experiences during limited sensitive periods of development. For example, the coordinated use of the two eyes, and the experience of a single three-dimensional image rather than the two-dimensional images created by light in each eye, depend on experiences with vision during the second half of the first year of life. Experience-expectant plasticity works to fine-tune aspects of development that cannot proceed to optimum outcomes as a result of genetic factors working alone.[19]

In addition to the existence of plasticity in some aspects of development, genetic-environmental correlations may function in several ways to determine the mature characteristics of the individual. Genetic-environmental correlations are circumstances in which genetic factors make certain experiences more likely to occur. For example, in passive genetic-environmental correlation, a child is likely to experience a particular environment because his or her parents' genetic make-up makes them likely to choose or create such an environment. in evocative genetic-environmental correlation, the child's genetically-caused characteristics cause other people to respond in certain ways, providing a different environment than might occur for a genetically-different child; for instance, a child with Down syndrome may be treated more protectively and less challengingly than a non-Down child. Finally, an active genetic-environmental correlation is one in which the child chooses experiences that in turn have their effect; for instance, a muscular, active child may choose after-school sports experiences that create increased athletic skills, but perhaps preclude music lessons. In all of these cases, it becomes difficult to know whether child characteristics were shaped by genetic factors, by experiences, or by a combination of the two.[20]

Research issues and methods[]

Establishing a useful understanding of child development requires systematic inquiry about developmental events. Different aspects of development involve different patterns and causes of change, so there is no simple way to summarize child development. Nevertheless, the answering of certain questions about each topic can yield comparable information about various aspects of developmental change. The following questions were suggested for this purpose by Waters and his colleagues.[21]

  1. What develops? What relevant aspects of the individual change over a period of time?
  2. What are the rate and speed of development?
  3. What are the mechanisms of development - what aspects of experience and heredity cause developmental change?
  4. Are there normal individual differences in the relevant developmental changes?
  5. Are there population differences in this aspect of development (for example, differences in the development of boys and of girls)?

Empirical research that attempts to answer these questions may follow a number of patterns. Initially, observational research in naturalistic conditions may be needed to develop a narrative describing and defining an aspect of developmental change, such as changes in reflex reactions in the first year. This type of work may be followed by correlational studies, collecting information about chronological age and some type of development such as vocabulary growth; correlational statistics can be used to state change. Such studies examine the characteristics of children at different ages. These methods may involve longitudinal studies, in which a group of children are re-examined on a number of occasions as they get older,or cross-sectional studies, in which groups of children of different ages are tested once and compared with each other, or there may be a combination of these approaches. Some child development studies examine the effects of experience or heredity by comparing characteristics of different groups of children in a necessarily non-randomized design. Other studies can use randomized designs to compare outcomes for groups of children who receive different interventions or educational treatments.[17]

Developmental milestones[]

Main article: Child development stages

Milestones are changes in specific physical and mental abilities (such as walking and understanding language) that mark the end of one developmental period and the beginning of another. For stage theories, milestones indicate a stage transition. Studies of the accomplishment of many developmental tasks have established typical chronological ages associated with developmental milestones. However, there is considerable variation in the achievement of milestones, even between children with developmental trajectories within the normal range. Some milestones are more variable than others; for example, receptive speech indicators do not show much variation among children with normal hearing, but expressive speech milestones can be quite variable.

A common concern in child development is developmental delay involving a delay in an age-specific ability for important developmental milestones. Prevention of and early intervention in developmental delay are significant topics in the study of child development. Developmental delays should be diagnosed by comparison with characteristic variability of a milestone, not with respect to average age at achievement. An example of a milestone would be eye-hand coordination, which includes a child's increasing ability to manipulate objects in a coordinated manner. Increased knowledge of age-specific milestones allows parents and others to keep track of appropriate development.

Aspects of child development[]

Child development is not a matter of a single topic, but progresses somewhat differently for different aspects of the individual. Here are descriptions of the development of a number of physical and mental characteristics.

