To what extent do the grand theories take account of the role of social experiences in child development?
Word Count: 1998
To what extent do the ‘grand theories’ take account of the role of social experiences in child development?
Ask any parent about their child’s development, and they’ll often talk about speech and language development, gross motor skills or even physical growth. But a child’s social development—her ability to interact with other children and adults—is a critical piece of the development puzzle.
Children’s Development is a social and cultural as well as a biological process. This is important because as societies become not only culturally diverse but also interconnected, psychological theories are required that fully acknowledge the influence of social context, both within & across cultures.
Social experience refers to the process by which a child learns to interact with others around them. As they develop and perceive their own individuality within their community, they also gain skills to communicate with other people and process their actions. For instance, learning new words as a toddler, to being able to resist peer pressure as a high school student, how a child develops friendships and other relationships to successfully navigating the challenges of adulthood.
The four ‘Grand theories’ about child development are built on the fundamental idea about children’s nature & role of the environment they are in.
In this essay I will explain the context of each of the four grand theories citing examples & experiments and eventually discuss to what extent social experience plays a role in child development.
Behavioural psychology, also known as behaviourism, is a theory of learning based upon the idea that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning. Pavlov with his dog-meat-bell experiment showed that behaviour can be conditioned through interaction with the environment. According to behaviourism, behaviour can be studied in a systematic and observable manner with no consideration of internal mental states. Conditioning could be either: Classical or Operant conditioning.
: Watson with his  showed how emotions can become conditioned responses, reflecting the behaviourist viewpoint that not only can behaviour be explained by examining the environment, but that by changing the environment the child’s behaviour can be altered.
: Skinner with his Skinner box experiment showed how Reinforcement (whether negative or positive) always refers to something that increases the frequency of a given behaviour; whereas, Punishment (positive, time-out or response cost) always refers to something that reduces the frequency of a given behaviour.
Behaviourism proposes that all behaviour is learned and maintained by its consequences. It does not theorize about ‘mental events’. Playing with fire can cause burns or rashes will certainly lead to learning. But this can hardly be called a social experience.
One of the advantages of behaviourism lies in its utility as a direct form of communication with children who are too young to speak, or who are otherwise difficult to communicate with about their behaviour like Autism / Asperger – ABA. Any application of Behaviourism will almost certainly involve interaction between people – as in the Media kit video1, interaction between the autism child Joe and the 'therapist' Sean Rhodes. This makes it difficult to judge how much any intervention is due to the application of the theory and how much to the social interaction itself!
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But the question is really 'does the theory itself single out interacting with people as being of particular importance in learning/development?' The answer would be no. Other people are viewed simply as elements of the environment. In practice of course most rewards and punishments will arise through interaction with other people - but in the theory these people are just part of the conditioning environment like any other part e.g. getting bitten by an animal or getting an electric shock.
A missing factor in Behaviourism theory of child development is the importance of children’s thought, beliefs, and interpretations of a situation. Children cannot only learn through direct experience and contingent rewards or punishment; the theory does not seem to explain the vast array of things that children master in the areas of language, cognition & social behaviour.
Social Learning Theory
Bandura believed that not only is children’s behaviour shaped by its consequences, but also that children learn by watching the behaviour of people around them. In contrast to Behaviourism, Bandura’s social learning theory emphasized the importance of children imitating the behaviour, emotions and attitudes of those they saw around them.
His theory explains children’s learning by considering four interrelated factors. To imitate someone a child must: 1. Attend to their behaviour, 2. Retain what they have seen, 3. Be Physically able to reproduce the behaviour, 4. Be motivated to perform the new behaviour.
Bandura conducted a series of experimental studies into children’s tendency to imitate. In these experiments, pre-school children watched adult models act either aggressively or non-aggressively towards an inflatable doll called a ‘Bobo Doll’. The children were subsequently observed to see to what extent they imitated what they had seen. For Bandura the important point was that each group had learned the same behaviour through mere observation; observing the man being punished only affected the condition in which they chose to perform the behaviour.
