Unit 1 video - click to launch

Unit 1 video - click to launch

unit 1

Understanding The Principles of

Child Development & Learning


How is it that babies unable to do much of anything transform into kindergarteners able to do almost everything?

In this unit, we'll take a quick tour of how children grow and development, the challenges some children face along the way, and how what you do with children contributes to the realization of their potential.

Think about children you know. Think about how these children grew from babies to bigger babies or bigger children and what milestones were met along the way.

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Milestones of Development

It seems almost magical. A helpless newborn transforms into a walking, talking, thinking toddler and then a capable and independent preschooler right before our eyes. This transformation follows predictable stages we can check off as they are accomplished. The trick is to understand that while development is predictable it is also individual. No two children progress at the same rate or even in the same order. 

There's a difference between growth and development. Growth refers to physical size. Children grow taller and heavier. The body proportions of babies (large head, short legs) change as children grow towards adulthood. Growth is easily measured and physicians compare the progress of children's growth against what is typical. For premature and low-birth-weight babies and for children who are underweight, overweight or have enlarged heads (hydrocephaly), these comparisons are significant and bear watching.

Mostly though, growth progresses without much concern on our part. Not so development.

Ways of Tracking Development

Development refers to the increasingly complex changes people undergo in their ability to move, talk, think, and interact with others. While growth largely finishes in late adolescence, development continues throughout life. Development that occurs in the early childhood years between birth and age eight includes arguably the most important changes in human abilities and sets the stage for successful accomplishment as an adult.

In order to manage the complexity of development, it's helpful to break it down into stages. The Child Care Licensing Guidebook suggests these stages:

  • Infants - 1 to 12 months
  • Toddlers - 1 to 2 1/2 years
  • Preschoolers - 2 1/2 to 5 years
  • Young school-agers - 6 to 8 years

The Washington State Early Learning and Development Guidelines follow more closely the way childcare centers tend to organize children, according to locomotor and language abilities that affect curriculum planned for them:

  • Young infants
  • Older infants
  • Toddlers
  • Pre-kindergarteners
  • Kindergarteners (and 5-year-olds not in kindergarten)
  • First grade (usually age 6)
  • Second grade (usually age 7)
  • Third grade (usually age 8)

In addition to age and curriculum categories, development can also be divided into domains. the word Domain refers to the areas in which development happens. Here in the United States and other western nations, we are most interested in domains of

  • Physical development and health
  • Intellectual development
  • Social development
  • Emotional development

Of course, development happens across domains, not just within a domain. The ability to talk, for instance, requires physical development of the soft palate, brain development within language areas, conversation with other people, and the sort of safe, secure environment that encourages personal expression. All four domains contribute to the development of language... and to the development of many other abilities, too.

As an early childhood professional, the growth and development of the children in your care is your whole purpose. Your responsibility is not just to provide "custodial" care necessary to keep children alive and safe. It's not enough to just keep kids fed, rested, and happy until their parents return. Parents are counting on you to provide the sort of learning experiences and opportunities that contribute to children's progress. The purpose of this course is to guide you in doing just that.

Measuring Development Across a Continuum

While growth can be measured with a tape measure and a scale, measuring development is more tricky. There are not any clear markers to indicate that, yes, this child has accomplished that. Early childhood professionals must rely on their observations of children in a variety of situations and over time to determine what a child can do and in what ways she is developing right now.

It helps to realize that development happens across a continuum. The word Continuum means a progression of steps or abilities from less to more. Consider walking, for example. We might say a one-year-old child is walking when she can take a few steps while holding on to someone's hand or between a small gap between a chair and the couch. But this isn't walking as a four-year-old walks, independently, quickly, slowly, over bumps, around obstacles, and without ever falling down. The ability to walk forms a continuum. We don't expect toddlers to walk as well as adults do and we would worry if a four-year-old walked only as well as a toddler.

A continuum of development describes the order in which children's abilities are expected to progress. One ability leads to another. However, progress along a continuum may not be even. Development seems often to demonstrate a gain, only to then have that gain seem to evaporate for a time before the ability reappears for good. This "two steps forward, one step back" pattern is normal; it means that one cannot say a child has "mastered" an ability until the ability seems stable over time. 

When a teacher or caregiver tracks development, then, she uses her powers of observation, a daily log of children's activities, and thoughtfully created challenges that identify what is easy now and what is still hard. Development happens subtly, behind the scenes, and it takes an observant and thinking person to notice how it's going.

Something to keep in mind is that development may not only progress in fits and starts but that it also may be uneven across domains. A very active child may learn to walk early but he may not learn to talk until "late." Children of the same age may all be a different points in, say, an ability to use a crayon without any of them being "behind" or "ahead" of the others. This is especially true for children in the first five years, when abilities sometimes seem to appear overnight.

