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An Introduction to Child Development

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Child development
Image: Niels Rameckers

You are about to embark on a remarkable journey as you study how children think and grow from birth through adolescence. Child development is an extraordinary thing to observe. Anyone who cares for or works with kids cannot help but be fascinated by the rapid growth and change that takes place from birth through young adulthood. Even those without children may find this process captivating because, after all, we were all kids once.

As we watch children grow, learn, play, and even misbehave, we may often find ourselves worrying. Is this normal? Do other children do this? How does my child compare to other kids his own age? Parents, teachers, therapists, doctors, and other caregivers all have an interest in such questions. Today, raising a child to become a healthy, happy adult takes more than just waiting and worrying. Anyone who works with or raises kids needs to have a solid understanding of child psychology and what makes them tick. As important as it is to know what’s normal, it’s equally essential to understand what’s not. By being on the lookout for problems, parents and caregivers can offer the intervention and support that kids need to get back on track.

In this article, you will learn more about some of the reasons why it is so important to study child development. Think of this as a road-map to your study of child psychology. In this brief tour, you will explore some of the basic perspectives that developmental psychologists use to understand how children grow and change. In addition to this basic background, this article also explores what’s normal, what’s not, and what parents can do if they spot signs of trouble.

What Is Normal Development?

What do we mean when we use the term "normal?" For the most part, children all over the world develop in much the same way. Babies quickly become attached to their caregivers, begin to sit up at around six months, and are starting to walk right around their first birthdays. From the earliest days after birth when its seem like all they can really do is cry, sleep, and eat, the rapid change that happen during those first two years of life is astonishing.

If you are a parent, you will be watching with anticipation as your child reaches each of these developmental milestones, and worrying if your child does not reach these milestones as quickly as other children of his or her age group. This is perhaps one of the greatest reasons to learn as much as you can about child development. If you know what is supposed to be happening and when it’s supposed to happen, you will be able to recognize if your child’s growth is not proceeding as it should. When a child falls far behind his or her peers or fails to achieve these basic milestones, obtaining outside assessment from professionals is important. By seeking help early, parents can ensure that their children get the help they need to grow and thrive.

Understanding normal development can also help ease worries or fears. While children tend to follow the same developmental progression, it is very important to understand that not all children achieve the same things at exactly the same ages. While your friend’s daughter was walking by eleven months, it may take your own daughter a bit more time to reach that same point. Realizing that individual differences are also part of normal development can help put your mind at ease.

Normal versus Abnormal: What’s the Difference?

What about when development does not follow a normal path? While it is often referred to as abnormal development, it is important to remember that in many cases, it may involve things that are not particularly abnormal. Learning disabilities, emotional disorders, and behavioral problems can all present very real challenges, but these impairments do not mean that a child is "abnormal." In some cases, developmental problems may be a result of environmental changes. Death, divorce, and traumatic events can cause children to experience mood changes, misbehavior, and anxiety.

As you learn more about child psychology and development, try to avoid creating black-and-white categorizations of what’s normal and what’s not. While these labels allow us to convey some of the basic expectations for how children grow, it is essential to remember that each child is a unique individual full of a distinctive blend of traits, abilities, and experiences.

Recognizing Potential Problems

By understanding both normal and abnormal development, those who raise and work with children, including parents, teachers, and doctors are better able to keep an eye out for potential problems. This is important because early detection results in early intervention. The sooner a child receives help with a developmental problem, the better the outcome is likely to be and the greater improvement the child is likely to demonstrate.

Problems with Physical Development

While people often focus on developmental issues related to psychological or behavior issues, physical problems can also impede normal development. In addition to chronic illness, children can be born with birth defects that can seriously impact their ability to function and achieve physical milestones.

Some of these physical problems may be present at birth, but some may only become evident as a child matures. Parents and caregivers should be on the alert for potential issues that might make crawling, walking, sleeping, or eating difficult.

Learning and Development

Learning plays a major role in the life of a child. While school is the most obvious example of this, learning does not just take place in academic settings. From the earliest days of a child’s life, he is undergoing a continual process of learning. This learning will have a dramatic impact, affecting how the child things, feels, and behaves.

Clearly, learning is one of the most important parts of child development, which is why it is essential for parents and teachers to know how to spot potential learning problems. Attention problems and learning disabilities can make it difficult for children to focus and perform well academically, but identifying these problems early and responding with appropriate interventions makes it possible for kids to overcome such issues and achieve their full potential.

Sometimes such issues can be easy to spot, but parents and teachers must be alert and knowledgeable about what to look for. Poor attention, delayed speech, and late motor skill development are all possible signs that a learning problem may be present.

Getting Help

So studying child psychology can help you understand what’s normal and what’s not, but how can you put this information into practice? At the heart of the study of development is the need for appropriate assessment, intervention, and treatment when problems do arise. Doctors, counselors, psychologists, teachers, and other professionals who work with children study the best ways to offer help to children facing specific developmental challenges.

Parents and caregivers who have learned about normal child development and who are alert to the signs of abnormal behavior are better able to pick up on problems and seek out assistance for their children. But where do you turn when you discover something is wrong? When kids need help, many parents and other adults would do anything and everything they could to find a way to help.

First, it is important to know how and where to seek help. If problems are spotted, parents might turn first to the family doctor for advice on what to do. When problems are identified in academic settings, schools often have the tools and resources to help. Teachers, counselors, and school psychologists are often able to identify behavioral, learning, emotional, and social problems and offer recommendations on what can be done.

No matter what the situation, teamwork and communication are often the key to effective treatment. Parents must be able to share relevant information with health care professionals, and educators must be prompt about alerting parents to any school-related issues that a child may be experiencing.

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