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Child development is the study of the different processes assumed to influence human growth and development from birth through adolescence. Development takes place within multiple domains (e.g., cognitive, physical, socioemotional). Yet the processes underlying development can be common across the different domains of development.
Types of Processes that Influence Development
In-wired Development Although human beings grow and develop at different paces, there are some aspects of development that are consistent for most, if not all, human beings. This consistency suggests that human bodies are designed to grow and develop in a relatively sequential and orderly fashion because the mechanisms responsible for these changes are in-wired. That is, these mechanisms are present at birth and are essentially time-released through adolescence and beyond. For example, an infant will exhibit a grasping reflex when his or her palm is touched. At a later stage, that same infant will develop greater strength and more finely tuned motor skills, such as the ability to intentionally pick up and manipulate an interesting toy.
Development Through Acting Upon the Environment
Children are born with sense systems (i.e., vision, smell, hearing, taste, and touch) that allow them to explore and act upon people and objects in their environments. Children may throw different things to see if they bounce or make interesting sounds (e.g., balls, cups, keys). They may place different things in their mouths (e.g., their mother’s fingers, rattles) to see if they are hard or soft or can fit inside their mouths. Children may perceive certain smells and associate them with different experiences. It is through active exploration that children begin to learn the properties of different things and relate them to other things that they “know.”
Development Through Passive Reactions to the Environment
Children’s development can also be stimulated by their exposure to the activities that take place in the contexts in which they live and function. For instance, language development is stimulated by immersion within specific language environments. Researchers have found critical periods in early infant development whereby simple exposure to everyday conversation helps children develop the ability to produce certain phonemes (speech sounds) specific to a language. If immersion within specific language environments occurs after a certain period—approximately six to nine months of age—then the child will not be able to make some speech sounds in the same manner as a native speaker.
Different Domains of Child Development
Child development researchers seek to identify and understand age-related developmental changes and abilities and how outside influences such as context (e.g., Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory) and culture (e.g., A. Wade Boykin’s triarchic theory of minority child development) affect developmental outcomes. Below are brief descriptions of the different domains in which development can take place.
Physical development refers to the development of the entire human body, including changes in physical stature and strength, pubertal changes in adolescence, the development of perceptual and motor skills, and brain development. Arnold Gesell’s (1880–1961) maturational theory proposed that children’s growth and development is biologically driven and unfolds in a series of fixed sequences or milestones in physical, motor, and perceptual domains. Although children vary in their rates of development (e.g., they don’t all start to crawl or talk at exactly the same age), they all progress through the same sequences.
Sensory and perceptual development. Perception is the organization and interpretation of information received through our senses. Although sensory systems are functional at birth, they are not yet mature. In The Construction of Reality in the Child (1954), Jean Piaget (1896–1980) asserted the belief—also held by other theorists—that senses function independently at birth, and with development and experience become more interconnected. By interacting with the environment, children actively construct an understanding of the world, gradually making connections between different types of sensory information.
Other theorists, such as Eleanor Gibson (1910–2002) in Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development (1969), argue that the main task of perceptual development is for children to discover the function or permanent properties of objects. Gibson developed the first visual cliff method to assess depth perception. The visual cliff strategy helped demonstrate that most infants refused to crawl over the edge of a small cliff with a dropoff covered by glass. Their refusal to crawl over the “edge” was assumed to indicate that they could perceive depth and that depth perception is not learned. Rather, the environment is learned in that it contains information necessary for individuals to make decisions about how to navigate it (e.g., where to walk and not walk). These experiences demonstrate the interconnections between the child’s physical world and cognitive development.
Piaget’s theory of cognitive development describes how children construct an understanding of the world by interacting with their physical and social environments. Children adapt to their environments by developing mental organizations, or schemes, to organize their understanding of the world. Adaptation consists of two processes—assimilation and accommodation.
Assimilation involves fitting new information into existing schemes (e.g., a child calling a cat “doggy” because it has four legs and fur). Accommodation involves altering existing schemes to accept new information (e.g., a child altering his or her scheme for “doggy” to include barking so that the scheme can no longer include cats).
Lev Vygotsky’s (1896–1934) sociocultural theory stresses the importance of social interactions to cognitive development. Vygotsky asserted that learning is a socially mediated, cultural activity that takes place within the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Specifically, the ZPD denotes the difference between what children can do on their own and what they can accomplish with the support of more knowledgeable individuals from their culture.
It is important to note that what and how children learn is influenced by their cognitive developmental status. For example, children might be able to learn and repeat complex words and phrases in middle childhood, yet not be able to understand them conceptually—in abstract terms—until adolescence.
Socioemotional development. There are critical precursors of social and psychological development. For instance, attachment refers to the development of an emotional bond between infant and mother or primary caregiver. Mary Ainsworth (1913–1999) developed the Strange Situation to determine the quality of the attachment between caregiver and child. This strategy assesses children’s reactions to their mothers after their mothers leave them alone in a room that is later entered by a stranger. The strategy assumes that if a child reacts in negative ways to the mother upon return, there is a poor relationship between caregiver and child. The importance of attachment to socioemotional and cognitive development was recognized by studies of infants in orphanages during the 1950s and 1960s. In the absence of an attachment relationship, these infants experienced severe developmental delays.
