Child Development: from synapse to society - bringing it all together

Development is a continual process of learning and re-learning, of biological and physiological and psychological elements clashing and combining to shape and be shaped by the inner: biology - our unique genetic make up, the development of the brain and chemical production, and the outer: environment, society, our relationships and the culture that we are a part of, at any stage in our lives. There’s no single course of development, because a unique combination of personal and environmental circumstances can lead to different paths of change. 
Humans are, by their very nature, social creatures. As such, when we are endeavoring to have a greater understanding of how we grow and develop as individuals (but also as members of society) it is important to take a multi-disciplinary approach and consider what is happening at the different ages and stages of life and also what influencing factors (for instance, from the micro, meso, exo to the macro systems and including time - chronosystem, from Bronfenbrenner’s biological model) might be contributing to this in a positive or negative way. We may be able to learn something from observing and/or having interaction with children, young people and adults, but also from animal research. Consequently, the study of child development is not without ethical or moral challenge. 
We cannot explore child development without consider the age old argument of nurture vs. nature; how much of who we are is predetermined or inherited from our parents genetically and how much is influenced by the society or culture we live in and our exposure to different elements of that? It is hard to say. The developmental systems approach states there’s a continuous interaction between nature and nurture. Kolb and Gibb (2011) found that the development of the brain was influenced by both the genetic makeup of the individual as well as, and as importantly by, complex interactions between the “genetic blueprint” and a series of contexts and changing environmental factors. This desire to know and understand development has spanned the ages: it was Aristotle who proclaimed, more than 2,000 years ago, “the habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference” (Hensch, T.K. 2016). Thus we should start at the beginning.  Conception.

The prenatal stage of development is undoubtedly a significant time in a child’s development. The lifestyle and nature of the mother can have a dramatic impact on the opportunities or difficulties a child could have in later life - this has been linked to the development of the brain during these stages. Three weeks after conception, the foetus begins to form and the complex series of ‘dynamic and adaptive processes’ begin to operate. These can be impacted on from the gene expression (internal) and environmental inputs (external).  For instance, the diet and lifestyle of the mother. 
For example, the mother’s alcohol consumption or, conversely, whether she exercises can impact on the production of chemicals in her brain: this can have a negative (alcohol) or positive (exercise) impact on her mind and body, subsequently this will affect the release of hormones in the womb to the foetus, finally contributing to the rate of production of neurons, the synaptic connections, how the cells mature and the strength of myelination in the development of the brain. Brains, in order to develop healthily, need both critical genetic signaling AND essential environmental input, and during the fetal period (up to 9 weeks after conception), the process of neuron production, migration and differentiation occurs most so this is a critical time. Our brains do not fully mature until we are 20-25years old and the establishment of a healthy brain from birth is very important, as this is the time when synaptic pruning occurs, when unused or unsuccessful or less efficient neuron connections are eliminated. In deprived rats, there was evidence of deviant neural organization which could explain the development of learning difficulties, anti-social behaviors developing in children whose mothers were living in deprived or damaging environments.

As a baby enters the world, influencing factors continue to affect the production of synaptic connections and even more so as the baby begins to have physical and psychological interaction with the world around it - it becomes submerged in the culture and the elements of that culture (language, social interaction, laws, ethics and so on). Research and evidence shows that the safety, happiness and nurturing of, and social interactions of, a baby will have an impact on their ability to develop into a healthy adult. 
Let’s looks at posture as a key signifier to a child’s development. The variation of movement develops as a child gets older: innate processes like sucking evolve into more conscious choices like sitting, locomotion (e.g. balance) or deliberate movements. This is linked to the continual development of cognition - as the baby learns, the brain stores this learning from the sensory, to the motor and finally the long term memory establishing what Piaget termed ‘schemas’. As well, it is impacted on by the baby’s visual perception: how the baby perceives the world (which is not universal but different for everyone) guides their motor behavior and vice versa. Adolph and Franchak outlined that every stage of development is an “adaptive control of movement” which “relies on core psychological functions” thus highlighting the interactive and interdependent development of the individual and the environment: “caregiving practices facilitate and constrain motor developments”. For instance, consider how the facial expressions a baby experiences from their caregiver will impact their understanding of the world around them? And this is before Language is used by the child; they will already have a pre-established idea of and understanding of their world based on what they have witnessed. “The critical period to connect the visual system of the infant brain ends after a few years, and the resulting wiring plan usually remains in place for a lifetime” (Hensch, T.K. 2016).
Let’s consider the caregiver has a fear of dogs. A baby in a pram or holder will be able to hear in the tone and variations in phonemes used and see emotion in the caregiver’s face, which they will learn to associate with withdrawal from the unpleasant or, later on - from the age of 6-12months, as fear (one of the key universal emotions) through a process of ‘elementary mental functions’: attention, sensation, perception, memory. Vygotsky argued that social contributions to development came from assisted discovery from a MKO (more knowledgeable other) in the individual’s ZPD (zone of proximal development). Similar to the dog analogy, any cognitive, linguistic, environmental stimulation will impact on the child’s development. The higher the quality of stimulation and frequency of social exchanges the quicker the child learns and develops into a healthy functioning child and then adult. The lower the quality or lack or stimulation, the slower the development and the greater the problems in later life.
The mind and the body cannot be separated: the cognitive development of the individual and the culture are inseparable. Because different cultures lay different emphasis and values on different things, what is meaningful to one is different to another. This is most obvious in the acquisition of language. 