So it's important to not set too much store in lists of "what your child should be doing now." These lists represent only averages and pretend that the real variation among children doesn't exist. If a child seems to be making progress there is no need to be too concerned about missing a milestone in any one area. The word continuum means that development happens across a range of time and cannot be pinned to particular ages.

Red Flags


Nonetheless, it's up to you to notice development that seems to be lagging. Early childhood professionals see a great many children and so have a better idea than parents do - who have only a child or two - if a particular child seems to be not progressing properly. A parent might think his child's development is within the typical range simply because he doesn't have much experience with children the age of his child.

Each child's pattern of development is unique. However, if a child seems to be falling way behind on a key skill or if a child seems to be missing milestones across more than one domain, then there might be a problem. It's important to alert the parent to the possibility of a developmental issue, so the parent can bring this up with her child's pediatrician. Early intervention is important. Because of the rapid progress of early development, providing a child with help quickly has the best chance of turning things around before the child heads off to school.

Keep in mind that as an early childhood professional you are not qualified to make a diagnosis of any medical or psychological issue. You should not suggest to a parent that a child might be autistic, have ADHD, be "mentally retarded," or have a behavior issue like oppositional defiant disorder. These conditions have specific and complicated diagnostic criteria and only medical doctors may make these diagnoses. You also should never suggest a remedy of a medical condition. Don't suggest a parent get a prescription for this or that. You are, again, not qualified to do this.

Do, though, tell a parent what you are seeing and ask if the parent has noticed this also at home. If you feel it's appropriate, suggest the parent that she have this checked out with the child's doctor. In any event, keep track of the child's progress. If the child continues to lag behind you may eventually be asked to tell what you know about the problem.

What Development Needs

Development might happen almost like magic but it does require some support. Children who lack the kinds of interactions and opportunities development requires will lag behind, often permanently. Here is what research has shown that on-track development needs:

1. Safety and Security. Children who live in constant fear and anxiety, who are left to cry with no comforting, or whose adults are inconsistent in their care and can't be relied on - these are children who lack basic safety and security. Their development can be stunted and their ability to learn delayed.

2. Love and Attention. Children do best when they are the center of their parents' world. Children who are loved and respected, who are surrounded by smiling, encouraging family, and who are allowed to be themselves - these children feel good about themselves and are eager to learn.

3. Conversation and Listening. Humans are social beings. They need to talk! Our ability to understand things, to solve problems, and to get along with each other all depend on our ability to use language. Children who are talked with a lot are smarter and do better than children who are talked with very little. Children whose parents listen to them learn to talk better than children whose parents do all the talking.

4. Exploration of the Real World. Kids need to mess about. They've got to handle things, chew on things, throw and roll and drop things, just to see what happens. All this exploration develops muscles and coordination but it develops thinking ability too. Messing around with real stuff drives development and builds brains.

To the extent that parents at home and teachers at the childcare center provide these four essentials, development has a chance to flourish. And to the extent that these four essentials are missing or are offered only once in a while or with strings attached, children's development falters. What we do with children and how we do it matters greatly.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) suggests three "core considerations" of "developmentally appropriate practice." Developmentally appropriate practice describes, as you might guess, the professional actions and attitudes that help children make progress in becoming fully functioning and capable kids. The three core considerations of developmentally appropriate practice are:

1.    Knowledge of child development and learning helps us decide which experiences are best for children at specific times in their lives.

2.    We learn about each child’s interests, abilities, and progress when we continually observe a child’s play and interactions.

3.    By getting to know the children’s families and learning about the values, expectations, and factors that shape their lives at home and in their communities, we will be able to provide meaningful, relevant and respectful learning experiences for each child. 

Much of what we will discuss in this course describes what teachers and caregivers must do and the perspectives they must take to support children's development in appropriate ways. The key thought here, at the start, is that being developmentally appropriate must be intentional, not just accidental. It might be true that some folks seem to be "natural teachers" but proceeding just on the basis of what "feels right," trusting that raising children can't be all that complicated, is the wrong way to go. It's important to know what to do and also to know why.

That's what the best teachers understand.

What's There At The Start

All children are individuals, right from Day One. Newborns already have preset ways of reacting to the world and preferred styles of interaction that set the stage for all that comes after. Before anything "develops," a baby already has his own, unique starting point. The wise caregiver or teacher stops to figure out who each child is, and takes that into consideration as she plans learning experiences for each child.

Studies indicate that each of us is born with an innate temperament. Our temperament describes our typical ...

  • Level of activity 
  • Pattern of sleeping, eating, and elimination 
  • Adaptability to new situations
  • Intensity of emotion
  • Positive of negative mood 
  • Level of distractibility
  • Level of persistence
  • Attention span
  • Sensitivity to noise, textures, lights, and so on.