Ego-identity development. Sigmund Freud (1856– 1939) believed that personality is formed in the first years of life as children deal with inner conflicts. Erik Erikson (1902–1994) extended Freud’s theory, proposing that development unfolds in a series of stages spanning infancy to old age. Each developmental stage involves a challenge and corresponding consequence if that challenge is not met. For example, during infancy the challenge is for infants to develop a sense of trust in the world based on responsive caregiving. If the infant’s needs are not consistently met, the infant does not trust that the world is a safe place. This sense of mistrust affects children as they get older and face the developmental challenge of becoming more independent from their parents during adolescence. While Erikson would characterize adolescence as the period in which identity development is the primary challenge to be resolved, the precursors of identity development can be recognized much earlier. Identity develops along a number of dimensions (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, social class, physical ability, etc.). Often, different aspects of identity will only become salient for individuals when they become aware of specific differences between themselves and others (e.g., skin color, socioeconomic status, abilities, etc.). Children become aware of differences in treatment and the presence of stereotypes.
Mamie Phipps Clark (1917–1983) and Kenneth Clark (1914–2005) used doll studies to demonstrate the early awareness of social devaluation and negative racial stereotypes. The Clarks posited that black children become aware of racial stereotypes and develop personal racial preferences early in childhood. Doll studies are experimental strategies using dolls that do and do not share characteristics of a child (e.g., gender, skin color, clothing) in order to determine what and with whom a child identifies and the characteristics a child attributes to himself or herself. This strategy assumes that what children believe about the dolls can be indicative of their beliefs about themselves and their sense of identity and self-esteem. In 1954 the Clarks’ research was used in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, to demonstrate that segregation—which limited black American’s access to high-quality educational institutions and other resources readily available to white Americans—resulted in low self-esteem among African American children. Specifically, the children in the Clarks’ studies associated being black (or having dark skin) with negative connotations (i.e., bad, dirty, not smart).
About twenty years later, Margaret Beale Spencer revisited the Clarks’ work, demonstrating how cognitive egocentrism—a normative, cognitive developmental process—can protect the identity development of young black children, allowing them to maintain high selfesteem despite their awareness of negative racial stereotypes. That is, when they are still cognitively egocentric, children can be aware of color connotations yet not apply their “knowledge” of color connotations to themselves. Spencer’s subsequent research demonstrates how improvements in the ability to assume the perspectives of others and how becoming less cognitively egocentric in later developmental stages—another normative cognitive developmental process—results in cognitive dissonance. That is, in the absence of positive racial socialization, young people face the difficult task of reconciling their perceptions of societal stereotypes with their perceptions of themselves and others who share their physical characteristics (i.e., phenotype). In contrast to the Clarks’ research, Spencer demonstrates both the complexity of identity formation processes and the multiple influences on identity development. While normative processes of cognitive development can influence how children perceive and make meaning of their daily experiences in terms of differences in race and varied indicators of social class, other external factors, such as racial socialization by parents, serve a protective function and mitigate the potentially detrimental effects of negative racial stereotypes on identity development.
More recent studies using similar methods to assess children’s awareness of negative stereotypes and color connotations have yielded similar findings. Yet, if the differences in interpretations asserted by the Clarks and Spencer are any indication, such findings must be interpreted within the specific social and historical contexts in which they are conducted. That is, in addition to cognitive developmental status, current social norms and socialization experiences must also be taken into account.
Changing Methodologies in the Study of Child Development
Given the diverse theories of development, there are different methodologies for determining the existing and emergent abilities of children and young people (e.g., the Strange Situation, mirror studies, puppet interviews, habituation studies, doll studies, etc). These strategies are based on assumptions about development, the meaning and function of observable behaviors, and similarities among the contexts in which children live and function. Some of these assumptions may be problematic, at best, when considering the experiences of diverse youth of color, immigrants, and youngsters from families that experience intergenerational poverty. As social scientists come up with improved theories, greater cultural competence, and better strategies for studying child behavior, increasingly articulated and nuanced understandings of child development are formulated.
- Crain, William. 2000. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Dupree, Davido, Margaret Beale Spencer, and Sonya Bell. 1997. African-American Children. In Transcultural Child Development: Psychological Assessment and Treatment, eds. Gloria Johnson-Powell and Joe Yamamoto, 237–268. New York: Wiley.
- Muuss, Rolf E. 1996. Theories of Adolescence. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Rogoff, Barbara. 2003. The Cultural Nature of Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Spencer, Margaret Beale. 2006. Phenomenology and Ecological Systems Theory: Development of Diverse Groups. In Handbook of Child Psychology, 6th ed., eds. William Damon and Richard Lerner, vol. 1, chap. 15, 829–893. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Spencer, Margaret Beale, and Sanford Dornbusch. 1990. Challenges in Studying Minority Youth. In At the Threshold: The Developing Adolescent, eds. S. Shirley Feldman and Glenn Elliot, 123–146. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Spencer, Margaret Beale, and Carol Markstrom-Adams. 1990. Identity Processes Among Racial and Ethnic Minority Children in America. Child Development 61 (2): 290–310.
- Thomas, Alexander, and Stella Chess. 1977. Temperament and Development. New York: Bruner/Mazel.
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