Why and how do we study the development of a child? - Chapter 1

Why are we investigating the development of a child?

How doe we raise children?

The development of a child can raise various questions. A question that most parents have is how they can teach their children how to deal with anger and other negative emotions. Sometimes parents are spanking their children, but this turns out to be counterproductive. However, several effective ways are known to control the anger of a child. One way is to respond sympathetically to children who show negative emotions, so  children be able to cope in a better way with the situation causing the negative emotions. Another way is to help the children look for positive alternatives when they show negative emotions.

Chosing social policies?

Furthermore, the development of a child can raise questions about a responsible social policy, which is one more reasons learn about child development. Research can be done using meta-analysis, a method combining results from independent studies to arrive at conclusions based on all the studies. It can be asked whether it is better to invest in the prevention of developmental problems in children, or to invest in solving developmental problems that already exist in children.

For example, think about the reliability of a  young childs courtroom testimony. It may happen that the judge believes the statement of a child, whereby an innocent person is punished, or vice versa, a guilty person can go free. Research has shown that young children tend to forget details, but that what they say is largely based on the truth. Important is that young children are sensitive to certain questioning techniques, especially when suggestive questions are repeated. Questions asked to young children in a court must be neutral. Also, questions can not be repeated if they have already been answered. These information must be considered to ensure a reliable statement.

How to understad human nature ?

Studying child development  can lead to  better understanding of the nature of human. Child developmental researchers have found methods to observe, describe and explain the development of children at a young age.

An illustration of how science can help to understand human nature comes from studies on how children overcome the effects of abuse, depending on point of time the child got abused. It appears that children who are in an unstable environment for less than 6 months after birth do not suffer from any negative effects later in life. However, if this period lasts longer than 6 months, they may experience problems, even if they are in a stable environment afterwards. Children who live in unstable environments for more than 6 months could suffer, among other, from an atypical social development. Atypical social decelopment originates from abnormal brain activity. For example, reduced activity in the amygdala, a brain area that is involved in emotional reactions.

What were the historical ideas about child development?

What was the view of early philosophers?

Plato stated that self-control and discipline are the goal of good upbringing and education. Plato also believed that children have innate knowledge. Aristotle stated that it is important to take the individual character of a child into account when it comes to child rearing. So, quality of parenting is very important. Aristotle therefore believed that knowledge is not innate, but that knowledge is gained through experiences.

Two thousand years later, Locke believed that the most important goal of child rearing is the growth of character. Locke stated that the parents should initially raise the child through discipline.He believed that one is born as a blank slate, called tabula rasa, and knowledge is gained through experience. Rousseau thinks that children in the first instance need the maximum freedom. From their twelfth year of life (the so-called 'age of reason'), children must receive formal education from their parents and school. Darwin has developed the so-called 'baby biography', in which he observes the developments of a baby day to day. This includes motor, sensory, and emotional development. Darwin inspired other researchers to conduct further research on the development of a child and the associated aspects.

What are social reform movements?

The current field of child psychology also has its roots in early social reform movements, which have helped to improve the lives of children by changing the conditions in which they lived. For example, it got forbidden, for children younger than 10 years, to work.

The influence of Darwin's theory of evolution?

Darwin's work led to the view that intensive study of the development of children could lead to important insights into human nature. Darwin's theory of evolution, based on variation, natural selection and heredity as fundamental concepts, still influences the thinking of modern developmentists.

What is the origin of research-based theories?

Freud's psychoanalytic theory was one of the first theories based on research findings. Freud argued that biological drives, especially sexual ones, have a crucial influence on development. The theory of behavior by  John Watson stated that the development of children is determined by environmental factors, mainly the rewards and punishments that follow the childrens action. Nowadays, these theories are still influental.

Which aspects of a childs development are important?

How do 'nature and nurture' constitute to the development of a child?

Nature includes the genes that we receive from our parents. In other words: the innate aspects of a person. Nurture means the environment in which both physical and social aspects influence the development. In other words: the learned aspects of a person. Nature and nurture interact with each other. It appears that the genome (the total set with hereditary information) influences behavior and experiences, but the behavior and experiences also influence the genome. This discovery has led to the rise of epigenetics, the study of stable changes in gene expression mediated by the environment. Evidence for the lasting epigenetic impact on experiences and behaviors comes from research of methylation, a biochemical process that reduces expression of a variety of genes and is involved in the regalution of stress reaction.It can  be concluded that both the genes and the environment are important in the development.

