To what extent do the grand theories take account of the role of social experiences in child development?

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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[1] 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 [2] 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[3] 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[4]. 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[5]. 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 ...

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