Physical growth[]

What develops?[]

Physical growth in stature and weight occurs over the 15–20 years following birth, as the individual changes from the average weight of 3.5 kg and length of 50 cm at full-term birth to full adult size. As stature and weight increase, the individual's proportions also change, from the relatively large head and small torso and limbs of the neonate, to the adult's relatively small head and long torso and limbs.[22] [22]

Speed and pattern of development[]

The speed of physical growth is rapid in the months after birth, then slows, so birth weight is doubled in the first four months, tripled by age 12 months, but not quadrupled until 24 months.Growth then proceeds at a slow rate until shortly before puberty (between about 9 and 15 years of age), when a period of rapid growth occurs. Growth is not uniform in rate and timing across all body parts. At birth, head size is already relatively near to that of an adult, but the lower parts of the body are much smaller than adult size. In the course of development, then, the head grows relatively little, and torso and limbs undergo a great deal of growth.[22]

Mechanisms of developmental change[]

Genetic factors play a major role in determining the growth rate, and particularly the changes in proportion characteristic of early human development. However, genetic factors can produce the maximum growth only if environmental conditions are adequate. Poor nutrition and frequent injury and disease can reduce the individual's adult stature, but the best environment cannot cause growth to a greater stature than is determined by heredity.[22]

Population differences[]

Population differences in growth are largely related to adult stature. Ethnic groups that are quite tall in adulthood are also longer at birth and throughout childhood, as compared to groups that have short adult stature. Males are also somewhat taller, although this is more apparent in ethnic groups with strong sexual dimorphism in adulthood. Populations that are characteristically malnourished are also shorter throughout life. However, there are few population differences in growth rates or patterns, except that poor environmental conditions may delay puberty and the associated growth spurt. The markedly different age at puberty of boys and girls means that boys and girls of age 11 or 12 are at very different points in maturation and may reverse the usual sex difference in physical size.[22]

Individual differences[]

Individual differences in height and weight during childhood are considerable. Some of these differences are due to family genetic factors, others to environmental factors, but at some points in development they may be strongly influenced by individual differences in reproductive maturation.[22]

Motor development[]

What develops?[]

Early toddler

A child while learning to walk

Abilities for physical movement change through childhood from the largely reflexive (unlearned, involuntary) movement patterns of the young infant to the highly skilled voluntary movements characteristic of later childhood and adolescence. (Of course, older children and adolescents retain some reflex movements in addition to developing voluntary movement.)[15]

Speed and pattern of development[]

The speed of motor development is rapid in early life, as many of the reflexes of the newborn alter or disappear within the first year, and slows later. Like physical growth, motor development shows predictable patterns of cephalocaudal (head to foot) and proximodistal (torso to extremities) development, with movements at the head end and in the more central areas coming under control before those of the lower part of the body or the hands and feet. Types of movement develop in stage-like sequences; for example, locomotion at 6–8 months involves creeping on all fours, then proceeds to pulling to stand, "cruising" while holding on to an object, walking while holding an adult's hand, and finally walking independently. Older children continue the sequence by walking sideways or backward, galloping, hopping, skipping with one foot and walking with the other, and finally skipping. By middle childhood and adolescence, new motor skills are acquired by instruction or observation rather than in a predictable sequence.[15]

Mechanisms of motor development[]

The mechanisms involved in motor development involve some genetic components that determine the physical size of body parts at a given age, as well as aspects of muscle and bone strength. Nutrition and exercise also determine strength and therefore the ease and accuracy with which a body part can be moved. Opportunities to carry out movements help establish the abilities to flex (move toward the trunk) and extend body parts, both capacities being needed for good motor ability. Skilled voluntary movements develop as a result of practice and learning.[15]

Individual differences[]

Normal individual in motor ability are common and depend in part on the child's weight and build. However, after the infant period, normal individual differences are strongly affected by opportunities to practice, observe, and be instructed on specific movements. Atypical motor development may be an indication of developmental delays or problems such as autism or cerebral palsy.[15]

