The Most Commonly Basic Concepts in Child Development


The Most Commonly Basic Concepts in Child Development

In this study of child development, some concepts keep recurring. They appear more frequently. These are basic concepts. The basic concepts in child development are concepts that help explain changes in children’s behaviour that go with ageing. we introduce you to some of the basic concepts used in child development studies. They include: growth, maturation, learning, development, perception and motivation.

At the end of this page, you should be able to:

· Explain the following concepts: (a) Growth (b) Maturation (c) Learning

· Outline the principles of development

· Explain how the various sensory modalities aid perception

· Examine three views on motivation offered by three schools of psychology.

The Basic Concepts in Child Development

a)          Human Growth

Human growth describes increases in magnitude of body parts, organs, and systems. Growth involves changes in size, height, gait, or number. Cell division is growth – it involves increase in number. The body skeleton increases in length, and density.

This is growth. The body muscles increase in gait and mass. This is also growth. Growth is one major characteristic that differentiates living systems from non-living things. It describes the metabolic changes by which a child increases in size and changes in shape. Several factors influence growth changes. Height, for example, is primarily a biological process influenced by genes. Genes direct the neural and hormonal activities that propel growth.

Deficits in human growth hormone lead to stunted growth. Hyper-functioning of the human growth hormone may lead to abnormal height. Other environmental related factors include: malnutrition, teratogens, and severe psychological stress these factors will be discussed in more detail under physical development.

b)         Maturation

Maturation is the unfolding of the child’s biological potential. The timing and the sequence of the unfolding of these biological potentials are pre-wired genetically. For an illustration, practicing reading with a child will not make the child read until the brain cells that control reading ability are mature enough to respond to such training. The body will not hold the neck erect or upright if the controlling muscles are not maturationally ready. The baby will not stand and walk erect if the muscles of the limbs are not maturationally ready.  Maturation, therefore, refers to readiness or the point at which a child is biologically prepared to undertake a specific task.

It should be noted that it is the process of maturation that limits the time or age at which a child speaks, forms letters of the alphabet, understands relational concepts or propositional logic. In general, maturation prepares the child to undertake and benefit from any specific activity. Whether or not the child actually understands that specific activity will, to a large extent, depend on exposure or experience.

c)           Learning

Learning means changes in behaviour due to experience and practice. Changes in behaviour that qualify as learning have to be relatively permanent changes. This means that the change in behaviour should not be explained by temporary states in the child, such as fatigue, illness, or drug effect; and maturation or instinct.

Changes in behaviour may be observable, in which case, they are said to be overt. Examples of overt behaviour include changes in muscular dexterity. A child who could not write with a pencil now holds the pencil properly and writes some letters; or a child learns a new dancing step; or a child traps the football without losing its control to an opponent.

Changes in behaviour may also be unobservable, in which case they are said to be covert. Covert behaviours are discernible from other activities. Examples include: change in attitude to other ethnic nationalities, implied from accepting relationships with such other ethnic nationalities; development or change of insight that is, seeing meaning in a relationship that was not obvious before.

Learning manifests in modification of behaviour. Learning is the major reason human beings are not stupid all the time. Learning makes it possible for a child to transfer the benefit of one experience to other situations. In this way, human behaviour is said to be adaptive.

d)         Development

Development describes progressive sequence of changes in structure and organization of body systems. Development involves changes in the ability of the organism to function at a higher level. The main attribute of development is that the changes are qualitative and result in increased functionality. Increases in motor skills which permit the child to achieve higher level of proficiency in any particular games signal development.

In more specific terms, a child who earlier cried when thirsty now says “mummy, water”. This is development. A child, who earlier was crawling, suddenly stands up and takes one or two hasty steps. This is development. When a child gains voluntary control of the muscles of the bladder such that they can empty the bladder contents at will, development has taken place.

Usually, development involves a complex interaction between maturation and learning. Maturation itself involves growth. Therefore, development is usually regarded as the product of growth, maturation and learning. Development occurs at all the facets of human functions and behaviour. That is, development could be at the physical, cognitive, emotional, social, or language dimensions of human functioning.

 Principles of Human Development

The principles that explain human development include:

1.       Developmental

2.       Direction, Continuity and Sequence

3.       Individual Differences.

Developmental Direction

The principle of developmental direction states that development follows a predictable direction. Development, for example, starts from head and proceeds towards the toes. This is the cephalocaudal law. At birth, the human head is the most mature part of the body. All the brain cells are there at birth. The head weighs more than the rest of the body.