According to researchers Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, varying combinations of these nine traits result in three temperament types. Children can be mostly...

Easy or flexible, meaning they are moderately active, mostly positive, not to sensitive, and pretty adaptable. About 40% of children have an Easy temperament;

Difficult or spirited, meaning they are quite active, irregular sleepers and fussy eaters, distractible, and more intense that other children. About 10% of children have a Difficult temperament;

Slow-to-warm-up or reserved, meaning they are quieter than most children, dislike new situations, and sensitive to overwhelming sensations. About 15% of children are slow-to-warm-up.

The remaining 35% of children are a mix of styles or seem to fit no one pattern.

While it's tempting to think that an Easy child is better in some ways than a Difficult or Slow-to-warm-up child, this isn't so. There are good and bad aspects of each of the temperaments. The Easy child may go along with the crowd, not stick up for himself, and not try very hard to achieve. The Difficult child may be more innovative and creative than other children, more interesting in many ways, and a real star. The Slow-to-warm-up child may not take unnecessary risks but may be a true friend and a steady learner. 

Guessing a child's temperament helps us find ways to work with a child, instead of working against her natural tendencies. Because temperament defines a person's lifelong pattern of looking at the world, it is not sensible to try to change who a child truly is. It makes more sense to help her find ways of expressing her true self that are welcome in the world and that help her develop her gifts. 

Brain Basics

We all know brain development is important, but sometimes we forget why. The fact is, the brain runs everything. A well-developed brain is needed for physical skills, social interactions, emotional control, creative abilities, thinking skills, and - oh, by the way - school success.

How Brains Grow

Babies are born with about 100 billion brain cells. These are arranged into different areas of the cortex - the gray, wrinkly organ that we think of when we think of "the brain." Different functions correspond to different areas, so that language abilities tend to originate in one part of the brain, mathematical, musical, athletic, and sensory abilities all in their own areas too. Remember that all abilities originate in the brain and each has its assigned area there.

Children inherit patterns of brain cell distribution from their parents. So a child of parents with great athletic ability might have inherited more brain cells in areas devoted to physical coordination, for example. (This is NOT to say that children inherit what their parents have learned, of course. I mean that parents whose own brains have more capacity in a particular area will likely pass on that capacity to their own kids.) To a certain extent, everyone is dependent upon - is both limited and enabled by - what he or she has inherited from Mom and Dad.

However, there's another process at work here. Those 100 billion brain cells are more than anyone needs. Some go unused. So the brain prunes itself of unneeded brain capacity. For instance, all babies are born with the ability to hear every speech sound in every language around the world and down through history. There are brain cells for every one of them. But no baby will speak every language in the world. So within the first year of life, a baby's brain removes the cells associated with languages the child hasn't heard in those first 10 or 12 months. Mother Nature figures, if the child hasn't needed to know French by her first birthday, she's unlikely to need it at all. Poof! Away go the brain cells needed to hear that funny French /r/.

What this means is that no matter what patterns of brain capacity a child has inherited from his parents, if those brain cells aren't used they will be pruned away. "Use it or lose it" is the brain motto. "Get out and make room so we can connect up the cells we're really going to use."

In brain development, experience matters.

What Growing Brains Need

So brains need experiences. It's experience that determines what brain cells are kept. And it's experience that causes those kept brain cells to link up with one another. Learning is actually a matter of making brain connections. The more connections, the more capable and smarter a person is.

Each brain cell has areas intended for connection - short branches called "dendrites" and longer, snaky branches called "axons." An axon of one brain cell connects to the dendrite of another brain cell, forming long "neural pathways." It's as if brain cells were the electrical outlets in your home: ready for action but not really usable until a long snaky thing - an electrical cord - connects the outlet to an appliance of some sort.

This connecting-up of axons and dendrites happens in response to learning. Young children learn by doing. The great child psychologist Jean Piaget called children "little scientists," because they are curious and they find out things by experimenting. You and I have learned how to learn from reading or by listening to lectures or even from television. Children younger than about age seven can't learn this way. They have to learn through direct activity. They must have real-life experiences with authentic stuff.

The brains of young children are changing fast. All that change you noticed at the very beginning of this unit means that brain cells are connecting at a tremendous rate. The early childhood years provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the brains and abilities of each child.

So growing brains needs lots of play time and lots of freedom to investigate things and try things out. Growing brains also need good nutrition. Thinking takes a lot of energy (calories) and it takes a balance of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Good food is brain food. And, finally, growing brains need sleep. Learning and memories are solidified during sleep (in fact, one's brain is just as active and busy when you're sleeping as it is when you're awake!). Play, food and sleep. These are necessary for good development of the whole child, including the brain.