Population differences[]

There are some population differences in motor development, with girls showing some advantages in small muscle use, including articulation of sounds with lips and tongue. Ethnic differences in reflex movements of newborn infants have been reported, suggesting that some biological factor is at work. Cultural differences may encourage learning of motor skills like using the left hand only for sanitary purposes and the right hand for all other uses, producing a population difference. Cultural factors are also seen at work in practiced voluntary movements such as the use of the foot to dribble a soccer ball or the hand to dribble a basketball.[15]

Cognitive/Intellectual development[]

Template:Expand section

What develops?[]

The capacity to learn, remember, and symbolize information, and to solve problems, exists at a simple level in young infants, who can perform cognitive tasks such as discriminating animate and inanimate beings or recognizing small numbers of objects. During childhood, learning and information-processing increase in speed, memory becomes increasingly longer, and symbol use and the capacity for abstraction develop until a near-adult level is reached by adolescence.[15]

Mechanisms of cognitive development[]

Cognitive development has genetic and other biological mechanisms, as is seen in the many genetic causes of mental retardation. However, although it is assumed that brain functions cause cognitive events, it has not been possible to measure specific brain changes and show that they cause cognitive change. Developmental advances in cognition are also related to experience and learning, and this is particularly the case for higher-level abilities like abstraction, which depend to a considerable extent on formal education.[15]

Individual differences[]

There are normal individual differences in the ages at which specific cognitive abilities are achieved, but schooling for children in industrialized countries is based on the assumption that these differences are not large. Atypical delays in cognitive development are problematic for children in cultures that demand advanced cognitive skills for work and for independent living.[15]

Population differences[]

There are few population differences in cognitive development. Boys and girls show some differences in their skills and preferences, but there is a great deal of overlap between the groups. Differences in cognitive achievement of different ethnic groups appears to result from cultural or other environmental factors.[15]

Social-emotional development[]

What develops?[]

Newborn infants do not seem to experience fear or have preferences for contact with any specific people.By about 8–12 months, they go through a fairly rapid change and become fearful of perceived threats; they also begin to prefer familiar people and show anxiety and distress when separated from them or approached by strangers. The capacity for empathy and the understanding of social rules begin in the preschool period and continue to develop into adulthood. Middle childhood is characterized by friendships with age-mates, and adolescence by emotions connected with sexuality and the beginnings of romantic love. Anger seems most intense during the toddler and early preschool period and during adolescence.[15]

Speed and pattern of development[]

Some aspects of social-emotional development, like empathy, develop gradually, but others, like fearfulness, seem to involve a rather sudden reorganization of the child's experience of emotion. Sexual and romantic emotions develop in connection with physical maturation.[15]

Mechanisms of social and emotional development[]

Genetic factors appear to regulate some social-emotional developments that occur at predictable ages, such as fearfulness, and attachment to familiar people. Experience plays a role in determining which people are familiar, which social rules are obeyed,and how anger is expressed.[15]

Individual differences[]

Individual differences in the sequence of social-emotional development are unusual, but the intensity or expressiveness of emotions can vary greatly from one normal child to another. Individual tendencies to various types of reactivity are probably constitutional, and they are referred to as temperamental differences. Atypical development of social-emotional characteristics may be mildly unusual, or may be so extreme as to indicate mental illness.[15] Temperamental traits are thought to be stable and enduring throughout the life span. Children who are active and angry as infants can be expected to be active and angry as older children, adolescents and adults.[citation needed]

Population differences[]

Population differences may occur in older children, if, for example they have learned that it is appropriate for boys to express emotion or behave differently than girls, or if customs learned by children of one ethnic group are different from those learned in another. Social and emotional differences between boys and girls of a given age may also be associated with differences in the timing of puberty characteristic of the two sexes.[15]


What develops?[]