The baby gains control of the muscles of the neck before that of the chest. The baby also gains control of the chest before the waist, the arms and the limbs. There is a direction.

Development also proceeds from the centre to the periphery. This is the proximodistal law. The internal organs at the centre of the body – the heart, the lungs, the liver reach their adult size before the arms and the legs. The extremities mature last.

Continuity and Sequence

Development continues in a predicable order until maturity is attained. This is not to say that there is a direct proportional increase in all aspects of development with corresponding increases in age. Development is characterised by spurts peaks, and plateaux. However, continuity implies that development does not get arrested or reversed unless something is biogenetically wrong. A characteristic sequence is followed by all children. The child sits before crawling. The child crawls before standing, and walks before running.

Individual Differences

The time of unset, and the rate of appearance of different aspects of human development vary enormously from one child to another. This is the principle of individual differences. The genetic blueprint differs for every individual.

For example, one child may get the first set of teeth at seven months while the other child gets the first set of teeth at 12 months. One child may stand and take the first steps at 10 months, while the next child stands at 24 months. Though the time table may differ, all children will attain the goal of development ultimately if the environment is attain the goal of development ultimately if the environment is cooperative.


Human beings identify things by sight, smell, and sound. They detect if they have body contact with another object. They detect changes in temperature and pressure. They experience pain and cold. People are able to learn and know things because they have senses. They use their sensory modalities to pick sensations from the environment, and thereby learn and know things.

The major sensory modalities are vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.

We elaborate briefly on each of these sensory modalities.

· The Sense of Vision

Vision is the most important of all human senses. It is estimated that about 80 percent of human sensory information is obtained through vision (Muzi, 2000). The main organ of vision is the eye.

The eye receives light energy reflected as light rays from objects. The light energy is transformed to nervous impulses and transmitted to the brain. The brain interprets these impulses as vision. So you are able to see objects and events.

· The Sense of Hearing

Hearing is a significant source of sensory information. It connects the individual with other people, and enables one to communicate. The main organ of hearing is the ear.

The ear collects sound energy in form of waves from various sources. It transforms these different sound waves to corresponding nervous impulses. These impulses are carried to the hearing centre of the brain.

The brain interprets the nervous impulses as sound. So you are able to hear and differentiate different sounds.

Hearing is very important for children learning speech. Children who are congenitally deaf also become mute or dumb. They are unable to benefit from hearing their own vocalization. It is the reinforcement children obtain from hearing their own voices that reinforces and engender speech development.

The Sense of Smell

Smell describes the emission of a gaseous chemical, which irritates or is obnoxious, from a substance. The obnoxious chemical stimulates the olfactory nerves. The nerves send impulses to the olfactory centre of the brain. The brain interprets the tickling of this chemical as smell. So you are able to detect smell of different kinds.

The Sense of Touch

Touch is a very important sense which people use to explore the world. It is through touch that people learn about the texture of different substances. Touch also informs the individual about changes in pressure and temperature. The main organ of touch is the skin.

Nerve endings on the skin surface are sensitive to changes in pressure and temperature. The nerve endings transmit message about pressure and temperature changes to the brain. The brain interprets the message as touch, pain, cold or hot. So you are able to experience.

The Sense of Taste

The sense of taste is innate. However, there is some evidence (Crook, 1987), that some aspects of taste may have been learned pre-natally. For example, most people savour the sweet taste. The uterine fluid is sweet, so people may have learned to prefer sweet because of their uterine experience.

The main organ of taste is the tongue. Taste buds are contained in the tongue. The taste buds contain nerve endings that are sensitive to the primary aspects of taste, namely: salt, sour, sweet, and bitter. These primary tastes describe the variations in alkalinity of different substances in solution.

Nerve endings in the taste buds transmit message about the alkalinity of the substance in contact with the tongue to the brain. The brain interprets the message as salty, sour, sweet, or bitter. So you are able to detect the taste of different substances.

Perception describes brain interpretation of sensory experiences. It is the brain’s way of organising and making sense of the world.

Perception includes, therefore, all the ways an individual has of getting to know their environment.

Without the ability to perceive changes in the environment, human behaviour would be stupid. Imagine plunging your hand into a pot of 25 boiling water, and not being able to detect temperature change. Imagine yourself being hit by a moving lorry, and you are unable to detect pain.

Perhaps you are crossing a busy road, and you are unable to detect an oncoming vehicle. If your senses for perception did not inform you about these changes in your environment, you would be a dead person.

Indeed, without perceptual abilities, your environment would definitely overwhelm you.