This led Bandura to explore the idea that televised aggression may have adverse effects on children’s behaviour and considered that children are more likely to copy another’s behaviour if the model is similar to them in age and sex, or if the model has desirable characteristics or is seen as attractive. ReadingB in Book1 Chapter2 also highlights that the more remote the models are from reality, the weaker is the tendency of children to imitate their behaviour.
Social Learning Theory proposes that it is possible for children to learn by observing other people.
Media Kit video1 shows Irish musicians like Tim on the flute & Dan on Bodhran, sharing stories of their deriving the liking for the music / particular instrument from social experiences and looking upto or idolising someone with the same flair in family / peers / idols all during their childhood period. I feel this theory believes that children learning & development is influenced by the social interaction within which he grows.
Bandura’s work shows that children are active learners and can extract general principles from what they observe without the sorts of reinforcement. However the theory does not give any insight into the nature of the children’s thinking nor does it explain children’s cognitive development.
Piaget proposed that all children pass through an ordered sequence of stages of cognitive development; which arises through the processes of intrinsic motivation, assimilation, accommodation and equilibration.
Stage1: Sensori-motor stage: birth to 2 years: simple motor responses
Stage2: Pre-operational stage: 2 – 6 years: language development & egocentrism.
Stage3: Concrete operations stage: 6 – 12 years: mental operations.
Stage4: Formal operations stage: above 12 years: logical thought
Piaget investigated children’s cognitive development by administering sets of experimental tasks & children’s performance on these tasks reflected their stage of development. These tasks have come to be seen as classic experiments in developmental psychology. One of the concepts Piaget suggested was absolute from pre-operational stage children’s representation of the world is conservation of mass, volume, area, length and numbers; the understanding that the quantity would remain same even if the manner of it representation changes. Referring to Media kit video 1, older children 7+ years of age understood the conservation of mass whereas younger children 5-6 years of age did not. This implies that the older children are in the concrete operational stage of development.
In Piagetian theory, pre-operational children lack the ability to reflect on operations. Their understanding of the world tends to focus on states rather than on transformation. This is seen in their performance of conservation tasks. Similarly such children are unable to comprehend points of view different from their own. Piaget devised an experiment to explore such egocentrism in children. Referring to Media kit video 1, the Three Mountains experiment shows how younger children below years of age cannot make judgements beyond their own viewpoint, whereas older children beyond 7 years of age can; thereby proves his viewpoint that children of different age groups are in different stages of cognitive development. The younger children are preoperational and hence are yet to develop their understanding of conservation of mass, weight or volume; they are also egocentric being centred on their own perceptions. This contrasts with the performance of older children who are the concrete operation stage.
Subsequent researchers notably Donaldson argued that young children’s reasoning is more sophisticated than Piaget’s research implied. They devised an alternative experiment to research younger children’s egocentrism. Referring the 2 Policemen & Toy experiment in Media kit video1, younger children appeared less egocentric as against what Piaget proved, one reason for this was that Donaldson’s experiment made more human sense ie the task made it more understandable for the child. Same held true for the other experiments on conservation of numbers & mass by Piaget, when re-examined by Donaldson & other researchers by building a reason for manipulating the task; the Chipped Beaker experiment.
These tasks are seen as classic development tasks help to understand children’s cognitive development. Viewed overall, these tasks indicate that children’s understanding is embedded in a social context. When the social context gives a task more accessible meaning as in the work of Donaldson & others, children are able to apply more reasonable responses.
Piaget has been criticized for failing to recognise the importance of social context in children’s cognitive development.
Vygotsky proposed that it is by social interaction that ways of thinking begin to be appropriated by children, not, as Piaget thought, by children constructing them on their own. Cognitive development takes place within a social context and is supported by it.
Piaget’s theory emphasize that a baby is born with certain basic reflexes such as grasping and crying. babies cry because either they are hungry or looking for comfort. Vygotsky suggested that the baby’s initial cry maybe an impulse but it’s the response of a caregiver to the crying cause babies to repeat this behaviour to attain a desired reaction, For example, babies may cry first because he or she is hungry however they will repeat the action because he or she knows that crying will draw the attention of a caregiver.
