Human development begins at conception and continues right through to adolescence after which the young adult emerges.
In order to inform best practice when working with children it’s important to understand the development of children and young people and some key concepts that affect it.
Areas of Development
Children’s development is often thought of in four areas:
Physical – This concerns the development of motor functions Cognitive – This is the development of a child’s ability to perceive and understand the world around them. It includes skills involved in memory, abstract thought, learning and understanding
Social and Emotional – Social and emotional development centers around the child’s perception of their own identity and their place in society. It concerns their relationships and attachments, self-image, gender and psychosexual development and ideas around morality
Communication – The child acquires skills in language and non-verbal communication
Again, these areas of development are linked. The child’s cognitive ability will affect his acquisition of language skills. His ability to communicate will influence his social interaction, which in turn will affect his moral development.
Each development follows on from the last and a deficiency in one area may lead to problems arising in the child’s development across a wide range of skills.
Rate of Development
It is important to realise that although development occurs in a common order, the rates at which a child develops can vary. This can influence the approach that must be taken when working with children as we must take into account each individual’s stage of development and adapt our approach accordingly.
The rate of development is influenced by many factors both genetic and environmental. For example, a baby will commonly begin to smile socially at around 6 weeks old. However, if the child is not talked to or smiled at during the first few weeks after birth they may not smile socially until much later while a baby who experiences lots of positive communication in those early weeks may smile sooner than 6 weeks.
Development in children is closely linked to their brain development.
At birth a baby will have almost all of the brain cells or Neurons that they will develop throughout life. Brain function develops as the Neurons create links between one another called synapses. At 2-3 years old children have almost twice as many synapses as they will have in adulthood.
Throughout a child’s development their Neurons develop a fatty coating that enables the cells to function more efficiently and speeds up signal transmission through the synapses.
The more a synapse is used the stronger it becomes and the developing child’s environment is essential for this strengthening process, providing the stimuli required to develop strong synapses.
During late childhood and adolescence the brain undergoes a process called ‘pruning’ whereby it rids itself of excess synaptic connections and reorganises itself to become more efficient. This process can cause a temporary reduction in certain skills in adolescents, particularly those requiring reasoning and social communication.
Stages of Development
In order to understand development in children we commonly break it down into 5 stages. These are:
Infancy – Birth to 1 year old
Early Years – 1 to 3 years old
Childhood – 4 to 7 years old
Puberty – 8 – 12 years old
Adolescence – 12 – 19 years old.
The stages are not fixed at the ages given but rather serve as a guide for the development of the ‘average’ child. This allows professionals to gauge whether a child is making appropriate developmental progress and decide whether interventions are necessary.
Developmental stages can also be talked about in terms of ‘milestones’. These are the ages at which we would expect to see most children having achieved a certain stage in their development. For example, most children will be able to walk alone and un-aided at 18 months old. Many children will achieve this at an earlier age however.
The stages of development are linked and sequential. This means that all children will develop in the same order and each skill or ability serves as a foundation for the next.
During the Child’s first year the majority of their development concerns their physical ability. Development is rapid when compared to later stages although the rate of cognitive and social development is highly dependent on the quality of care the child receives.
Development in the first year can be observed as follows:
Birth to 1 month:
The infant will gain more control over his neck and be able to begin supporting his own head albeit unsteadily. He will be able to grasp items when they are placed in his palm and have the ability to coordinate the movement of his head and eyes.
He will be interested in bright and shiny objects as he begins to interpret the world around him. This also leads him to gaze intently at his carers, imitating their facial expressions.
During the first month the infant will use cries to indicate when he needs attention. He will learn which cries are more effective and begin to tailor his communication to the circumstances.
The infant’s cognitive development begins at a basic level, seeing him react to bright lights by blinking, crying when they require a need to be met and beginning to track moving objects with their eyes.
1 – 3 months
During the infant’s second and third month he will begin to become interested in his own movements, playing with his hands and watching them intently. He is able to kick and wave his arms and legs and hold an object for a few seconds.
By six weeks old we would expect to see social smiling as his social and emotional development carries on. This can occur earlier or later depending on the quality of care the infant receives.
The infant will begin to recognise sounds and identify their direction, will stop crying when he hears a human voice and will begin to vocalise when he is spoken to or indeed when he is alone.
Cognitively, the infant’s development is still at a relatively slow rate while his senses and movements are refined. Over this period he will distinguish between and follow the movements of large and small items.
3 – 6 months
The infant will develop strength in his arms, using them for support when lying down. He will be able to hold on to small items and pass them from one hand to another. He is also able to sit upright with support.