Maybe the Most Important Thing: You

Brains need good food, adequate amounts of sleep, and interesting things to think about. And they need one thing more, perhaps the most important thing: Brains need a warm, loving, respectful, and encouraging relationship with their primary caregivers. With their parents and with you.

When you love your work and are happy to be with the children, when you are quick to help them and to respond to their cries, when you talk with them and listen when they "talk" back to you, even as babies, you develop children's brains. Brain development depends on safe, secure, supportive interactions with important people. More than curriculum, more than toys, more than food and sleep, wonderful people in a child's life give her the best foundation for the future.

It's not possible to spoil a baby. Picking a baby up when he cries will not make him cry more or "teach" him to manipulate you. Instead, picking up a baby lets him know you care and can be trusted. It makes him smarter and even better behaved.

Behavior and the Brain

Children's ability to pay attention, to follow directions, to control their impulses, to wait their turn, to listen, and to think ahead are called "executive functions." These are the abilities that determine children's future success, more than knowing how to read or being able to ride a bike. And, like all other aspects of life, executive functions have their home in the brain.

Executive functions are located in the brain's prefrontal cortex, right behind the forehead. This area takes a long time to fully develop - not until girls are 18 or 19 and boys are in their early 20s is the prefrontal cortex completely ready. But development of executive functions starts early. In fact, mastery of executive functions is what kindergarten teachers look for. School success depends on being able to concentrate long enough to learn.

Development of the prefrontal cortex and executive functions may take a long time but, like other brain areas, their development depends on experience. Children must be given opportunities to practice self-control and other executive functions in order to connect up the brain cells needed. But at the same time, brain development in the prefrontal cortex, just like other sorts of brain development, depends on kind, secure, supportive guidance from you. As we shall see later, guidance, not discipline, is what's needed to shape children's behavior. 

The brain depends on it.

What Gets in the Way

It's clear by now that some things get in the way of brain development. Poor nutrition, lack of sleep, uncaring or mean parents and teachers, and few opportunities for learning through experience are negative influences that should come to your mind. There are two more barriers to brain development that are important to mention: stress and screen time.

Stress is not always bad. "Positive stress" is what happens when you are interested, excited, or trying new things. It would be a dull life to have no stress at all. 

Stress that is associated with danger, fear, sadness, and deprivation is worse. Brief setbacks in an otherwise secure life are tolerable. A child can get over a broken arm, the loss of a pet, or a bad accident, assuming he has other sources of comfort and consolation to help him get by. 

If, though, negative stress continues and worsens, it has a permanent effect. Children who live in homes where domestic violence or substance abuse is the norm, who are homeless or in foster care, who are subject to abuse or neglect, are children who may suffer long-term effects. 

Toxic levels of stress changes brain chemistry, redirects brain connections and can cause permanent damage. Children's ability to behave appropriately may be disrupted to the point that they are unable to know right from wrong. Children's health may be affected in other ways. Research has shown that "Adverse Childhood Experiences" lead to adult incidence of diabetes, heart disease, alcoholism, and other illnesses.

Obviously, you cannot do much about a child's home life or the bad, sad experiences she endures. But you can be an ocean of calm, love and security in a turbulent life. Never underestimate your influence. You may be a lifeline for the future of a child.

Computer screens, televisions, cell phone and tablet screens and the screens on handheld game players represent another threat to children's development. As we know, we all get the brains we need for how we spend our time. Brains reshape themselves in response to experience. While it's all fine and well for children's brains to wire themselves to the experience provided by digital devices, it's too easy for these devices to take over too much of a child's time. Many children seem to become obsessed by video games and television programs, leaving them no time for anything else. Every hour spent in front of a screen is an hour not spent running, solving problems, talking with friends, and other real life activities. 


In addition, because infants' and toddler's brains are making connections so quickly and are absorbing so much information, any detour from real life sensory experiences, social experiences, and hands on play creates real deficits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under two.

Keep in mind that there is no such thing as educational children's television or education DVDs for children. All of this programming is entertainment. None of it contributes to learning or brain development in young kids. In fact, the more television a child watches - educational or not - the smaller her vocabulary and the less-prepared for kindergarten she is.

Television has no place at all in your childcare center. If there is one in the room and you cannot remove it, simply never turn it on. Computers have some value for older preschoolers, especially in neighborhoods where families may not have computers at home. The "digital divide" between kids with access to computers and kids who do not affects the later school success of disadvantaged children. However, experience with computers doesn't need to include making computers the centerpiece of free play time or something children do to the exclusion of other activities.

When in doubt, eliminate screen-based activities entirely from your program. Most children will get all of this they need  - and more - at home!