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Understanding of Child Development

In working therapeutically with children it is of paramount importance that psychological therapists take account of both the developmental age and stage of the child that they are engaged with. (Siegler, R. S., DeLoache, J. S., & Eisenberg, N. (2003). How children develop. New York: Worth).

Jean Piaget, (1896-1980), a Swiss developmental psychologist, widely known for his theory of cognitive development in children. (1936), studied children from birth to adolescence, and theorised that there are four stages of child development. (ref Piajet)

In developing his theory Piaget, held some base assumptions, which I have detailed below for the purposes of this essay.

  • Children build their own knowledge based on their experiences.
  • Children learn things on their own without influence from adults or older children.
  • Children are motivated to learn by nature. They don’t need rewards as motivation.


Piaget’s theory of childhood developmental phases also takes into account a child’s cognitive abilities in the areas of language, morals, memory and reasoning at each of the four developmental stages which he classified:

(1) Sensorimotor, (birth – 2 years).

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(2) Pre-operational, (2 – 7 years).

(3) Concrete operational, (7 – 11 years).

(4) Formal operational, (11 – Adulthood).

Piaget’s work (1958), has helped to inform my personal counselling practice in respect of deepening my understanding of how child development is an active process, which is not passive; rather, it gives meaning and strategy to human growth towards knowledge and intelligence, highlighting learning potential, as children are innately inquisitive and forever seeking to investigate; to find out how things work and what things do, through a process of curious experimentation and cognitive processing, through each of the developmental stages.

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(Piaget, J. Henceforth, I have also become more self-aware when working in educational and psychological settings, in appreciatively evaluating a child in order to meet them appropriately where they are at. Consequently, I have learnt that it is important to remember that not all children will develop in a progressive linear tendency, it occurs therefore; that there is potential for harm, if teachers or child practitioners are viewing a child solely or rigidly through Piaget’s developmental theory, as tension will arise, should there be an expectation held that, children should progressively follow the expected trajectory, to the expected outcome, within the expected timeframe, hence a blind spot could potentially exist, around assumptions that children think and learn in the same terms as adults.

For example: one of Piaget’s assumptions that, children build their own knowledge based on their experience; should not necessarily be viewed as a positive base assumption, because other hindering factors may play a role in how a child’s potential, for how intellectual and cognitive progress is made, through developmental stages and phases.

Indeed Vygotsky, (1934), believed that social and cultural references were influential in child cognitive development; suggesting that, it is the environment in which a child grows up, which isInstrumental to cognitive thought and learning.

Therefore, in my own practice I would wish to evaluate a child’s field of reference and to also understand how the bonding and attachment needs of a child were, or were not met in early experience.

Understanding of Attachment Theory

In the psychodynamic tradition the work of child psychoanalyst, John Bowlby (1907-1990), has helped to inform my personal practice; and has facilitated my understanding of how we are motivated by our attachment behavioural systems, and of how we attain our set goals of acquiring protection and security; of how we are activated by perceived threats to our secure base attachment figure. Bowlby’s attachment theory (1958), is therefore instrumental in terms of understanding how children respond to separation and losses; because of how they have experienced the responsiveness of earlier significant attachment figures. Bowlby, (1958), suggests that there is an instinctive psycho-biological element to a commonality shared in both humans and in animals, in that motive, as instinctual reactions can be displayed when attachment bonds are threatened. (Bowlby, J. (1975) Attachment and loss vol 2: Separation: Anxiety and Anger. Harmondsworth: Penquin).

For example: in the human attachment bond, in the maternal parent/child relationship, the potential is offered for either a secure or an insecure attachment experience for the child. This will be particularly formative in the first year of the child’s experience, because anguish at being separated form the secure base attachment figure, (the mother, or primary carer), can be evidenced in consequential instinctual reaction behaviours, of the child, demonstrated as crying, clinging or tantrums. (Bowlby. J, Attachment & Loss Vol 1: Attachment: Pimilico: 1997).

