Child Development - Early Stages, Cognitive and Psychosocial Needs

Through each stage of development, children are rapidly learning about, and creating their identities in relation to  their environments; they're making continual judgments about safety, and their own cabilities from the very beginning.  These profound judgments  are largely based on their feelings, and the reactions of others around them; and they're made at a time when perspective, brain function, and cognitive abilities are very limited.  For example, young children are egocentric, if something in their world goes awry, they see it in respect to themselves; their limited cognitive understanding often leads them to believe that they caused the event, and can lead to long-term feelings of guilt, and inadequacy.  These judgments made in early childhood have far-reaching effects as to how people view and approach opportunities, and challenges in their lives, and their ability to imagine potentialities.  

I tend to work from attachment and other psychodynamic theories.  Through my work with EMDR, I've seen how adult dysfunctions are frequently psychologically linked to early childhood attachment breaches, or traumas.  Some people still believe that if children aren't communicating verbally, they aren't learning or otherwise actively engaged in their worlds; that simply isn't the case.  Children learn and retain at a much higher rate precisely during those early periods of development when their ability to communicate is limited. 

While reading this post, one thing to keep in mind is that personalities are not unilaterally formed, and children are very resilient.  Personalities are the result of both deliberate and accidental influence of families, as well as the influence of media and life experiences, etc..  I'm offering up broad guidelines to turn to when questions or troubles arise, but this is not, in any way, meant to be a critique.  Individual family cultures can be so unique that systems might not translate from family to family; what works for mine, might not work for yours.  I see this as an opportunity for critical thinking; take what works, and ignore what doesn't.

Infancy (birth to 1 year of age)

Attachment theory suggests that the development of personality, efficacy, and functionality later in life, is rooted in caregiver attachments beginning in infancy.  Skin to skin contact, eye contact, emotional attunement, and positive regard are the way a baby learns his or her place in the world.  A baby that cries and receives comfort feels safe and connected, a baby that tries something new and receives excited and positive feedback gains confidence and enthusiasm.  This is the age when children learn to trust, and develop a hopeful, and optimistic outlook, knowing that their needs will be met, and that the world is a safe place.

Infants need:

  • Attuned, nurturing, and consistent adults with whom to form attachment
  • Nutrition & health care
  • Stimulation in the form of things to look at, touch, hear, smell, taste...
  • Opportunities to explore their environments
  • Protection from physical danger
  • Exposure to language stimulation

Toddlerhood (1-3 years of age)

Toddlers are developing independence, and a sense of self distinct from their caregivers; the automatic "no" response is an example of toddlers defining themselves in opposition to the wishes of others.  In exploring independence, they're trying to find the balance between autonomy versus doubt or shame; this balance is closely related to the reactions their behavior elicits in others.  Some doubt is obviously a good thing: it can keep them safe, and considerate of their impact on others, but too much doubt leads to inhibition, and limiting themselves for fear of consequences.  During toddlerhood, encouraging interactions with nurturing figures create a positive sense of self that carries over into adulthood.

"The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice." ~ Peggy O'Mara

Toddlers need:

  • Everything an infant does
  • An opportunity to experiment with independence
  • Help to learn emotional containment, and behavioral self-control
  • Support in gaining new motor, language, and thinking skills
  • Opportunities to play with various objects
  • Support in learning to care for themselves

Early Childhood (3-6+ years of age)

Early childhood is a time to develop purpose.  Children are taking initiative, creating new ideas; actively exploring, experimenting and solving problems; making errors, decisions, and choices; communicating and reflecting upon their experiences.  They are struggling to find balance between initiative and guilt; too much initiative and too little guilt leads to bullies; too little initiative and too much guilt leads to inhibited children.  Through positive relationships with caregivers, children learn to devise and follow through on goals without riding roughshod over others.  

"Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed." ~ Maria Montessori 

Young children need:

  • Experiences that will help them develop fine motor skills (holding a pencil, operating scissors)
  • Experiences that will help them develop gross motor skills (skipping, balancing)
  • Encouragement of language development in the form of talking, reading, and singing
  • Activities to develop a sense of mastery
  • Opportunities to develop social skills like cooperation, helping, sharing
  • Opportunities to experiment with writing and reading

Middle Childhood / School Age (8-12 years of age)

This is the age where children develop competency.  There is a rapid personal development of cognitive skills, personality, motivation, and the ability to engage in inter-personal relationships. During middle childhood children also become more socialized; they grow beyond their egocentricity, and begin to explore a larger context of cultural differences and societal values.   School age children learn to integrate their own individual development with development as an individual in a social context.

School age children need:

  • Opportunities to share and cooperate
  • Support in learning and becoming competent at increasingly complex, developmentally appropriate skills and tasks
  • Patience from caregivers, as their independence might be reflected in an increase in disobedience and rebellion