During this period there is an increase in the infant’s social and emotional development, seeing them voacalise and engage with his carers. He will also become more interested in other babies and begins to become interested in social interaction. In normal circumstances the infant will begin to display ‘stranger fear’ behavior although, according to attachment theories put forward by Mary Ainsworth and later Mary Main and Judith Solomon, these behaviours can vary and may not present at all depending on the type of attachment the infant has made with his primary caregiver. The infant may also make use of a comfort object, for example a blanket or toy.
During this time the infant will begin to communicate in an interactive way, responding differently to different noises, laughing during play and through the understanding of simple words such as ‘No’ and ‘Bye bye’. Now, with his new-found interactive skills, his cognitive development begins to speed up. He will become extremely curious and attempt to investigate his environment thoroughly. Objects are frequently put into the mouth and he develops the ability to apply ‘object permanence’, becoming able to calculate the position of objects that have been dropped and rolled out of sight.
By their first birthday they should be able to:
Area of Development
Coordinate their limbs and move around by crawling
Use fine motor skills to manipulate objects with their hands Sit up alone and support their own head and neck
Understand the world around them and begin to develop
Behaviour becomes ‘goal directed’
Social and Emotional
Recognise their usual carers and display stranger fear.
Begin to form simple speech sounds
Able to communicate through pointing
Know his own name
Between the ages of 1 and 3 years old the child gains a greater awareness of their identity and social interaction. They also refine their motor skills and develop a greater ability to communicate and speak.
12 – 18 Months
This period is an exciting time in a ‘Toddler’s’ physical development. He will improve his ability to walk with support until he is able to confidently walk unaided, be able to feed himself with a spoon and have refined his fine motor skills to enable him to grasp objects such as a crayon. He will begin to enjoy kicking and rolling a ball and will have shown his preference for either his right or left hand.
The child will begin to display ‘temper tantrums’ and become more assertive and emotionally volatile. He will feel safe in routine and will rebel at changes to it. During this stage the child will be egocentric and enjoy playing alone. He will struggle to understand sharing and will display ‘stranger shyness’, retreating to the safety of his main caregiver when feeling scared.
Between the ages of 12-18 months the child will begin to speak with the first words emerging and building to a vocabulary of around 18-20 words. He will be able to follow simple instructions and will begin to mimic sentences spoken to him, particularly the last few words.
The child’s cognitive development will see him learning how objects work together through play with toys such as blocks. He will be able to recognise familiar people and point to different parts of the body. He will be able to appreciate picture books and recognise and indicate named objects.
18 Months – 2 Years
The child will now be able to climb stairs unaided and enjoy climbing over furniture when he has the opportunity. He is able to build a tower with blocks and manipulate drawing tools to generate circles and dots.
During this time the child will begin to become interested in other children although will still be reluctant to share. He begins to develop empathy for others and becomes more emotionally stable with a reduction in the frequency and severity of tantrums. He will become more confident when left in the care of others.
His language development will continue with his vocabulary growing to around 200 words. He will become able to form simple two-word sentences and will begin to talk to himself as part of play.
2 Years – 2 Years 6 Months
The child will become bigger and stronger, allowing him to exert more force on his environment. This promotes confidence and the child will be able to experiment with jumping, walking on tiptoes and play with balls and other toys.
The child will start to play cooperatively in small groups and develop an idea of gender identity. He will become increasingly emotionally secure and will use the safety of his caregiver as a base to explore the world around him.
The child’s vocabulary will continue to grow rapidly with the child understanding more complex grammatical rules such as plurals. He will be able to hold simple conversations with others and have learned to count to 10.
Over the last year the child will have learned to differentiate between colours and recognise a few of them. He will be able to draw more accurately and use tools such as paint brushes, scissors and crayons.
By their third birthday they will be able to:
Area of Development
The child is able to complete more complex physical tasks
They will have developed their fine motor function and be able to manipulate objects more accurately They will be able to walk independently and climb stairs
Continue to learn through behavior modeling, copying more advanced behaviours Begin to explore the world around them
The child will use role play and creative play to develop their thinking processes The child is able to classify objects using simple criteria
Social and Emotional
The child becomes egocentric and struggles to see situations from another’s perspective Has a clear idea of gender identity
Begins to interact with a wider peer group and engage in group play
Is able to speak clearly and uses a vocabulary of around 200 – 300 words
Still struggles to understand nonverbal communication
From roughly aged three to the age of seven years old the child sees a rapid development in their social and communication abilities. They develop ideas around rules and social acceptance while growing bonds with peers. They also experience an increase in their cognitive ability and physical skills.
