By Milton V. Uecker, Ed.D.
To effectively teach and reach young children, parents, teachers and care providers must know child development. Development is a continuous progression of forward movement, a pattern of growth that takes place in an individual starting at conception and moving across the entire life span. Neurological growth (maturation), physical growth and the environment each contribute to a child’s physical, cognitive, social, spiritual and emotional development. Teachers have little or no influence on maturation or the physical growth, but they do provide environmental conditions and experiences that have a direct impact on the developmental process. Teachers must also know, observe and access development in that instruction should be linked to developmental readiness.
Successful parenting is directly linked to knowing children. Psalm 139:3 states that God, the heavenly Father, has an intimate knowledge of his children. It is this knowledge that is the basis upon which He can so personally and completely meet the needs of those He fathers. This individual acquaintance leads to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 6:32 that we need not worry about basic needs because “. . . your heavenly father knows that you need them.” Psalm 139:16 extends God’s knowledge across each individual’s life span. This truth is drawn directly from the Hebrew meaning of “. . . all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” All the days refers to each of the stages that one passes through. God has an intimate knowledge of every stage. Knowing the needs of children is foundational to effective parenting. Since early childhood teachers and caregivers are standing in the place of parents, they too must know children. This knowledge comes not only through personal observation over years of teaching, but it is acquired through a commitment to becoming a student of child development. Professionalism in early childhood is characterized by continuous growth in the skills and dispositions of teaching and a growing knowledge of child development. The developmental characteristics discussed within this chapter are chosen based upon their relevancy for the classroom. Because this is an education-centered overview of child development, teachers must still look to child development textbooks for a more comprehensive examination of development
When considering any stage theory it is important to remember that stages are not discrete time periods but rather overlapping phases of growth or a pattern of growth. Each child is believed to pass through the various stages while the timing and rate at which one reaches or progresses through a stage varies.
Development is an integrative process. The child’s experiences and growth in one strand of development (cognitive, physical, social, emotional or spiritual) has impact on other areas or strands. For example, fine motor readiness will affect self-concept when the expectations on the child to write before ready are too great and a child who is cognitively egocentric will have difficulty showing empathy. Because of this all areas of development must be viewed with equal importance if early education is to be successful. Early childhood educators have often erred in placing too much emphasis on cognitive factors. As important as the cognitive is to early education it does not operate in isolation. A successful educational beginning, wherever and whenever that occurs, must address the whole child and the total needs of each child. God demonstrates this in the second chapter of Luke where we observe Jesus at age twelve. Even though Jesus demonstrated an amazing cognitive ability (the teachers were amazed by Jesus’ questions and understanding), he came under his parents’ authority in order to continue growing across the strands of development---cognitive, physical, spiritual and social. Development takes time and experience along with the wisdom and patience from parents and teachers to provide the right experiences at the right time.
Attention to development has two dimensions. The normative dimension is based upon what is to be expected of most children at a given age level. This dimension seeks to meet the needs of a group of children at the same chronological age by recognizing where most children at that age are in a particular aspect of development. At the same time an individual dimension requires an evaluation of each individual child’s place along the continuum since the rate and timing of development varies from child to child. The normative dimension provides teachers with a starting point but it is the individual dimension that demands individualized instruction and outcomes. When studying development it is the normative dimension that is presented. Teachers must remember however that within a given group there will be children who are both ahead and behind the norm creating a developmental age difference of as much as five years (two above and two below) by kindergarten. Individual children may also vary across the strands of their own development, i.e., ahead in social development while behind in motor development.
The information within this chapter serves as a norm-based foundation for an individual’s desire to understand the nature and needs of the young child. It is the pursuit of this knowledge base that in part characterizes an early childhood educator as a professional.