Early Childhood Development

Development is the pattern of physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional changes that begins at conception and continues through the lifespan. Early childhood is marked by rapid development of a child’s physical, cognitive and socio-emotional skills all of which are intertwined. Socio-emotional processes can impact cognitive processes, cognitive processes can promote or restrict socio-emotional processes, physical processes can influence cognitive processes, and so on.

Cognitive Development

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Cognitive development refers to the process of growth and change in the intellectual / mental abilities such as thinking, reasoning and understanding across the lifespan of an individual. It is involves the higher mental processes: problem solving, reasoning, creating, conceptualizing, categorizing, remembering, planning and decision-making.

Parents, teachers, and caregivers play a vital role in supporting the cognitive development of a child by providing a healthy interpersonal or social-emotional environment conducive to child’s cognitive development.

Socio-emotional Skills

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Social and emotional development involves the acquisition of a set of skills. The key aspects of emotional development include the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings, to accurately read and comprehend emotional states in others, to manage strong emotions and their expression in a constructive manner, to regulate one’s own behaviour, to develop empathy for others, and to establish and maintain relationships. (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004, 2)

A child’s social-emotional development is as important as their cognitive and physical development and it’s the responsibility of parents, teachers and caregivers to foster development of these skills by providing a nurturing and loving environment rich in language and hands on experiences.

Acquisition of these skills enables children to communicate and connect with others, resolve conflicts, gain confidence and achieve their goals. It equips them to handle stress and persevere through difficult times in their lives as an adult.

Physical Development

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Physical Development refers to changes in a child’s body which include development of brain, changes in height and weight and development of motor skills. Healthy physical development plays a big role in a child’s academic achievement.

In the early childhood the focus is on developing a child’s gross motor and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills involve large-muscle activities, such as running and playing football. Fine motor skills involve finely tuned movements, such as the finger dexterity required for writing and drawing.

The best way to develop a child’s gross motor skills is by combining creative movement with music. Children enjoy moving like bears, cats, kangaroos, and airplanes. The development of young children’s fine motor skills allows them to draw with more control and skill.

Communication Skills

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Language and communication skills refer to a child’s ability to express himself or herself through words, gestures or facial expressions, as well as the capacity to understand others. Early language and communication skills are crucial for children’s success in school and beyond. Research has shown children who develop strong language and communication skills in early childhood are more likely to arrive at school ready to learn and are more likely to attain higher levels of achievement. Responsive parents, teachers and caregivers play a critical role in developing a child’s communication skills by providing rich stimulation during their early childhood years.

According to Vygotsky language is a mental tool for thinking which enables development of other higher mental functions.

Higher Mental Functions

The higher mental functions are unique to human beings. Unlike lower mental functions that all of us are born with the higher mental functions can only be acquired through learning. They are cognitive processes that require human intervention for development and lead to behaviors that are deliberate (intentionally controlled by the person and not by the environment), mediated (using mnemonics such as VIBGYOR to remember the seven colors of spectrum) and internalized (exist in mind).

In contrast lower mental functions are natural mental processes which are controlled by external environment and the child doesn’t have any control over them such as use of five senses.

Focused Attention

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Focused attention is one of the higher mental functions. It is the ability of the child to focus on the subject matter at hand to the exclusion of the distractions that exist in the environment. It is exemplified by a child who attentively listens to the story told by the teacher and is not distracted by other children who are making noise, arguing or unable to sit quietly. One of the most effective ways to develop focused attention in preschool children is through story-telling using facial expressions, gestures, voice modulation, head gears and props.

Deliberate Memory

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Deliberate memory is described as the use of strategies to remember things. Children learn to use techniques such as mnemonics to remember things that they otherwise would have difficulty remembering on their own. Using external mediators such as VIBGYOR to remember the names of seven colors of the spectrum or pictures to memorize and recall isolated words are examples of a child acquiring techniques to develop deliberate memory.

Symbolic Literacy

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Symbolic literacy refers to acquisition of tools such as language, signs and symbols and is central to child’s mental development. It is through acquisition of symbolic literacy that we are able use symbolic tools such as numbers, letters, symbols, signs, maps, diagrams, charts, graphs, musical notations, formulae and models. Representational thinking is a core component of symbolic literacy.