Also in contrast to Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky argued that children could only be understood in context of their particular social and cultural experiences. His socio cultural theory makes us aware that child’s actions are so strongly influenced by the culture in which they live. He held that each child is born with a set of innate abilities such as attention, memory, perception and can only be discovered & build upon through interaction with more skilful adultslike parents/teacher and peers that moulds these basic skills into more complex, higher cognitive function. Vygotsky proposed that all mental activities result from interaction with other people, in which learning occurs within the zone of proximal development.
Unlike Piaget, he believed the acquisition and utilization of language which occurs within societal interaction, has a tremendous impact on the child’ intellectual growth. Language gives children the means to reflect on their own actions, to control and organize behaviour. Piaget egocentric speech often contrasted with Vygotsky social speech.
Vygotsky claimed children’s cognitive development is largely a social process, not an individualistic construction as Piaget suggested. It is through the aid provides by other in a child social surroundings that the child increasingly learns to function intellectually as an individual, on their own. He believed that a child’s social environment is an active force in their cognitive development.
In conclusion, all the four ‘grand theories’ share similarities and differences in their approaches & understandings. Though social experience plays its role to certain extent by way of interaction with children in all theories, but to a larger extent in some.
I feel social experiences play a more crucial role in child development by way of language & social interaction in Vygotsky’s theory of Social Constructivism, vis-à-vis; development through sensory experience in Behaviourism by Pavlov,Watson & Skinner; or; development through imitation in Social Learning theory by Bandura; or; development in natural stages in Constructivism theory by Piaget.
- Pavlov, Ivan Petrovich (1927). Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc. 2009.
- Watson, J. B. (1913) ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it’, Psychological Review, vol. 20, pp. 158–77.
- Skinner, B. F. (1938) The Behaviour of Organisms, Upper Saddle Place, NJ, Prentice Hall.
- Open University Module 1 : Psychological Development & Early Childhood - Oates, Wood & Andrew, Blackwell Publishing, Reprint 2006 -- Reading ‘A’ – Applied Behaviour Analysis and Autism, pg 81-84
- Keenan, M. (2004) ‘Autism in Northern Ireland: the tragedy and the shame’, The Psychologist, vol. 17, pp. 72–5.
- Keenan, M., Kerr, K. P. and Dillenberger, K. (eds) (2000) Parents’ Education as Autism Therapists, London, Jessica Kingsley.
- ED209 (OU Child Development) Media Kit 1 – Video Band 1 – Children Learning
- Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582.
- Bandura, A. (1965) ‘Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 1, pp. 589–95.
- Bandura, A. (1973) Aggression: a social learning analysis, Upper Saddle Place, NJ, Prentice Hall.
- Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory, New York, General Learning Press.
- Bandura, A. and Jeffery, R. W. (1972) ‘Role of symbolic coding and rehearsal processes in observational learning’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 26, pp. 122–30.
- Open University Module 1 : Psychological Development & Early Childhood - Oates, Wood & Andrew, Blackwell Publishing, Reprint 2006 -- Reading ‘B’ - Learning through Modelling, pg 85-86
- Piaget, J. (1923/1926) The Language and Thought of the Child, London, Kegan Paul.
- Piaget, J. (1936/1955) The Child’s Construction of Reality, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Donaldson, M. (1978) Children’s Minds, London, Fontana.
- Vygotsky, L. S. (1934/1986) Thought and Language, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
- Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: the development of higher psychological processes, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
- Vygotsky, L. S. (1981) ‘The development of higher forms of attention in childhood’, in Wertsch, J. V. (ed.), The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology, Armonk, NY, Sharpe.
- Other References:
- Schaffer, H.W. (2004). Introducing Child Psychology. UK: Blackwell Publishing.
- Smith, P.K., Cowie, H., & Blades, M. (2003). Understanding Children’s Development. UK: Blackwell Publishing.