In addition to acquiring a large spoken vocabulary, there are four main areas in which the child must attain competence, regardless of the language or dialect spoken. These are referred to as phonology or sounds, semantics or the encoded meanings, syntax or the way in which words are combined and pragmatics or knowledge of how language is used in different contexts.[3]

Speed and pattern of development[]

Receptive language, the understanding of others' speech, has a gradual development beginning at about 6 months. However, expressive language, the production of words, moves rapidly after its beginning at about a year of age, with a "vocabulary explosion" of rapid word acquisition occurring in the middle of the second year. This vocabulary expansion is closely linked to the ability to repeat spoken words as they enables the rapid acquisition of skill in their pronunciation.[23][24] Grammatical rules and word combinations appear at about age two. Mastery of vocabulary and grammar continue gradually through the preschool and school years. Adolescents still have smaller vocabularies than adults and experience more difficulty with constructions like the passive voice.

Babies from one month old can produce "ooh" sounds which appear to grow out of pleasurable interactions with caregivers in a mutual "dialogue". According to Stern, this process is communication of affect between adult and infant in a mutual, rhythmic interaction. The attunement and "gaze-coupling" in which infant and adult take different roles is thought to anticipate the give-and-take of later dialogue.[25]

From about 6 to 9 months babies produce more vowels, some consonants and "echolalia", or the frequent repetition of sounds like "dadadada" which appear to have some phonetic characteristics of later speech. It is thought that a crucial part of the development of speech is the time caregivers spend "guessing" what their infants are trying to communicate thus integrating the child into their social world. The attribution of intentionality to the infant's utterances has been called "shared memory" and forms a complex series of actions, intentions and actions in response in an improvised way.[3]

It has been argued that children's phonological systems develop in ways that are parallel to adult languages, even if they are using unrecognisable "words".[26] First words have the function of naming or labelling but also condense meaning as in "milk" meaning "I want milk". Vocabulary typically grows from about 20 words at 18 months to around 200 words at 21 months. From around 18 months the child starts to combine words into two word sentences. Typically the adult expands it to clarify meaning. By 24–27 months the child is producing three or four word sentences using a logical, if not strictly correct, syntax. The theory is that children apply a basic set of rules such as adding 's' for plurals or inventing simpler words out of words too complicated to repeat like "choskit" for chocolate biscuit. Following this there is a rapid appearance of grammatical rules and ordering of sentences. There is often an interest in rhyme, and imaginative play frequently includes conversations.[3] Children's recorded monologues give insight into the development of the process of organising information into meaningful units.[27]

By three years the child is beginning to use complex sentences, including relative clauses, although still perfecting various linguistic systems. By five years of age the child's use of language is very similar to that of an adult.[3] From the age of about three children can indicate fantasy or make-believe linguistically, produce coherent personal stories and fictional narrative with beginnings and endings.[3] It is argued that children devise narrative as a way of understanding their own experience and as a medium for communicating their meaning to others.[28] The ability to engage in extended discourse emerges over time from regular conversation with adults and peers. For this the child needs to learn to combine his perspective with that of others and with outside events and learn to use linguistic indicators to show he is doing this. They also learn to adjust their language depending on to whom they are speaking. Typically by the age of about 9 a child can recount other narratives in addition to their own experiences, from the perspectives of the author, the characters in the story and their own views.[29]

Mechanisms of language development[]

Although the role of adult discourse is important in facilitating the child's learning, there is considerable disagreement amongst theorists about the extent to which children's early meanings and expressive words arises directly from adult input as opposed to intrinsic factors relating to the child's cognitive functions. Findings about the initial mapping of new words, the ability to decontextualise words and refine meaning are diverse.[3] One hypothesis is known as the syntactic bootstrapping hypothesis, referring to the child's ability to infer meaning from cues, using grammatical information from the structure of sentences.[30] Another is the multi-route model in which it is argued that context-bound words and referential words follow different routes; the first being mapped onto event representations and the latter onto mental representations. In this model, although parental input has a critical role,children rely on cognitive processing to establish subsequent use of words.[31] However, naturalistic research on language development has indicated that preschoolers' vocabularies are strongly associated with the number of words addressed to them by adults.[32].

