Developmental psychology - summary of chapter 2 of an Introduction to Developmental psychology by A. Slater and G. Bremner (third edition)

Developmental psychology
Chapter 2
Theories and issues in child development


Theory of development: a scheme or system of ideas that is based on evidence and attempts to explain, describe and predict behavior and development.
Two types of theory:

  • Minor: those which deal with very specific, narrow areas of development.
  • Major: those which attempt to explain large areas of development.

Motor development

Motor milestones: the basic motor skills acquired in infancy and early childhood, such as sitting unaided, standing, crawling and walking.
The development of motor skills has very important implications for other aspects of development.
The ability to act on the world affects all other aspects of development, and each accomplishment brings with it an increasing degree of independence.

Maturational theories

Motor development proceeded from the global to the specific in two directions.

  • Cephalocaudal trend: development that proceeds from head to foot along the length of the body.
  • Proximodistal trend: the development of motor control in infancy which is from the center of the body outwards to more peripheral segments.

Development is controlled by a maturational timetable linked particularly to the central nervous system and also to muscular development.

Dynamic systems theory

A theoretical approach applied to many areas of development which views the individual as interacting dynamically in a complex system in which all parts interact.
Not all infants go through the same motor developmental stages.

Infants’ acquisition of a new motor skill is much the same as that of adults learning a new motor skill. The beginnings are usually fumbling and poor. There is trial and error learning and great concentration, all gradually leading to the accomplished skillful activity, which then is usually used in the development of yet new motor skills.

All new motor development is the result of a dynamic and continual interaction of three factors:

  • Nervous system development
  • The capabilities and biomechanics of the body
  • Environmental constrains and support.

Cognitive development

Piaget’s theory of development

Developmental psychology before Piaget

Behaviorism and psychoanalysis.
The child is seen as the passive recipient of their upbringing. Development results from such things as the rewards and punishments.

Fundamental aspects of human development according to Piaget

Children are active agents in shaping their own development, they are not simply blank slates who passively and unthinkingly respond to whatever the environment offers them.
Children’s development and behavior is motivated largely intrinsically.
Children learn to adapt to their environments and as a result of their cognitive adaptations they become better able to understand the world.
Cognitive adaptations: children’s developing cognitive awareness of the world.
An organismic world view.

Adaptation: assimilation and accommodation

In order to adapt to the world two important processes are necessary:

  • Assimilation: the process through which children incorporate new experiences into their preexisting schemes.
  • Accommodation: the cognitive process through which children adapt to new experiences by modifying their preexisting schemes.

Schemas: mental structures in the child’s thinking that provide representations and plans for enacting behaviors.
Assimilation and accommodation always occur together during infancy.

Throughout life the processes of assimilation and accommodation are always active as we constantly strive to adapt to the world we encounter.
These processes are functional invariants (processes that do not change during development). What do change are the cognitive structures (schemas) that allow the child to comprehend the world at progressively different levels of understanding.

Four stages of cognitive development

Children move through four broad stages of development, each of which is characterized by qualitatively different ways of thinking.

Sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years)

The child changes from the helpless newborn to the thinking and knowing toddler. These changes take place as a result of the infant’s actions on the objects and people in its environments.
Thought is based primarily on perception and action. Internalized thinking is largely absent.

Preoperational stage (2 to 7 years)

Children can solve a number of practical, concrete problems and they can communicate well and represent information and ideas by means of symbols.
Children are unable to coordinate aspects of problems in order to solve them.
Children tend to be egocentric.
Children display animism in their thinking (they tend to attribute life and life-like qualities to inanimate objects, particularly those that move and are active).
What underlies children’s thinking during the preoperational stage is the lack of a logical framework.

Concrete operations stage (7 to 11 years)

Reasoning is more logical, systematic and rational in its application to concrete objects.
Centration: the focusing or centring of attention on one aspect of a situation to the exclusion of others.

Conservation tasks. Tasks that examine children’s ability to understand that physical attributes of objects do not vary when the object changes shape.

The formal operations stage (from about 11 years)

The individual acquires the capacity for abstract scientific thought. This includes the ability to theorize about impossible events and items.

Information processing approaches

Information processing: the view that cognitive processes are explained in terms of inputs and outputs and that the human mind is a system through which information flows.

An organism’s behavior cannot be understood without knowing the structure of the perceiver’s environment.
Constructivism: Perception fills in information that cannot be seen or heard directly.
Piaget’s theoretical view that infants are not born with knowledge about the world, but instead gradually construct knowledge and the ability to represent reality mentally.

Information processing theories focuses on the information available in the external environment, and the means by which the child receives and interprets this information.

Cognitive development in infancy

(According to the information processing approach) cognitive development proceeds in bottom up fashion, beginning with the ‘input’ or uptake of information by the child, and building complex systems of knowledge from simpler origins.
For young infants, sensory and perceptual skills are relatively immature, and this may impose limits on knowledge acquisition.

Cognitive development in childhood

In childhood, the task of building knowledge often comes down to determining which of the many ‘strategies’ are available to solve particular problems.
Children have incorporation of new strategies, identification of efficient strategies, more efficient execution of each strategy and more adaptive choices among strategies.
Children typically use multiple strategies at all points of assessment. Children hone their choices with experience and thus come to solve problems more quickly and accurately.

Connectionism and brain development

Information processing theory takes advantage of two new advances in cognitive science

  • The use of connectionist models: computers are programmed to simulate the action of the brain and nerve cells. Including cognitive development. There is no knowledge built into a model, it is effectively a ‘blank slate’ and as such represent the human child.
    Connectionist refers to the structure of the model, which consists of a number of processing units that are connected and that influence one another by a flow of actions.
  • Methods for recording brain activity in infants and children

Comparing information-processing approaches with Piaget’s approach

In common:

  • Both attempt to specify children’s abilities and limitations as development proceeds.
  • Both try to explain how new levels of understanding develop from earlier, less advanced ones.
  • Share focus of ‘active’ participation by the child in their own development.