Motivation describes the internal processes that energise, direct and sustain behaviour. Motivated behaviour has some characteristics. The person involved exhibits a high level of ego-involvement. That is, the behaviour is energised. The person involved shows a significant level of perseverance. In other words, the behaviour is sustained for a reasonable length of time. The individual who is engaged in motivated behaviour does not relent until the goal is attained. Motivated behavior is purposive or goal-directed (Santrunte, 2004).

Motivation is that condition in you that makes you to keep going, even under extreme frustrations. It is that thing that makes you keep trying when you fail. Motivation keeps your spirit high even when the task is obviously difficult and hurting.

Children’s behaviour in the classroom explains why they are behaving in a particular way. It indicates the extent to which their behaviour is energised, directed and sustained. If children do not complete an assignment because they are bored, lack of motivation is involved. If children encounter challenges in performing a task, but persist and achieve results, motivation is involved.

What is it that motivates children? This question has been answered differently by different schools of psychologists. We consider briefly three of these schools.

1. The Behavioural Perspective

Behavioural psychologists state that external rewards and punishment determine children’s motivation. According to this school of thought, children’s behaviour is motivated by incentives. Incentives add interest, excitement and direct children’s attention to appropriate behavior (Emmer, Evertson, Clements, and Wersham, 2000). This means that motivation is controlled by extrinsic factors – factors outside the individual.

We may cite examples of the kinds of incentives that teachers frequently use. They include the following:

· Scores and Grades – Teachers place a numerical score or a letter grade on a child’s work. This provides a feedback to the child about the quality of his/her work.

· Recognition – Teachers display quality work, produced by a child in a corner of the classroom. Classmates and visitors admire such work. Teachers give certificate of achievement to a child who excelled. Teachers also place an exceptional child on the honours roll. All these are tokens of recognition.

· Privileges – Teachers give outstanding children special privileges such as extra time during recess, exemption from sweeping the classroom or doing manual labour, extra time in the computer room, a field trip to a resource centre, or even a party ticket.

2. The Humanistic Perspective

The humanistic perspective holds that children have capacity for personal growth. Psychologists in this school of thought stress that personal growth is engendered when personal needs are satisfied.

Abraham Maslow is the chief proponent of this school of thought. According to Maslow (1954, 1971), the needs of children can be arranged in levels of energy, or what he called hierarchy of needs. The

hierarchy of needs is arranged in a sequence of the most basic need to the highest order needs.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, children’s needs must be satisfied in the following sequence:

(i) Physiological Need – This includes the need for food, water, sleep or rest, shelter.

(ii) Safety Need – This includes the need for protection from physical or psychological harm, such as protection from ritual killers, kidnappers, child trafficking, child abuse, armed robbers, domestic violence, and road hazards.

(iii) Love and Belongingness Need – This includes the need for affection, contact comfort, company, affiliation and attention.

(iv) Esteem Need – This includes the need for recognition, feeling good about oneself, feeling liked and likeable.

(v) Self Actualisation Need – This includes the need for achievement, accomplishment, excellence, competence, and actualization of one’s potential.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the first four needs [(i) – (iv)] listed here are basic needs. They are referred to as safety needs. The last listed, self-actualisation, is a higher order or growth need. Children

must satisfy their basic or safety needs before the higher need or growth needs appear.

Most school work have centre on academic achievement. Academic achievement is a higher need – need for self-actualisation. When safety needs are deprived, they hamper growth or higher needs or selfactualisation need.

The hierarchy of needs has implication for children’s education. A hungry child or a worn out child will not concentrate on the mathematics lesson. The child will be preoccupied with how to satisfy the hunger or rest need.

A child who is under constant threat at home, in school, or in the community cannot effectively benefit from school work. A child who is rejected by parents or peers, who is shown little affection will do badly in their school work. A fearful child will show very little creativity in an assigned task. Such children play it safe. Children who are preoccupied by safety needs show little progress in school work. Teachers must ensure that basic needs of children are reasonably satisfied to pave the way for growth needs.

3. The Cognitive Perspective

According to the cognitive perspective on motivation, children’s thoughts, goals and purposes determine their motivation. To the psychologists in this perspective, human behaviour is purposive. This means that the goal or the target you have set for yourself determines the level of motivation that will propel you to attain the given target. The implication is that children have internal motivation to achieve.

Their behaviour is not controlled by external pressures or external incentives. Therefore, children should be given adequate opportunities and responsibilities to control their own achievement outcomes. The main duty of the teacher is to help children select important, realistic, and achievable goals. The teacher should encourage children to plan out their work with specific time schedule. The teacher is to help monitor progress toward goal attainment.

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