During this time the child may learn to ride a bike and will be able to throw and catch a ball accurately. He will be able to take more control over his personal care with the ability to dress and undress and to brush his teeth. He will be able to control his hands more accurately, allowing him to use scissors to cut around an object.
The child will develop friendships and enjoy cooperative and dramatic play. He will have a strong sense of gender awareness and become stable and emotionally secure. Alongside an increasing sense of independence he will also find a reduction in the anxiety associated with being separated from his carers although he will still need comforting and reassurance.
The Child will learn to use short, grammatically correct sentences and begin to use language to gain information about their world. He will still make errors in tense however will be easily understood and will easily imitate adult speech.
This period see interesting cognitive development in the child. He will begin to classify objects using simple criteria such as weight, and understand third-person concepts such as ‘in front of’ and ‘next to’. He will understand the routine of daily life and be able to recognise key times such as meal times and bed time. He will also have developed a greater understanding of colour and will be able to draw more complex objects such as a full person or a house.
Between the ages of 5 and 6 years the child will increase in their technical ability. He will have begun to form letters and be able to write his own name while also developing his gross motor skills to allow him to hit a ball with a bat and run with increasing speed.
The child will now start to develop a sense of morality and will be concerned about other people’s perceptions of him. He will freely form firm friendships and be able to play complex games while remaining supportive to other children.
During this stage the child’s vocabulary will continue to grow quickly, exceeding 5000 words. His speech will be clear and fluent and he will gain enjoyment from jokes, singing and rhymes. He will recognise new words and ask for definitions to clarify their meaning.
Cognitively he will develop in several areas. His ability to read and write will increase, seeing him sight reading over ten words and being able to read simple books with a little more effort. He will be able to write more fluently, forming words and will be able to draw with increasing sophistication. He will be able to understand concepts around quantity including ‘whole’ and ‘half’ while also being able to count as far as 100. His understanding of routine will increase and he will be able to predict the order of future events.
By their seventh birthday a child should:
Area of Development
The child will be able to perform complex tasks such as catching and throwing a ball Their fine motor skills will allow them to perform tasks like threading a needle and using scissors
Have a basic understanding of rules and consequences
The child will be able to understand concepts such as humour and fairness They will have a creative imagination
Social and Emotional
The child will interact easily with peers
They will understand the concept of society and ‘fitting in’ They will be able to play cooperatively
The child is more able to understand another’s perspective Communication
They begin to derive pleasure from communicating
They are able to use more complex language techniques
The child is able to express himself through writing and drawing
From ages 8 to 12 years old children begin to experience puberty. Typically this occurs earlier in girls while in boys it may not happen until as late as 14 years old. During this time their body undergoes changes to become sexually mature and the child develops a more advanced perception around gender and sexuality.
The brain begins the ‘pruning’ process during this phase and so we see an increase in the child’s ability to analyse their own thought process coupled with a reduction in the ability to use reasoning skills, social communication and empathy.
By the age of 12 a child should:
Areas of Development
The child by now will possess good coordination skills
Their body will begin to develop into the adult form with an increase in hormone activity Cognitive
The child’s analytical abilities will be good and they will be able to solve problems independently They will be able to classify and compare objects using complicated variables They will develop a strong idea of personal identity and gender
Social and Emotional
The child will become more independent and place a greater emphasis on peer relationships They will begin to challenge authority and test out boundaries to further develop their independence Temporarily experience a reduction in their reasoning ability
They are able to express themselves articulately
They can describe ideas about themselves, for example their strengths and weaknesses Their social communication skills may weaken temporarily through the ‘pruning’ process
During adolescence young people develop their ability to understand abstract concepts while gaining their independence. Their physical development is almost complete and they now learn to deal with complex adult emotions, sexuality, and their strengths and weaknesses.
Their communication skills and reasoning ability gradually return allowing them to maintain complex relationships and make choices about their future.
By age 19 the young adult will:
Area of Development
Their bodies will now be fully matured and they will have high skill in various areas Their reaction times and coordination will be good
Their ability to use reason will return
They will be able to use abstract thoughts
They will have a perception of their place in the world
They will be able to question information and make rational decisions based on experience
Social and Emotional
Develop a greater link with his peer group
Self esteem can affected by physical changes
Peer pressure becomes a more important factor
The young person’s social communication and empathy will return towards the end of adolescence They will be able to understand and express complicated abstract concepts