Acquisition of symbolic literacy wherein children learn to use symbols to represent actual objects, persons and events that are not present or use one object to stand for or represent another is an important achievement of preschool years. When a child takes a stick and gallops, he is using the stick symbolically as a horse and demonstrates development of the cognitive processes that enable him to use symbols for actual objects.

As children grow older they become capable of representing an object without having the object or a substitute for it. As an illustration the child may make a phone call simply by placing her hand up on the ear.

Self-Regulation

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Self-regulation is one of the most significant mental functions because research has shown a positive correlation between inhibitory control and child’s academic achievements. It primarily consists of mental processes that help children control their behaviour, emotions and impulses, resist temptation and delay gratification. Its development starts early in life. Self-regulation allows children to act in a deliberate and planned manner. The most effective way to develop self-regulation in young children is through ‘socio-dramatic’ play or as it is commonly know mature ‘make-believe’ play.

Zone of Proximal Development

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Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD is an important Vygotskian concept that elaborates the relationship between learning and development. Vygotsky believed that children are capable of functioning at two levels – independently and with assistance which signify child’s level of actual development and level of potential development respectively.

ZPD is the distance between the actual developmental level of the child and the level of potential development. The level of actual development is determined by independent problem solving by the child and the level of potential development is identified through problem solving under adult guidance.

For instance, if a child can count up to 10 on his own it is his level of independent performance. But with prompting by the teacher the same child can count up to 15 which indicates that he can function at a higher level when provided support by the teacher. The implication of this concept for the teacher is to focus her efforts on helping the child learn new concepts, skills and behaviours which are emerging and are in close proximity to what the child already knows which in this case is focusing on counting from 11 to 15

Vygotsky maintained that the teaching should always be slightly ahead of the child’s development so that the child is continuously challenged and stretched and learning new things.

Scaffolding

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In the context of ZPD, scaffolding refers to the support and assistance provided by the teacher when the child starts to learn a new concept or task and can’t do it independently. The role of scaffolding is to facilitate the development of emerging skills or behaviors.

The support provided by the teacher can take form of modeling the appropriate behavior or way of completing the task, providing hints or clues, directing attention to the aspect that the child may have forgotten or not paying attention to. In the beginning the teacher provides maximum scaffolding but gradually starts to remove the support and eventually withdraws it completely as the child goes from being totally dependent on teacher’s support to taking greater responsibility for the task to becoming an independent performer.

The process is similar to erecting scaffolding to provide external support to the building undergoing construction. Once the construction is over, scaffolding in no longer required and the building can stand on its own.

An important aspect of scaffolding is that the task or the behavior to be learnt is not changed but made easier with the assistance of the teacher.

AMPLIFICATION

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Vygotsky recommends teachers to focus on learning which is within the child’s ZPD and amplify it. Amplification refers to building on the strengths and the existing understanding of the child and fostering his development within the ZPD using scaffolding techniques. The purpose of amplification is to deepen and enrich the child’s learning within the ZPD.

In contrast to amplification, acceleration attempts to speed up a child’s development beyond his potential and focuses on skills that lie outside his ZPD and therefore are not within his reach.

Amplification maximizes a child’s potential whereas acceleration adversely impacts a child’s development as the new knowledge acquired by him isn’t rooted in his existing knowledge base. Therefore such knowledge can’t form the basis for the next level of child’s development.

For instance, a child who is learning addition and subtraction isn’t ready to learn multiplication and division. Even if he memorizes multiplication tables he wouldn’t not be able to use them to solve problems till he can independently add and subtract and skills related to multiplication and division start emerging.

Role Play

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Vygotsky placed utmost importance on imaginative play or role play during early childhood calling it the real play. In the words of Vygotsky

“Play creates a zone of proximal development in the child. In play, the child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.”

Researchers point out that early childhood is the ‘high season’ of imaginative play and apart form impacting cognitive, socio-emotional and physical process, it plays a critical role in development of self-regulation skills in children.

When involved in pretend play, children’s concentration and application to the task is much greater than in academically-directed activities designed by the teacher.