How do a children shape their own development?

It is known that the active role of a child is underestimated. The older the child becomes, the more active the child becomes. At a young age, parents determine what the child does in daily life. When the child grows up, he or she chooses his own activities, friends, environment and so on. 

In what way is the development of a child continuous and in what way is the development discontinuous?

Continuous development means age related gradually changes occur in small steps. Quantity is important. A discontinuous development means that changes related to the age occur suddenly and with great steps.Quality comes first.

According to the stage theories , the development happens in a progression of distinct, sudden age related stages. One of the most famous stage theories is Piaget's cognitive development theory, the development of thinking and reasoning. This theory states that children go through four phases of cognitive growth, which are characterized by different intellectual skills and ways of understanding the world. However, there are also many researchers who argue for a gradual development.

It seems like wheter development can be called fundamentally continuous or discontinuous depends on how often and for how long observations take place. In other words: it depends on the perspective and how you observe changes. If you look at a child for a long time, changes are often experienced as continuous. But if you look at a various different times, changes are often experienced as discontinuous.

How does a child change?

Brain activity, genes and learning experiences play a role in the development of effortful attention. Effortful attention is the voluntary control of the emotions and thoughts. Difficulty with effortful attention can cause all kinds of behavioral problems.

Important foreffortful attention are connections between the limbic system, a part of the brain that plays an important role in emotional reactions, and the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex. These connections develop during childhood. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that are involved in communication between brain cells. Specific genes influence the production of important neurotransmitters. Variations in these genes between children are associated with variations in effortfil attention. These genes are influenced by environmental factors.

Learning experiences can change the connections of the brain system involved with effortful attention. Exercise improves the skills. Hereby, the development of the hippocampus, a brain structure important for learning and remembering, is influental. During sleep, older children and adultes replay memories in the hippocampus. Damage to the hippocampus causes difficulty with learning. In younger children, the cortex is responsible for memories.

How does the socio-cultural context influence the development of a child?

Socio-cultural context contains the physical, social, cultural, economic and historical aspects that determine the environment of a child. This context therefore depends on the culture in which you live, who you deal with, the environment in which you live and what your socio-economic status (SES) is. SES is a measurement based on the social class in which someone lives, with a certain income and level of education. A low SES can have negative consequences: living in dangerous neighborhoods,  poor education, malnutrition and underdevelopement. These negative effects together are often referred to as the cumulative risk .

Why do children differ from each other?

There are four factors generating diifferences between humans, even though you come from the same family: genetic differences, difference in how parents and others interact, difference in response to the same experiences (subjectivity), and difference in the choice of own environment / friends.

How can research promote the well-being of a child?

Research always has practical advantages. For example, by a child born with bad eys,it is possible to immediately operate leading to less suffering later in life. Research can also provide better education by understanding how children reason, remember, form concepts and solve problems.

Can children learn to become more intelligent?

People thinking intelligence can increases through learning, respond to failure in a different way than people who think itelligence is stable. It turns out that they give up less quickly. In a study, children were given information about the fact that learning changes the brain and that learning improves and makes you smarter.These children performed better than children who did not receive the same information. Another way is to provide information about the failure of well-known people, such as Einstein.

Which are the methods to study the development of a child?

The scientific method?

The scientific method is an approach aimed at testing beliefs by means of the following steps: formulating a question, formulating a hypothesis (testable predictions about the presence or absence of phenomena or relationships), testing the hypothesis and finally making a conclusion . Various measuring instruments are available to test a hypothesis. These measuring instruments must be reliable, valid and relevant. Reliability refers to the extent to which independent measurements are consistent. There are two types of reliability, namely interrater reliability, how much agreement there is in the observation of different raters and test-retest reliability , the extent to which there are similarities in the behavior of a child in different situations. Validity refers to the extent to which a test measures what it aims to measure. There are two types of validity, namely internal validity , the extent to which effects measured by researchers are caused by the variables manipulated by the researcher, and external validity , the extent to which results can be generalized.

