Childhood Development Guide: How Developmental Specialists Understand Childhood

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About 13% of children between the ages of three and seventeen have some sort of developmental or behavioral disability such as autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Fewer than half of those children are identified before they begin school, which means they are missing out on the opportunity to get the early interventions they need to be successful in social and educational settings.

Interest and growth in the field of childhood development has grown in the last fifty years as research continues to reveal how successful specialists can be in changing the lives of children.

Careers in Childhood Development

The field of childhood development encompasses how children develop and change emotionally, physically and psychologically. Related fields, such as pediatrics, play an important role in how specialists explain and understand how these processes happen, and how they vary depending on the child.

There are several ways to enter the field of childhood development, and most require some level of education. In many states the official job family of childhood development specialists is classified in four different levels, according to the field guide for the state of Oklahoma. The classifications are determined based on the level of complexity, responsibility and expertise required for the specific task.

A level one specialist will have have a master’s degree in a field such as developmental psychology; early childhood education, development or special education; or family relations/child development. The important knowledge, skills and abilities in this field include: knowledge of child development from birth through teenage years; childcare skills and techniques; understanding of early childhood education and special education curriculum; and knowledge of community health and welfare resources, according to the Oklahoma website.

There are other certification and training programs that do not require a master’s degree, but can be obtained through a community college such as the entry-level certificate through Columbus Technical College or an associates degree at Savannah Technical College.

These programs can help get professionals into the field enabling them to get experience and seek higher education as their professional goals evolve.

Theories Behind Childhood Development

There are several prevailing theories that guide the research and discussion in the field of childhood development. With any education, you are likely to come across these terms and to then study how they evolve and influence today’s research.

  • Ecological Systems Theory: Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner developed this theory to describe how systems influence the individual’s psychological development. Systems vary by level and include microsystems like the child’s immediate family and social environment to the macrosystems like nation, ethnicity, religious group, economic or social class, according to the North American Center for Cultural Ecology. The University of Hawaii describes how the theory applies in real-life situations here.
  • The work of psychologist Jean Piaget continues to play an important role in understanding the stages of childhood development. Piaget’s theory states that a child enters different stages of development beginning at the level of Sensory Motor, moving to Preoperational, Concrete Operations and eventually reaching the level of Formal Operations, according to the University of Oregon guide to Piaget developmental theory. The theory helps explain what processes and skills children learn at specific ages, and how the stages of development are related. The Educational Psychology Interactive site also describes this theory in more detail.
  • Psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky’s theories revolve around the idea that development depends on how individuals interact with culture and tools to form their own view and understanding of the world. In this sense, culture plays a large role in the development of a child, according to the Muskingum University. Vygotsky claimed that learning, language and social environment play an intimate role in this process.

These are just a few of the many different theories that help guide the field. There is no one specific theory that explains how every child, in every culture, develops and what interventions will work best. For that reason, individual attention and expertise is important to help connect the best available research and expertise with the individual traits of the child.

Keeping Track of Childhood Development

An important way to ensure children are developing on-track is through routine visits with a healthcare professional. The CDC encourages all parents and caregivers to make sure an expert is working with a child on developmental monitoring or surveillance to look for any developmental delays or problems related to the child’s physical, mental, social and emotional well-being.

As part of this monitoring process a health expert is likely to ask a series of questions to test if a child is learning basic skills. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for developmental delays and disabilities during 9 months, 18 months and 24 or 30 months. If development delays are identified, the screenings may continue to help monitor the child’s progress and provide expert intervention, if needed.

An important way that experts track development is by monitoring milestones. The CDC has a guide to these milestones to help direct health experts and parents in understanding what is considered healthy developmental progress. Beginning at two months the CDC checklist asks if the baby can smile at others or hold up its head. At 18 months experts want to know if the baby can show affection, begin to communicate and walk. At five years the CDC guide wants to know if the child has developed friendships and cognitive abilities at an appropriate rate.

There are many authoritative guides to helping caregivers monitor child growth, and intervene if necessary. PBS has a guide to child wellness called its ABC’s of Child Development, which can help track important stages through the first five years of life.

The University of Michigan also has a guide that provides expertise on developmental stages through the teenage years covering everything from speech to physical growth and cognitive abilities. This site also lists options for caregivers and parents about what are the best ways to seek help and guidance should a child appear to need some extra help.