Mini Essays on Child Development

The following are small pieces on child development that were originally submitted as mini-assignments for an online course through Sir Sandford Fleming College on Child Development 1 #2380. What follows are mini essays beginning with a discussion on non-shared environmental influences, and following with brief discussion on teratogens, speech development, motor development, and ending with a brief discussion of attachment formation.

Nature and Nurture in the Non-Shared Environment

The debates around the genetics (nature) versus environment (nurture) argument has a lengthy history, and one related area of experiment and research involves development. Kail and Zolner discuss non-shared environmental influences, and they state, “The family environment is important, but it usually affects each child in a unique way. Each child in a family is likely to have different experiences in daily family life” (59). Evidence of this can be seen in twin studies where identical twins, meaning that they share the same genetic make-up and therefore should develop the same behaviours, develop different cognitive and social behaviours despite growing up in the same environment.

It is important to note that Kail and Zolner state, “…genes never cause behaviour directly; instead, they influence behaviour indirectly, by making behaviours more or less likely” (65). Kail and Zolner go on to define genotype as “the complete set of genes that makes up a person’s heredity” (51). Genotypes are determinate. This is important in understanding the nature aspect of influence because it is genes that “…regulate the development of a person’s inherited characteristics and abilities” (Kail and Zolner 51). However, in terms of behaviour and psychology, these characteristics and abilities have a continuum of genetic possibilities. Kail and Zolner also discuss phenotype which is “an individual’s physical, behavioural, and psychological features” (52). Phenotypes are not set. The “phenotype results from genetic and environmental factors” (Kail and Zolner 52). Basically, “Genes and environment rarely influence development on their own. Instead, nature and nurture interact. Experiences determine which phenotypes emerge, and genotypes influence the nature of children’s experiences” (Kail and Zolner 68).

It is also important to note that children’s ages affect how nature and nurture interact. In respect of this point, Kail and Zolner discuss the work of Sandra Scarr (67). First, for infants it is typically a passive gene-environment relation where the children are passive receivers of environment and genetics (Kail and Zolner 67). Secondly, Kail and Zolner state, “In the evocative relation, which is common in young children, a child’s genotype evokes or prompts people to respond differently to the child” (68). Finally, as children age they begin actively picking environments related to their genetic make-up (Kail and Zolner 68). So, what we have is parents providing family environments and genes that are unique, and this is done for each child individually.

Therefore, the concept of non-shared environment helps to explain some of the links between nature and nurture because it demonstrates that each child’s experiences and relationships within the family are different, even for identical twins, and in doing so non-shared environment illustrates that genetics and environment determine the direction of development together.

“You’re never to old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.” – Dr. Seuss

Teratogens: A feedback loop

To begin, a definition of teratogen given by Kail and Zolner states, “an agent that disrupts normal prenatal development” (83). The principals of teratogens are related to reaction range, and gene-environment relations through a connection that I would almost liken to a feedback loop, something similar to Figure 3-5 in Children: A Chronological Approach (Kail and Zolner 68). Kail and Zolner define reaction range as referring “to the range of phenotypic expression possible for a genotype, considering environmental factors…Thus, a single genotype can lead to a range of phenotypes, depending on the quality of the rearing environments” (66). Finally, gene-environment relations can be described as a relationship between heredity and environment that ranges from passive, to evocative, and active (Kail and Zolner 68). Let’s look now at the four principals of teratogens.

The first principal states, “The impact of teratogen depends upon the genotype of the child…, a person’s genotype can buffer some teratogenic effects” (Kail and Zolner 87). So, we know that genotype is the gene set that makes up an individual’s heredity, and the genes are passed on from parents (which is an example of passive gene-environment relations). The genotype acting as a buffer is demonstrating reaction range by controlling, or protecting, the “range of phenotypic expression possible for a genotype” in a teratogenic environment (Kail and Zolner 66).