There is as yet no single accepted theory of language acquisition. Current explanations vary in emphasis from learning theory, with its emphasis on reinforcement and imitation (Skinner), to biological, nativist theories, with innate underlying mechanisms (Chomsky and Pinker), to a more interactive approach within a social context (Piaget and Tomasello).[3] Behaviorists argue that given the universal presence of a physical environment and, usually, a social environment, any theory of language must account for the effects of the contingent relations of these on an individuals development of language behaviour.[33][34][35] Pinker argues that complex language is universal and has an innate basis. Pinker's argument is partly based on the development of creole languages from pidgins. The children of parents who communicate, without grammatical structures, in pidgin, develop a creole language of their own accord, complete with standardised word orders, markers for present, future and past tenses and subordinate clauses.[36] There is some support for this from the development of sign language amongst deaf children thrown together at a young age in special schools in Nicaragua who spontaneously developed a pidgin which was then developed into a creole by a younger generation of children coming into the schools, (ISN).[37][38].

Individual differences[]

Slow Expressive Language Development (SELD) a delay in the use of words coupled with normal understanding, is characteristic of a small proportion of children who later display normal language use.

Dyslexia is a significant topic in child development as it affects approximately 5% of the population (in the western world). Essentially it is a disorder whereby children fail to attain the language skills of reading, writing and spelling commensurate with their intellectual abilities. Dyslexic children show a range of differences in their language development, from subtle speech impairments to mispronunciations to word-finding difficulties. The most common phonological difficulties are limitations of verbal short-term memory and phonological awareness. Such children often have difficulties with long-term verbal learning such as months of the year, learning tables,late 1980s the phonological deficit hypothesis has become the dominant explanation. The difficulties in early articulation, basic phonological skills and acquiring basic building blocks means that dyslexics have to invest too many resources in just coping with the basics rather than acquiring new information or skills. Early identification enables children to receive help before they fail.[3]

Atypically delayed language development may be diagnostic of autism, and regression of language may indicate serious disabilities like Rett syndrome. Poor language development also accompanies general developmental delays such as those found in Down syndrome.

See also[]



  1. Kail RE (2006). Children and Their Development, 4, Prentice Hall.
  2. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (ISBN 0-674-22457-4)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Smith PK, Cowie H and Blades M, Understanding Children's Development, Basic psychology (4 ed.), Oxford, England: Blackwell 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 (1978 (Published originally in Russian in 1930)) Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes (Translation by Michael Cole), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  5. (1962) Thought and Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  6. (1985) Cultural, Communication, and Cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives, Cambridge University Press.
  7. Vygotsky, L.S. (1998). Child psychology. The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Vol. 5. Problems of the theory and history of psychology. New York: Plenum.
  8. Wood SE, Wood CE and Boyd D (2006). Mastering the world of psychology, 2, Allyn & Bacon.
  9. Watson, J.B.(1926). What the nursery has to say about instincts. In C. Murchison (Eds.) Psychologies of 1925. Worchester, MA: Clark University Press.
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Further reading[]

  • Berk, Laura E. (1993), Infants, Children, and Adolescents, Allyn and Bacon, ISBN 0205138802 = 
  • Mooney, Carol Garhart (2000), Theories of Childhood: an Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky, Redleaf Press, ISBN 188483485X 
  • Herbert, M.(2003) Typical and Atypical Development:From conception to adolescence. BPS Blackwell.

External links[]

See also[]

References & Bibliography[]

Key texts[]


  • Rutter M, Tizard J, Whitmore K: Education, Health and Behavior: Psychological and Medical Study of Childhood Development. London, Longman Group, 1970


Additional material[]



External links[]