There are many theories about children’s development that help us understanding their behaviour and the way they learn and interact with other individuals. I would like to begin with probably the most known: Piaget’s theory, which look at the way children seem to be able to make sense of their own world as a result of their experiences and how they actively learn from these. Essentially, Piaget believed that it is essential for children’s learning how they interacted with their environment. He suggested that children’s cognitive development is logically and causally related to their thinking. He recognised that children learn best when they are doing something without direction, rather than when they are told to do so, and that each child has specific individual needs. Piaget’s studies and experiments even if were often criticised, modified, and updated, are still widely recognised and still nowadays are the basis of how early practitioners teach children in the UK. Piaget’s theory states there are four main areas (stages) of cognitive development. The first stage, sensorimotor, occurs between birth and the age of two. Children learn through their senses and actions; however, they are egocentric. The evidence Piaget gathered showed children in this stage interact with their environment mainly by manipulating objects. Children at this age love cause and effect games: for example, they drop something, and they expect their carer/parent to pick it up off the floor. They drop it because they know it will still be there and they find it funny that someone is going to pick it up.
The second of Piaget’s stages, called pre-operational, is split into two sub-sections, pre-conceptual (2-4 years old), and intuitive (4-7 years old). A main characteristic of this stage is illogical thinking and centration. During this time, it is not possible to change a child’s opinion on something they believe to be true.
The third stage occurs between 7 to 11 years of age and is known as concrete operational. At this point logical thinking develops allowing thoughts to be organised coherently. However, children are still unable to think abstractly, and logical thinking is confined to real objects and subjects that they can see. Practitioners should encourage the use of logic and reasoning provide activities such as simple puzzles.
The fourth stage is formal operational which occurs when a child reaches age 11, and children are able to comprehend abstract ideas allowing subjects such as space and gravity to be explored.
Educators use Piaget’s stages in today’s classroom to gauge a child’s cognitive functioning. This permits the development of activities and learning experiences that are at the correct cognitive development stage for the child’s ability to learn.
Piaget recognised that children must be self-initiated and actively involved in learning activities. By applying Piaget’s theory to the National Curriculum, a more ‘child-centred’ approach can be practiced within the School System.
Susan Isaacs also studied psychoanalysis and was a follower of Jean Piaget’s theory, although she later criticised some of his work as it was not based on real observations in the child’s natural environment. She believed in the individual cognitive development of children, giving them the freedom to express themselves, offering support instead of punishment. Due to her progressive ideas and her approachable style, Isaacs theories are often applied to Early Years settings. Isaacs gave weight to child-centred practice and play, contributing to its longevity and giving confidence to practitioners who were already following these ideas. Modern early years teaching demonstrated that ‘while playing, children can express fears and relive anxious experiences. They can try things out, solve problems and be creative and can take risks and use trial and error to find things out’ (Learning and Development – play and exploration). Isaacs’ understanding of the need for emotional security to support learning is also present in the EYFS: ‘To mentally or physically engage in learning, children need to feel at ease, secure and confident’ (Learning and Development – active learning).
Other theories about children’s cognitive and learning development are those proposed by the psychologists of the “behaviourist school”. The behaviourist approach to learning suggests that the learning processes are influenced by punishments, rewards or other environmental factors. Behaviourists often use the word “conditioning”, which means that we learn to perform in a specific way as a consequence of what past experiences have taught us to do, or not to do. This behaviouristic approach was the one adopted by Ivan Pavlov.
Pavlov’s experiments on dogs allowed him to develop a theory of classical conditioning that gives us interesting ideas of how conditioning occurs. John B. Watson took over Pavlov’s dogs experiments and discovered that children and adults could also be classically conditioned in similar ways. He is known for an experiment called “Little Albert Experiment” involving a boy of 11 months (Albert) and a rat. Teachers encourage children to generate their own ideas about their learning and learn in a way that suits them best. However, it is important that the style in which they choose to learn does not affect the learning of others. This does not necessarily mean that they must be silent and restricted from discussing their ideas as a group, but it means that whilst learning children should behave appropriately. The consequences of the behaviour are important as this will determine whether the behaviour will recur.
Pavlov’s theory had a huge influence on how humans perceive themselves, their behaviour and learning processes.
B.F. Skinners theory of “operant conditioning” is probably the most commonly used theory in practice with children. Experimenting with rats, Skinner suggested that people’s actions are based on the consequences of their behaviour when exploring the environment. He divided the consequences into different areas. The first area includes the positive reinforcement, where children can get something they desire if they repeat a certain good behaviour and he suggested that this was the most effective way to encourage new learning. When children are rewarded for good behaviour with praise or treats, they will carry on showing good behaviour until such a time when it is learned. In the other hand, negative reinforcements may be used to stop something from happening, but the unwanted behaviour will be repeated. Currently, schools’ practitioners support negative and positive reinforcement by praising and rewarding good behaviour and giving time out to naughtiness, and parents should apply this at home as well.
Another theory on social development is the one proposed by Albert Bandura (Bo Bo doll experiment). His theory is that children learn by observing how the main people in their life (parents, carers, siblings, friends, etc) behave and imitating them. According to this theory, a child will repeat the behaviour he/she has seen. School staff should always behave calmly and use quiet communication to settle disagreements. Inappropriate behaviour or language should never be permitted, as children may copy it. This perspective leads many families, schools, and educators to assume that young children develop and acquire new knowledge by reacting to their surroundings.
Many environmentalist-influenced educators and parents believe that young children learn best by role activities, such as reciting the alphabet over and over, copying letters, and tracing numbers. This is evident in the classrooms where children are expected to listen to their teachers.
Other theories are about children’s social and emotional development (psychoanalytic approach). The most widely known are those developed by John Bowlby, Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson. Bowlby’s theory for example, assumes that early relationships with caregivers play a major role in the child’s development and will influence how children react to social interactions with other people. He believed that children who are securely attached to their carers generally have high self-esteem and will enjoy intimate relationships being able to share their feelings. Early years practitioners support this theory by making sure children approach nursery life slowly, so they become comfortable through secure interactions. This will also prevent separation anxiety.
Although some of these theories may seem ‘old fashioned’ and indeed were adapted and changed, it is important to remember that the current practice is based on past knowledge and experiences. It is therefore essential for anyone who works with children and young people to keep up to date with development’s theories as they arise and to incorporate new ideas into professional practice.