The second principal states, “The impact of teratogens changes over the course of prenatal development” (Kail and Zolner 88). This speaks to how heredity and environment work together causing effects at various stages/ages. For example, passive gene-environment relation speaks to infants and young children who are passive recipients in heredity and environment. This in turn advances to an evocative gene-environment relation where different “genes evoke different responses in environment” etcetera (Kail and Zolner 68). This evocative gene-environment relation can also be seen with the genotypes impact on teratogens.

In regards to the third principal, where teratogens effects are selective, we are again seeing the effects of reaction range, and gene-environment relations. Heredity and environment interacting to create an outcome. Finally, with the fourth principal where damage from teratogens appear later in life I would argue the same connection, but that heredity and environment take longer to display the damage. On page 52 of Children: A Chronological Approach it is noted that heredity and environment affect each other on an ongoing basis for ongoing change in an organism and its environment (Kail and Zolner). I believe that the damage showing up later in life is an example of this ingoing interaction.

So, basically what the relationship between the principals of teratogen, reaction range, and gene-environment relations is one of revolving interactions where the ongoing interactions work to create outcomes.

Speech Development

Kail and Zolner discuss a process of speech development that begins with infant’s ability to distinguish basic speech sounds, or phonemes, which defer from language to language (167). This process becomes focused by a baby’s first birthday to the language that they are regularly exposed to, so that by 6 months a baby can look at its mother when it hears “mommy” and at its father when it hears “daddy”, and by 7 to 8 months old a baby will focus more on words they have not heard (Kail and Zolner 167). This is all related to repetition of sound patterns. Kail and Zolner indicate that babies progress into cooing, followed by babbling (168). Kail and Zolner go on to state that, “At roughly 7 months, infants’ babbling includes intonation, a pattern of rising or falling pitch similar to the rising and falling pattern of speech in normal conversation” (168). This is important because, “The appearance of intonation in babbling indicates a strong link between perception and production of speech: Infants’ babbling is influenced by the characteristics of the speech they hear” (169).

For the purpose of speech development all of this sets the stage for an infant’s first words, and their progression from there. Kail and Zolner state, “Typically, their first words are an extension of advanced babbling…” (169). Equally important to note, is that “…infants come to understand that words are symbols, concepts, and sounds that stand for entities, objects, and ideas in their world” (Kail and Zolner 169). To emphasize this point, Janet Werker concluded from an experiment “…that bias toward actual human speech encourages rapid development of speech in infancy” (Kail and Zolner 170). A child’s vocabulary grows from this point on. Many children experience a name explosion, and they use a number of rules like fast mapping, constraint of word names, sentence clues, and naming errors to grow and develop their speech (Kail and Zolner 170-171). It is important to note that children and parents work together to grow speech (Kail and Zolner 170).

With all this in mind, I would argue that it makes the most sense to talk to babies and infants constantly, as well as to participate in object naming. The arguments by Kail and Zolner about speech development point to a strong link between learning speech and actively addressing speech with babies and infants. Although children will still develop language without parents explicitly addressing it, simply through observation of everyday communication, it seems that an active role in their development will encourage and increase the rate of development. I would further argue that given the importance of speech in communication that taking an active role in its development has benefits not only for the child but the parent as well.

“Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, one teacher can change the world.” – Malala Yousafzai

Motor Development

Motor skills include locomotion, fine-motor skills, and gross-motor skills (Kail and Zolner 125). Respectively, this means moving around, holding and manipulating objects, and using large muscle groups (Kail and Zolner 125). Encouragement and support both go a long way to help an infant in developing these skills. However, Kail and Zolner discuss several other techniques to enhance a child’s motor development.

Practice, of course, is one recommendation (Kail and Zolner 128). In terms of locomotion and gross-motor skills, assisting infants in standing will help build muscles and balance, and encouraging the walking motion helps as well. Keeping flat floors clear of debris is a good way to help infants just learning to walk, as well as benefiting infants who are in the beginning stages of walking (Kail and Zolner 129). Interestingly, one study found, “…that 15 minutes of massage per day resulted in improvement in both cognitive and motor development…” (Kail and Zolner 126).

