Child Development Definition, Theories and Applications

As parents roam the children’s book section at a store and pick up a contender, they could find themselves wondering whether the story encourages the right learning outcomes for a three-year-old. When parents fret about that question, they’re taking part in the outcomes of their child’s development.

What is Child Development?

Child development is the period of physical, cognitive and social growth that begins at birth and fades into early adulthood.

Child development includes everything from motor skills to language and socialization. Parents and professionals use developmental milestones (reading, speaking, laughing) to track children’s growth. Since children’s progress can be influenced by their genetics, cognitive skills and environment, milestones help identify disabilities or behavioral problems that can be addressed early on in their lives.

Major Theories in Child Development

One of the most well-known theories in child development was posed by Jean Piaget, who developed the idea that children do not learn the same way as adults and should be exposed to different environments. He believed children base their knowledge on their own forms of observations or actions (e.g., basic reflexes, sensory experiences) that the brain later substitutes for faster mental operations.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau Theory of Childhood Development

19 years later, Erik Erikson theorized that during each stage, an individual goes through eight “psychosocial crises” at different points in their life. These crises develop their personality either negatively or positively.
Erik Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development

What is Important in Child Development?

Monitoring a child’s development can help adults ensure that they’re meeting milestones that are believed to be mastered at the same age among all children. Child development also helps guide parental techniques and practices that can support optimal outcomes in the child’s adult life.

Even the earliest possible detection of developmental challenges can help children maximize their sense of self through proper treatment and future diagnosis. Child development plays a role in the following:

Aid in Raising Children

Understanding child development allows parents and professionals to identify effective parenting practices. For example, spanking a child raises concerns among some adults after a growing body of research indicated that the practice leads to negative outcomes, like aggression, conduct problems and low self-esteem, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

Attachment in early child development is another factor that will either benefit or cause detrimental effects on a child’s life. Attachment and other factors like communication can help parents understand the vulnerabilities that children are exposed to and help them navigate each one.

Development of Social Policy

Child development studies help policymakers and researchers design policies that advocate for children’s welfare. In the U.S., the awareness and body of evidence on children’s social and emotional development have allowed the government to pass policies like universal pre-k, federal child welfare, home visiting programs (e.g., WIC) and programs like Head Start.

Understanding Human Nature

One of the most universally open-ended questions a psychologist could ask a patient is: What was your childhood like? According to Psychology Today, people’s earliest memories date back to when they were three and a half years old and younger. A question like this not only encapsulates an entire life stage filled with experiences, traumas and lessons, but it also helps science uncover unanswered questions. To define child development is to bring human nature into focus.

What Affects Child Development?

Child development is influenced by countless factors, from family and environment to genes and biology. Cultural groups can be differently affected by the same experiences.

In an optimal environment, children spend their earliest years in nurturing surroundings that eventually lead them to build critical cognitive skills and abilities, such as developing their Theory of Mind. During their first years, children’s brains undergo their most dramatic growth. From that development, language blossoms, motor abilities are formed and thinking becomes more complex.

Another factor that is growing in awareness is how technology affects child development. Research shows that the rise of technology use among children can affect their brain development and even change the way they interact with others.

Careers in Child Development

If you’re passionate about childhood development and are interested in helping adults navigate issues concerning children, there are jobs working with children that could pave the way for a career in child development. Some of those job titles include:

  • Child Development Specialist: This type of specialist stems from the social work field and works with family and social services groups involved in investigations where children are involved. Their duties include writing reports and consulting on cases of child neglect.
  • Art Therapist: These professionals help children overcome physical, cognitive and emotional issues by incorporating art into counseling sessions.
  • Teacher: Teachers are expected to work one-on-one with children and keep track of their learning progress. Some teachers also hold certifications that allow them to treat children with learning disabilities.
  • Child Psychologist: These professionals study children’s milestones, as well as their emotional well-being. They offer therapy to deal with behavioral issues, as well as problems developed in birth.

Interested in Child Development?

If you’re interested in studying child development or want to have a career in a similar field, learn more about Florida Tech’s BA in Applied Psychology with a Concentration in Child Advocacy, 100% online.

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