Human beings undergo systematic psychological changes over the course of their lifespan. Various physical, cognitive, motor, and social changes occur to individuals as they negotiate successive developmental phases, from early childhood to late adulthood. Developmental psychologists believe that these changes are triggered by innate characteristics and environmental factors.
Consequently, various theories have been developed to give a rational background to the developmental phases that occurs in one’s lifespan. Some of the most popular theories include Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Theory and Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development (Shaffer & Kipp, 2009, p. 23). It is the purpose of this essay to evaluate the factors that affect the physical, cognitive, and social development of individuals within the childhood developmental phase.
The childhood developmental phase is mostly exhibited between the ages of 3 and 12 years. The physical development of children in this phase is influenced by a multiplicity of heredity and environmental influences. The child’s physical characteristics, such as height, weight, appearance, skin color, and hair color, are primarily determined by genetics and heredity factors. However, environmental factors also play an important role in determining the physical attributes of children. For instance, the child’s physical attributes of height may be influenced by chemicals and other pollutants found in the environment.
For example, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings continue to affect the physical attributes of children residing in these areas to date. The physical development of children is also affected by other environmental factors such as nutrition, family setup, frequent injury, ethnic relations, gender, and disease. For example, malnourished populations exhibit characteristically shorter physical dispositions throughout life. Consecutive studies have also revealed that high-stress levels within families negatively affect children’s physical development. However, heredity factors can only produce the desired physical development only if environmental influences are adequate (Shaffer & Kipp, 2009, p. 44).
Cognitive development can be described as the capacity to learn, remember, construct thought processes, and symbolize information with the aim of solving problems and assist in decision-making processes. Judging from the literature on cognitive development, it is beyond doubt that tremendous development happens during the initial 12 years of life (Romero & Kemp, 2006, p. 55). For instance, studies have shown that three-year-old children have the capacity to master the intricacies of language. By the time they approach 12 years of age, children display ingrained capacities to read complex literature and perform complex mathematical computations.
But how do children achieve these cognitive abilities? Again, the nature versus nurture factors comes into play. Jean Piaget posited that children within this developmental phase learn by actively developing knowledge and skills through hands-on experience. According to him, the role played by adults in providing suitable materials for the child to interrelate with and construct is fundamentally important in cognitive development.
Therefore, cognitive development is affected by an environmental factor known as socialization. It has been noted that lack of proper socialization during this developmental phase leads to cognition inadequacies (Romero & Kemp, 2006, p. 56). For example, a 15-year adolescent found chained to his bedside for over ten years in Australia some years ago had cognitive deficiencies. Piaget’s environmental underpinning can also be used to explain why children in highly developed, structured, and independent cultures tend to develop advanced cognitive abilities than those in communal-style cultures.
In his Cultural-Historical Psychology Theory, Vygotsky postulated that children’s cognitive development is enhanced through hands-on experience. Unlike Piaget’s theory, which links cognitive development to environmental factors only, Vygotsky argues that there exists a distinct period when the child is on the periphery of learning a new task. Timely and responsive intervention by adults when the child is in this zone, also known as the zone of proximal development, results in cognitive development.
According to Vygotsky, children should only be assisted to build on the knowledge they already have. Although this theory argues that culture is fundamental in cognitive development, it brings in a new dimension of genetic predisposition in cognitive development. Some children exhibit more complex knowledge of issues than others of the same age-group. This can be used to explain the assertion that children whose parents are college-educated are cognitively advanced than others whose parents are less educated (Romero & Kemp, 2006, p. 56).
According to the Information-Processing view, cognitive development within this phase is influenced more by biological factors than environmental factors. This approach assumes that children possess quantifiable differences in how they process and act on information. The biological, mental capacity influence how the children represent what they observe and hear, including how they mentally operate on that information.
According to this view, the memories of children inflict limits on the nature and type of information that children can handle due to the advancement of their mental capacity to process information rather than their ability to construct reality. In this perspective, the mental capacity development seems to take precedence over environmental factors. This view can be used to explain why mentally retarded children are challenged cognitively. However, although innate brain functions cause cognitive events, developmental progression in cognition is also tightly related to environmental factors such as experience, cultural orientation, and learning (Romero & Kemp, 2006, p. 57).
In social, moral, and personality development, children usually learn the boundaries of what entails a tolerable behavior at an early age. However, their reaction towards this frontier is often determined by environmental as well as hereditary influences. Erik Erickson’s Psychosocial Development and Attachment Theory can be used to describe these influences.
In the former theory, an individual’s social development within the lifespan is perceived as a sequence of challenges known as psychosocial dilemmas. Each challenge or dilemma has an outcome perceived as either positive or negative. A positive outcome brings forth a positive outlook of the individual and hence positive feelings. In this perspective, the individual is able to cope with other subsequent challenges. An unfavorable outcome leaves the individual at a disadvantage for future challenges (Romero & Kemp, 2006, p. 61).
During the childhood developmental phase, the child is challenged to establish initiative versus guilt. Children start to function socially, including taking concerted initiatives to try new activities. Guilt often results when the initiatives occasion a conflict of interest between the child and other members. According to Erickson, initiative can be repressed by feelings of guilt, while self-confidence is created when the initiative brings positive outcomes as such environmental factors such as experience, socialization, and learning can be used by parents to shape the social, moral and personality development of children. Factors such as reward systems have been used on children to reinforce positive outcomes and develop self-confidence.
Research has revealed that children from violent and disorganized families exhibit low levels of self-confidence owing to the fact that their initiatives were inhibited early in life by constant family wrangles. Later on, within this developmental phase, children are faced with the challenge of industry versus inferiority. Here, environmental factors of socialization and culture play a significant role in determining children’s social development since the challenge moves away from the family unit to school and neighbors (Romero & Kemp, 2006, p. 63). A child whose cultural orientation allows him to function effectively in new environments develops a sense of social organization and competence. In the same vein, a child from unfavorable cultural orientation experiences problems in his social and emotional development, in addition to suffering from an inferiority complex.
In the Attachment Theory, it is believed that behaviors formed early in life greatly assist in outlining the attachment relationships exhibited by individuals later in life. According to J. Bowlby, an infant first institutes a strong attachment with its mother. Heredity factors come into play since the child is born with innate behavior of exploring new things. But the mother will always secure the infant if it tries to explore with dangerous objects. Ainsworth further developed the attachment theory into three forms of attachment: secure, avoidant, and resistant.
The primary caregiver greatly influences the child’s social and personality development later in life (Hook, Watts, & Cockcroft, 2004, p. 247). This means that environmental factors such as parent-child interactions, parent behaviors, and culture greatly affect the child’s social, personality, and emotional development. A child will always imitate what the primary caregiver does, no matter whether such behavior is negative or positive. This explains why children of alcohol-abusing parents end up becoming alcoholics. Children who develop avoidance attachment early in life continue to be emotionally deficient in later stages. However, biological factors have a role to play since the children are innately programmed to be interested in the social and emotional world around them.
Hook, D., Watts, J., & Cockcroft, K. (2004). Developmental Psychology. Juta &Company Limited. ISBN: 9781919713687.
Romero, A., & Kemp, S.M. (2006). Psychology Demystified. McGraw-Hill Professional. ISBN: 9780071460309.
Shaffer, D.R., & Kipp, K. (2009). Developmental Psychology: childhood and adolescence. Cengage Learning. ISBN: 9780495601715.