To encourage fine-motor skills giving a child various objects to grasp, allow them a spoon at feeding times, and providing age appropriate finger foods to encourage self-feeding are great methods to help development of this skill set (Kail and Zolner 131). Eating with fingers is a milestone for infants.

All these suggestions can be exercised by parents, and early childhood educators. “Experience can improve the rate of motor development, but the improvement is limited to specific muscle groups that are involved” (Kail and Zolner 132). To summarize, parents and early childhood educators can proved experience, repetition, allow the infant to observe others, and provide positive feedback (Kail and Zolner 132).

Attachment Formation

The formation of infant and caregiver attachment is complex, and early attachments impact the development of attachments throughout life. Kail and Zolner state, “The attachment relationship develops gradually over the first several months after birth, reflecting the baby’s growing perceptual and cognitive skills” (184). They state, “…Infants’ sensory and perceptual skills are impressive…In short, babies are well prepared to make sense out of the environment” (Kail and Zolner 143). Smell, taste, touch, hearing, seeing, and integrating sensory information are all building blocks for developing attachment. Kail and Zolner state, “In each case, the sense organ translates the physical stimulation into nerve impulses that are sent to the brain” (133).

Babies and infants have a good sense of smell, a developed sense of taste, and newborns are sensitive to touch (Kail and Zolner 134). Furthermore, infant’s ability to coordinate information from different senses is a skill they have soon after birth (Kail and Zolner 145). Because of a baby’s well prepared ability to make sense out their environment, babies begin to respond differently to objects and people, and these interactions, particularly with the caregiver, provide a foundation for attachment (Kail and Zolner 185). Kail and Zolner point that, “By approximately 6 or 7 months, most infants have singled out the primary attachment figure” who is the base for the infant, and the person the infant will look for when support is needed (185). This act demonstrates cognitive growth because the infant has a “mental representation” of the primary caregiver (Kail and Zolner 185). This attachment is also an explanation for an infant that cries when left with a sitter; the primary caregiver is not close by like the infant expects the primary caregiver to be (Kail and Zolner 185).

Interestingly, smell has been found to play a role in attachment. Kail and Zolner state that, “According to research, a relationship exists between olfaction – the sense of smell – and attachment” (186). They also state that, “Smell and touch help [babies] recognize their mothers…Early development of smell, taste, and touch prepare newborns and young babies to learn about the world. On the other hand, responsivity to pain enables babies to signal caregivers for assistance” (Kail and Zolner 135). Smell is also linked to care-related behaviours, for example a mother use less physical punishment when she can recognize the smell of her child, and fathers show more affection when they recognize the smell of their child, and etcetera (Kail and Zolner 186). Obviously, love and punishment have lasting effects on attachment.

“Responsive parenting is important to the development of secure attachment” (Kail and Zolner 206). So, what we can conclude about sensory and perceptual skills in the formation of attachment is that babies and infants are equipped with these skills, and the ability to coordinate them so they can understand their environment. Furthermore, part of that understanding comes from “Consistent and appropriate responses to a child’s needs [which conveys] that social interactions are predictable and satisfying, and this behaviour apparently instills in infants the trust and confidence that are the hallmarks of secure attachment” (Kail and Zolner 190). In other words, “When parents are dependable and caring, babies come to trust them, knowing they can be relied upon for comfort” (Kail and Zolner 190). It is through smell, taste, touch, hearing, seeing, and integrating sensory information that babies and infants identify parents/caregivers and parent’s and caregiver’s behaviours and responses.

By Shari Marshall – 2016

“Every child needs to be loved in gigantic quantities and with unbelievable quality.” – Daniel Mackler

Works Cited

Kail, Robert V., Theresa Zolner. Children A Chronological Approach. 4th ed. New Jersey:Pearson Educator Inc., 2012. Print.

child developmentNote: Images from a Google search on child development.