If you were to visit any college campus and ask a junior or senior education major about at what stage a 5-year-old should be developmentally, you would likely hear all about Piaget, Erickson, Vygotsky, and their well-known theories of development. Likewise, visiting many staff trainings, professional-development days, or even conference presentations may very well end up in a conversation centered on ages and stages. While nothing is wrong with these discussions, there is a fundamental flaw with viewing child development as something that progresses in a neat and orderly fashion. Simply put, development in the real world is messy, often occurring behind the scenes, and although it typically does follow a somewhat predictable progression when viewed from a group prospective, it can and frequently does skip observable steps in individuals. Additionally, development rarely, if ever, actually occurs “typically” across all domains for any one individual.
The distinction between what we expect for individuals versus a group is critical, and in my experience is not made clear to those persons who actually work with children regularly. As a result, we do a disservice to youth staff members by presenting information that provides a false sense of neat and tidy frameworks and stages.
Again, I want to be crystal clear that I am not saying that stage theories are completely without their merits or value. What I am asserting is that the usefulness of the overarching stage theories of development to front-line youth development staff is limited at best. Instead of spending time teaching and training staff to have a basic understanding of stage theories, we are much better served if we impart a working knowledge of what it means to provide “developmentally appropriate” practices based on observations of youth in recreation programs. Additionally, if we are going to spend time discussing how children learn and develop, focusing on how individuals construct knowledge by connecting their current experience to their prior knowledge is a much better use of time and energy.
The Role Of Environment
Another key factor, too often overlooked in discussions and trainings related to child development, is the role the environment plays. Perhaps the scenario that is familiar to most people involves differences between children who have significantly more or significantly fewer resources than those of their peer group. Not surprisingly, everything else being equal, children who have more resources tend to develop more quickly, and those with fewer take longer (again, individual differences always provide exceptions, so no pattern should be viewed as a rule).
What are often not considered are the less-apparent differences, such as parent communication styles and approaches, exposure to other non-parental adults or older children, and participation in other social contexts. Because development ultimately is influenced by context, when and how we develop is shaped by those we interact with, and where we are in the world.
A Case Study
To further illustrate the problematic nature of training staff members about development that relies solely on stage theory, let’s look at two hypothetical children, whom we’ll call Bill and Bob. Let’s also say that Bill and Bob are identical twins, separated at birth. (If interested, there are numerous, fascinating twin studies on the internet that look at this scenario in the real world.) Bob and Bill are healthy, well nourished, with slightly above-average IQs. Finally, let’s assume that, although separated, both boys are adopted at a young age and grow up in relatively stable, two-parent, middle-class households where they are loved and well cared for.
If we were predicting Bob’s and Bill’s development based on most stage theories, we would expect them to develop and reach major milestones (walking/talking, forming friendships, developing a sense of independence and self, etc.) in a fairly similar time frame. However, it is more likely that, based on their individual experiences, we would see significant differences in achieving these milestones and overall in the unfolding of their developmental journeys. In this example, at age seven, when the two boys happen to show up at the same explore-the-arts summer camp, Bill is outgoing, socially confident, and very verbal, while Bob is quieter and less comfortable in initiating conversations with his peers, but is more athletic than his long-lost twin.
The reasons for the differences, while not surprising, are also not apparent at first blush. In Bill’s case, both of his parents are freelance journalists who work out of their home. This arrangement means that Bill frequently hears and is starting to participate in discussions about a wide variety of topics. It also means that he frequently hears and observes his parents conducting meetings and interviews, including the necessary introductions, pleasantries, and social graces. In fact, Bill is so interested in his parents’ work that he frequently “plays reporter,” “interviewing” and “writing” stories about his friends. Conversely, one of Bob’s parents is a school administrator, and the other is a carpenter. As a result, Bob does not have a parent at home as much, and frequently spends time with his two older cousins, both of whom are avid soccer players. Bob’s time with his cousins gives him many more opportunities to develop both his gross and fine motor skills but do not afford him many chances to practice meeting new people or to converse about topics not related to sports.
In Bob’s and Bill’s cases, despite identical genetics (i.e., the same contribution from nature), at age seven there are already significant differences in their linguistic, physical, and social development as a result of their lived experiences and the environments in which they grew up. Certain biological traits make it more or less likely for development to occur in a given domain, and without the same genetic raw materials (DNA), we might see even more significant differences between Bill and Bob. With that said, it is crucial that we recognize and train staff members to understand that each child with whom they interact is a unique product of their genes and environment.
Why It Matters
Despite what we tell children about striving for achievement, we cannot do everything we desire or set our minds to. In fact, in most cases, the best we can hope for is effective practice and hard work. When we expect children to develop in lock step with a prescribed script based on group norms, we are more often than not going to be disappointed or encounter underlying problems. While developmental screenings are useful and early interventions are invaluable, the reality is that each child’s development is the product of the interaction of genetic makeup and lived experiences, so differences are normal and natural. No matter how hard they (or we) work, some children will never develop certain traits or skills, and the reality is, that’s OK! If you or a staff member suspects serious delays or disorders in a child’s development, by all means seek expert guidance and offer resources to parents. For example, seek a pediatrician referral; don’t use your best guess and offer an ad-hoc diagnosis. When we begin to teach staff members that their job as youth-development pros is not to expect or try to fit everyone in to a specific developmental timeline, but rather to help each individual maximize his or her potential, utilizing the available resources, then everyone really can be a winner.
Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit Youthdevelopmentconsulting.com.