Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development focusses on how children acquire knowledge and learn. He believed that when a child and an adult are given the same logical question children gave less sophisticated answers, not because they were less competent than the adults but because children are born with an extremely simple mental structure which is the basis for the child’s knowledge and learning ability. He suggests that children go through four stages of intellectual growth: 0-2yrs – Sensorimotor, i.
e. motor control and learning about objects, the child explores the environment around them using their senses; 2-7yrs – Preoperational, verbal skills development, the child understands the use of symbols and language; 7-11yrs – Concrete Operational, beginning to grasp abstract concepts, shows logical thinking; 12yrs to adulthood – Formal Operational, logical and systematic reasoning skills, is able to work through abstract problems. One of the basic components of Piaget’s theory is ‘Schemas’.
Each schema is a building block of intelligent behaviour and a way of a child’s brain organising the knowledge they have gained.
Children will develop new schemas as they learn and experience more to allow them to retain this knowledge, as well as modifying their existing schemas as new information about them emerges through additional knowledge. We can effectively plan the development of a child by taking his ideas of ‘schemas’ into practice and using Piaget’s stages we can assess where and how a child is currently learning. From assessment it becomes possible to plan activities to help them to develop onto the next stage.
Sigmund Freud (1856 1939) An Austrian neurologist
Freud believed that each stage of a child’s development directly related to specific needs and demands, each based on a particular body part and was rooted with a sexual base. Freud outlined these stages as oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Each stage involves the satisfaction of a desire and can later play a role in the adult personality. Freud suggested that if a child does not successfully complete a stage, they could develop a fixation that would later influence adult personality and behaviour.
According to Freud the mind can be split into two halves, the conscious (mental processes we are aware of) and the unconscious mind (mental processes we are unaware of), and has three separate aspects – the Id (the conscious mind), Ego and Superego (unconscious mind) which all need to be balanced to have good mental health. The Id is about basic needs and feelings, the pleasure principle. The Ego is the reality principle and the Superego is the moral part of the mind. Freud’s theories about unconscious actions can still be witnessed, for example when a child is caught hurting another child.
The aggressor may deny it and tell a lie, but may start to cry because he knows what he has done is wrong, and that he has lied about it. Whilst Freud’s psychosexual theories do not fit well with today’s more scientific standards and are considered not to be very accurate, they have been influential because it was original thinking about human development, and many other theorists used his ideas as a starting point. He has also helped those working with children by understanding there is a link between our conscious and unconscious actions. Humanist
Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) An American psychologist
Abraham Maslow was a humanistic psychologist who is most famous for his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which is relevant to all ages, not just for children. The five-stage hierarchy of needs is often visually displayed as a pyramid with the largest most important needs at the bottom and the more advanced needs at the top We are born with basic needs for survival, food, water, shelter and sleep which is represented in the first layer. Without these nothing else is possible. Once these needs are met we can progress to the next level which consists of a need for feeling safe and secure. We seek safety from others and strive to be in an environment that keeps us safe and free from harm. The third level is our need for love, our desire for acceptance and our need to fit in. At this level we seek out love, friendships and intimacy.
The fourth level is our need for esteem, achievement, education and respect. At this level we focus our attention on self-respect and respect from others. We seek information and knowledge through education, strive to make advancements in our careers and work towards an overall higher self-worth. The fifth and final level in the hierarchy is our need for self-actualisation, the need to reach our fullest potential with complete understanding of ourselves. According to Maslow very few people if any, master this level. Our basic needs (1st level) are essential for our survival. We need to feel safe (2nd level) before we can develop friendships which will give us a sense of belonging (3rd level). Once we have developed friendships we seek the esteem of self and others (4th level).
This demonstrates how each layer must be fulfilled before moving up to a higher level. Maslow’s theories are very relevant to child development and care. Based on his hierarchy of needs a child would find it very hard to learn if their basic needs are not being met, for example a hungry or thirsty child would find it difficult to focus their attention to learn as the most basic need must be met first. A simple solution of snack time in between lessons and having drinking water available would help to overcome this problem. Addressing a child’s most basic needs will help them to grow, learn and develop. Social learning
Albert Bandura born 1925, an American psychologist
Bandura states that behaviour is learned from the environment, i.e. behaviours of others, and then imitated. His famous experiment in 1961 – the Bobo doll study – involved a film being shown of an adult beating up a Bobo doll and shouting aggressive words. This was then shown to a group of children and after watching the film they were allowed to play in the room that held the Bobo doll. All the children began to beat up the doll and were physically and verbally aggressive towards it, even though nurturing toys were available to play with the doll. They were apparently imitating the actions of the adult they had seen in the film.
This was seen as an important break away from the behaviourist theory that behaviour is directed by reinforcement or rewards. The children simply copied the adult’s behaviour. They received no encouragement or reward. Bandura’s theories have an influence on current practice today in the form of positive role modelling. Recognition that child carers have a responsibility to demonstrate positive role modelling, as children will often imitate their behaviour. If aggressive behaviour or frustration is exhibited by the adult it is likely to be imitated by the child. Learning is acquired by observation and imitation.
B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) An American psychologist.
Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning can be described as a process that attempts to modify a behaviour through the use of positive and negative reinforcement. The child will make the association between a particular behaviour and a consequence. The fundamental idea behind this is that behaviours that are reinforced will tend to continue while behaviours that are punished will eventually stop. Positive reinforcement is when a desired behaviour is rewarded positively: for example, when a child completes a set task they would receive a positive response e.g. a sticker, positive praise or maybe free play.
Negative reinforcement is more about focussing on the negative behaviours that are to be changed and instilling a sanction or removal of a positive event: for example, a child that is continually exhibiting a negative behaviour, such as disobeying house rules will be told that if this behaviour continues they will lose their gaming machine or similar sanction. In summary if we reward good behaviour we expect that behaviour to continue and if we punish negative behaviour we hope that behaviour will cease. Importantly adults using this theory must make sure that they consistently carry out what they have intended otherwise the system becomes completely ineffective. Skinner’s theories are used widely in childcare today, we actively praise children for positive behaviours and for performing actions correctly; additionally we use the ‘time out’ method for negative behaviour. Behaviourist
John B Watson (1878-1958) An American psychologist.
Watson believed all learning was gradual and continuous. Development is a sequence of specific conditional behaviours with the main emphasis on the environment not heredity. Observable behaviours were considered to be more important rather that internal events such as thinking because external/observable behaviours could be witnessed and monitored. Watson believed that everyone is born as a ‘blank canvas’ and with the same abilities as each other and that they can be taught and trained to become anything they wish to be. Individuals can be trained to behave in a certain way. He believed all behaviour is a result of the environment and a response.
His work was heavily influenced by physiologist Ivan Pavlov who is famous for his theory based on dogs. Pavlov learned that dogs would begin to salivate in response to seeing a care giver in anticipation of food, rather than just in the response of receiving food. He named this response the ‘Classical Conditioning Theory’. It was Watson’s and Pavlov’s ideas which impacted on that of Skinner’s. We use Watson’s theories today by rewarding good behaviour and punishing negative behaviour. Good behaviour in our classrooms today is often rewarded with stickers, privileges or other positive motivators. To discourage negative behaviours often a stepped warning system is used. A system of planned ignoring is beneficial and often used for dealing with attention seeking behaviour. Social pedagogy
Social Pedagogy is a framework that influences current practice by creating a holistic way of working with children by seeking to bring together theories and concepts from education, psychology and sociology. It aims to treat the child as a whole, making sure all their needs are met especially those children with additional needs.