Ways to collect data about children?

The first way to collect data about children is through interviews. Interviews can be divided into structural interviews , research in which all participants are asked the same questions, often with the help of questionnaires, and clinical interviews (in which the questions are adapted to the answers of the participant). The second way to collect data is through observations. These can be divided into natural observations, observation based on a child's behavior in his / her natural environment, not manipulated by the researcher. Structured observations, observation based on a child's behavior in a manipulated environment, for each child the same environment has been created.

What are correlation and causation?

There are also two types of designs in research: correlational research and experimental research. Correlational research is intended to see to what extent certain variables are related to each other. A correlation is the association between two variables. Variables are characteristics that vary between people and situations. A correlation coefficient shows the degree and direction (positive or negative) of the correlation.

Correlation research has its advantages. It is the only way to measure different groups at the same time and to determine the relationships between different variables. There are, however, some drawbacks to this method: the directional causality problem and the third-variable problem. The direction-of-causality problem:  a correlation between two variables does not indicate which variable causes the other. The third-variable problem: a correlation between two variables can come from the influence of a third variable.

Experimental research is intended to measure certain effects and causes. There are two techniques that are important for an experimental study: random assignment of participants, whereby each child has an equal chance of being classified in each group and experimental control, the ability of the researcher to determine which stimuli the child experiences during the research. For experimental control an experimental group and a control group are needed. The experimental group is exposed to the independent variable, while the control group is not. The dependent variable is the behavior displayed by both groups. The comparison between the behavior of the two groups is used to see if the behavior is caused by the independent variable. The independent variable is the experience that participants in the experimental group do receive and the control group not. This design also has its advantages, it makes it possible to investigate causal relations, because it does not suffer from directional causality problem and no third variable problem. This design has other drawbacks, for example, experimental control can lead to artificial experimental situations. In addition, not many different variables can be used to study.

Which research designs are there to measure the development of children?

There are three types of research designs to measure the development of a child over time: cross-sectional designs, longitudinal designs and microgenetic designs. Cross-sectional research is a method that focuses on the behavior of children of different ages over a short period, these behaviors are then compared. An advantage of this method is that the data is useful to discover differences between different age groups. However, there are also drawbacks to the method: the information about the differences between age groups  obtained may not be stable over time. Also, the information obtained does not say much about the patterns of change over a longer period.

Longitudinal research is a method that focuses on the behavior of children of the same age over a longer period with repeated measurements. An advantage of this method is that the degree of stability can be determined over a longer period. The information obtained also says something about the patterns of change over a longer period of time. However, this method also has disadvantages: A lot of participants stop participating in the research ('drop-outs'), for different reasons. Also, repeated measurements can affect the external validity of the research.

Microgenetic research is a method that focuses on the behavior of children that is intensively observed over a short period, while changes occur. Advantages of this method is that by intensive observation certain processes of change can be revealed. These individual patterns of changes in short periods can also be observed and examined in detail. However, this method also has drawbacks: it does not provide information about patterns of change over a longer period and therefore does not show individual patterns of change. A microgenetic study was used to investigate the counting-on strategy in children. The strategy is to sum up from the largest number on. The research showed that the generalization of a new strategy is slow.

What ethical issues are there?

There are certain ethical issues that researchers must consider for every research with people. In this way, potential risks are minimized andit is ensured that the benefits of the research outweigh the disadvantages for the test subjects.

  • It must be ensured that the investigation does not cause physical or psychological damage.

  • The so-called informed consent must be completed by the participant of the research. In case of a underage, one of the parents must sign.

  • The anonymity of the participant is guaranteed.

  • Discuss certain information that may be important for the participant's well-being with parents or caregivers, if the participants is underage.

  • Avoid negative consequences that may arise throughout the study. If these do occur, the procedure must be changed in such a way that these negative consequences will disappear.

  • Inform the participant about the results of the research in such a way that the participant understands them.

The researcher, who knows most about the research and is able to prevent / improve potential problems, is responsible for achieving the highest possible ethical standards.

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