  • Information processing approaches place great importance on the role of processing limitations in limiting children’s thinking and reasoning at any point in time.
  • Information processing approaches emphasize the development of strategies and procedures for helping overcome these limitations.
  • Piaget does not discuss processing limitations, but discusses developmental changes in terms of the child gradually constructing logical frameworks for thoughts.
  • Information processing accounts see development as unfolding in a continuous fashion

Social-cognitive development


One of the first to recognize the importance of knowledgeable adults in the child’s development.
The development of intellectual abilities is influenced by a didactic relationship with more advanced individuals.
Higher mental abilities are first encountered and used competently in social interactions, only later being internalized and possessed as individual thought processes.

Social interaction plays a fundamental role in cognitive development.
There is a gap between what the child knows and what they can be taught.
At a given stage of development the child has a certain level of understanding, a temporary maximum. A little beyond this point lies the zone of proximal development (ZPD). This is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined though problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more able peers.

Behaviorism and social learning theory

Early behaviorism

Law of effect: the likelihood of an action being repeated is increased if it leads to a pleasant outcome, and decreased if it leads to an unpleasant outcome.

Early behaviorists’ view of child development.
The infant is born with little more than the machinery of conditioning and infancy and childhood consists of constant warping and molding under pressure of the environment. The child is passive and receptive and can be shaped in any direction.
Any behaviors are towers built upon the foundations of very simple, repeated connections between stimuli and its response.

B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism

Operant conditioning

Social learning theory

The application of behaviorism to social and cognitive learning that emphasizes the importance of observational learning.

Social cognitive theory: emphasizes social factors in cognitive development.

Ethology and evolution

Ethological approaches: emphasize the evolutionary origins of many behaviors that are important for survival (like imprinting).

The ethological approach

Certain behaviors in the young of many species would be genetic in origin because:

  • They promote survival
  • They are found in many species

Two implications of ethology’s conception of behaviors:

  • For the most part, they require an external stimulus or target.
  • There is a critical period, when this expires, the behavior cannot develop.

Emotional development

Attachment theory – John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth

The need for attachment is a primary drive (basic needs).

Monotropy: the view that the infant has a basic need to form an attachment with one significant person.
But, infants often form multiple attachments. And in some cases their strongest attachments was to people who did not fulfill basic cargiving activities, but who did engage in satisfying interactions with them.

Bowlby believed that the attachment system between infant and caregiver became organized and consolidated in the second half of the infant’s first year from birth, and became particularly apparent when the infant began to craw.

Psychoanalytic theories

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis

Much of our behavior is determined by unconscious forces of which we are not aware.
Psychoanalytic theory: there are three main personality structures:

  • Id
    A primitive collection of urges with which an individual begins life. It is responsible for individual’s ‘primitive’ instincts.
  • Ego
    Rational thought that evolved to control the urges of the id in order to meet the demands of reality and maintain social approval and esteem.
  • Superego
    Sense of duty and responsibility

the ego and the superego develop as the individual progresses through the five psychosexual stages.

The five spychosexual stages

Oral stage (birth to 1 year)

The infants greatest satisfaction is derived form stimulation of the lips, tongue and mouth.
Sucking is the chief source of pleasure for the young infant.

Anal stage (1 to 3 years)

Toilet training takes place and the child gains the greatest psychosexual pleasure from exercising control over the anus and by training and eliminating faeces.

Phallic stage (3 to 6 years)

Children obtain their greatest pleasure form stimulating the genitals.
(At this time boys experience the Oedipus complex). When the boy realizes that his father is a major competitor for her (sexual) affections, he fears that castration at the hands of his father (castration complex). In order to resolve this complex he adopts the ideals of this father and the superego develops.

Electra complex (is the Oedipus complex for girls). It is the same.

Latency and genital stages (6 to adolescence)

From around 6 years the torments of infancy and early childhood subside and the child’s sexual awakening goes into a resting period.
Then, at adolescence, sexual feelings become more apparent and urgent and the genital stage appears. In the latter ‘true’ sexual feelings emerge and the adolescent strives to cope with awakening desires.

Problems with Freudian theory

Unconscious processes are almost impossible to test.

Psychoanalysis, then and now

Freudian theory has been of immense importance in pointing out two possibilities:

  • Early childhood can be immensely important in affecting and determining later development. K
  • We can be driven by unconscious needs and desires of which we are not aware.

Humanistic theory – Abraham Maslow

Humanistic theories focus on the individual’s own subjective experiences, motives and desires.
Emphasizes that humans have free will and are motivated to fulfill their potential.
We are not driven by unconscious needs, neither are we driven by external environmental pulls such as reinforcement and rewards.
Self-actualization: fulfillment of needs beyond those deemed necessary for survival.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

There is a hierarchy of needs or motives that determine behavior.

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety and security
  3. Love and belonging
  4. Esteem
  5. self-actualization

Issues in child development


Whether development is the result of an individual’s genes or the kinds of experiences they have throughout life.

Stability versus change

Whether individuals are stable in the sense of maintaining their rank order across age.

Continuity versus discontinuity

Whether development is continuous or discontinuous.

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An Introduction to Developmental psychology by A. Slater and G. Bremner (third edition) - a summary


This bundle contains a summary of the book An Introduction to Developmental psychology by A. Slater and G. Bremner (third edition). The book is about development from fetus to elderly. Only the chapters needed in the course 'Developmental psychology' in the first year of

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