In considering this, I have learnt to appreciate the importance of understanding a child’s attachment style, which if weak, or damaged through trauma, there is a consequential danger of a child falling into a negative pattern of relating throughout life, as consequence of an Insecure attachment experience, whereby the bond with the primary attachment figure undergoes prolonged disruption, or perhaps un-restored severance. This would be of concern to me as a counsellor, because consequently, a child experiencing insecurity in respect of these types of interruptions and losses, in their early significant attachment relationship, is seen to exhibit distressed emotions and behaviours, as a result of trauma, which sadly, can be evidenced in a child becoming withdrawn, apathetic and possibly despairing. (Bowlby. J, Loss. Attachment & Loss, vol 3, Pimilco 1998. Styles of Attachment. Mary Ainsworth, (1913-1999), not only provided empirical evidence for Bowlby’s attachment theory; (1996), form her research on child attachment, derived from her “strange situation” experiment, (1970), but her findings also informed her own theory on attachment styles and how subsequently, a child can be at risk of developing a reliance on hyper-activating strategies, which can become embedded as a result of experiencing insecure feelings; which in turn drive or compel a child to seek closeness and protection form their significant attachment figure. ref· Ainsworth, and Bowlby, are known for their contributions to understanding child psychology, and how attachment theory and styles inform children’s responses.

For example: a child who experiences an ambivalent, unresponsive or neglectful responses to their emotional and or physical needs, can become hyper-sensitive to signs of rejection, and fears of abandonment. As a consequence, a child’s relating, or attachment style may be that they come to prefer or require distance from others, and they may experience a sense of awkwardness with closeness. They may learn to develop a self-serving nature, becoming highly focussed or concerned with their own personal goals and wanting to experience a sense of control or power. (Mooney, C. G. (2009). Theories of Attachment: An Introduction to to Bowlby, Ainsworth, Gerber, Brazelton, Kennell ad Klaus. Redleaf professional Library. Redleaf Press.

Ainsworth categorised her findings into three main attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment. (Child feels secure, loved, but may become distressed if caregiver leaves, but is usually expectant that their caregiver will return). A securely attached child will know that they can receive seek comfort if they are upset or afraid from their primary caregiver).
  • Ambivalent insecure attachment. (Child will become distressed when caregiver leaves them, the child understands that they cannot rely on the mother or primary caregiver to be available when needed).
  • Avoidant insecure attachment. (Child tends to avoid primary caregiver, displaying little or no preference between caregiver and a stranger. This insecure-avoidant style is likely to be a result of the child experiencing abuse, neglect and rejection as a form of punishment for relying on a caregiver, therefore the child has learnt to avoid seeking help to avoid risking being rejected.). (Mooney, C. G. (2009). Theories of Attachment: An Introduction to Bowlby, Ainsworth, Gerber, Brazelton, Kennell ad Klaus. Redleaf professional Library. Redleaf Press).
  • A dis-organized-insecure attachment. Observations found that children could display a mix of behaviour, which would often seem confusingly dis-ordered, due to a lack of a clear attachment pattern, and therefore, children may resist or avoid their parent because of inconsistency of caregiving.

Hence in private practice

I have learnt the importance of not colluding with the idea, that a child is simply un-cooperative, wilfully naughty or behaving badly, because of their presenting dis-regulation. Rather; the presenting dis-refgualtion would need to be considered in view of the attachment style of the child, taking into account a range of factors, such as the child’s sociocultural circumstances and immediate family tree, alongside understanding the child and caregiver relating style.

For example: in the case of a child who has habitually experienced a dual sense of fear and of soothing, it is possible that child will be confused, and not able or trust own judgement as to which response might be encountered form the caregiver. Evidently, the child may display a dis-ordered response, because of the insecure pattern and volatile nature of the child’s primary attachment experience. (Holmes. P., & Fairfield. S. (2014). The Routledge Handbook of Attachment: Theory. 1st Edition. Routledge Publications).

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Understanding of Child Development. (2019, Dec 04). Retrieved from

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