As with the development of motor skills, the process of moving from perceptual to conscious, from looking and observing, to doing and understanding, language is acquired in much the same way. Importantly, at each successful level of development the world opens up to the individual, the mastering of language and communication perhaps more so than others. Between 6-12 months a baby is able to differentiate between the phonemes - individual sounds and their variations, or ‘categorical speech perception’ (Kuhl 207). They begin to recognize cues and adjacent sounds, and complementary to this is the development of their vision: the ability to see facial expressions and recognize familiar or unfamiliar objects. Despite this knowledge, children will not start to make real words from one year. These will be filled with mistakes and it is aged five that phonology development is complete (this coincides with the physiological development of the shape of the mouth, throat and control of the air ways).
A child’s development at this stage is still closely linked to wider factors, namely the environment: “exposure to auditory information” and “social interaction” (Kuhl 2007) is required for development. There are interests from medical practitioners who are eager to learn whether we can see, using brain imaging for instance, patterns in the brain that correlate to certain and/or specific behaviors. In the study of language and machine learning, could it be possible to medically diagnose early a susceptibility to developing schizophrenia by examining the structures of the brain, for example? Could we predict the ‘wellness’ of an individual and how an illness could develop, based on the structure of their brain? In some cases involving babies, aged from two years, the diagnosis was 70% accurate.

What other factors could we examine to try to influence the development of a child into a healthy adult? Recent studies into media influence or ‘Media Literacy’ are interesting and still have some way to go as the digital world rapidly grows in development and importance in people’s lives. The most significant finding is that television and computer games or ‘computer literacy’ can have a significant impact on a child’s development. Potter (1998, 2013) outlined that the material they are viewing should take into consideration the age of the child and cognitive abilities or skills, which he outlined as “rudimentary” aged 3-5, “critical” and as evaluators aged 5-9, and finally “advanced” for adolescence to adulthood. Cantor found negative impacts of media on children (2012), aggressive behavior was examined by Bushman and Huesmann (2012) whereas Mares, Sivakumar and Stephenson (2015) concluded that well-designed and age-appropriate educative media can impart knowledge”. However we approach this, one things to consider is that -  like motor skills, cognitions, visual, perceptive and language skills - MSL (Media sigh literacy) is also learnt: it is not innate. It comes from the child’s ability to use symbols and understand that symbols can refer to something other than themselves; the development of “representational insight” (Deloache 2002).

But what about the development of emotions? There are a few universal, innate emotions: happiness, fear, disgust, anger, sadness and surprise. However the ability to understand and express these appropriately changes over time and depends on our cognitive development and abilities. For instance, individuals with learning difficulties may not be able to access as many emotions or they may lack social awareness meaning they are unable to choose the socially acceptable emotion in a scenario. Equally to this, individuals who have grown up with trauma or distress in their childhood may have developed a different set of strategies for monitoring and modulating emotions. 
Infants “co-regulate” from their parents so the reality is that the relationship the infant has with the caregiver will impact on their initial emotional development. Poor regulation means poor behavior choices later in life. A child’s temperament can be an indicator: it can be used as a predictor of cognitive and social functioning skills. For instance, “attentional strategies”. A shy child will avoid social interaction thus reinforcing their shyness. This temperament triggers and is triggered by chemical production in the brain. For instance, the chemical Dopamine, which is important for self-regulation, relays signals between neurons in the brain. Using Gottlieb’s ‘probabilistic epigenisis’ model, we can see how the lack or production of this chemical will cause differences in a child’s development leading to their temperament. This could be a genetic factor, due to prenatal environmental influences (is the mother a drug user, alcoholic, how safe is she?) or impacted on by parents after birth and “social referencing”. Saarni (1999) stated that “emotion development and emotion regulation are bi-directionally influential”. In other words, it is all of these factors and they all need to be taken into consideration.

So, we are who we are because of a range of complex and co-directional influences that affect us from three weeks after conception to death. We cannot help the life we are born into but we can make changes and are always developing and growing as an individual. Once we are older, we have more freedom: we can choose our culture and can have our own hopes and aspirations, separate from our parents. However, how strong our belief is that we can achieve those dreams, how far we push ourselves and a willingness to contribute positively in society,  may already be predetermined in the womb, as a baby or a child. We have ‘pro-social’ skills; we are able (on the whole) to exist side by side with other completely different human beings. But how is it that we manage to live together? Using the ‘Theory of the mind’ might help us answer this - is it because we understand others? And are able to explain our behaviors to others? What are the triggers and causes when things go wrong? And what can we do, if anything, to limit these instances?

A final thought: the most important lesson learnt from this course is that to truly understand anyone, particularly a child, we need to understand their genes, hormone production, family life and heritage, the broader environment they have experienced, their culture, and any social-economic problems.

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