To gain an in-depth understanding of child development, one should consider several factors, including a child’s environment, physical and psychological needs, and motivations. Many development theories can help identify the level of a child’s progress. At the same time, this multitude of theories can pose a challenge for analysts as they may become confused with the variety of classifications available. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs seems to be the most relevant way of assessing child development. This theory is compared and contrasted to Gesell’s maturational theory and Skinner’s behaviorism approach to single out the most crucial elements of child development.
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Theories of Understanding Child Development
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as the Key Theory to Understanding Child Development
Humanistic theory is highly relevant for understanding the basic principles of child development. This approach appeared as a response to the one-sided behaviorist view (Crain, 2014). Research indicates that multidimensional methods of analyzing child development are more favored by modern psychologists and educators (McDevitt, Jobes, Cochran, & Sheenan, 2010). One of the most prominent advocates of the humanistic theory was Maslow who introduced a hierarchy of human needs and motivations.
Maslow identified the following levels of needs: physiological, safety, belongingness and love, self-esteem, and self-actualization (Crain, 2014). Once a level is reached, an individual works on the attainment of the next one. Thus, Maslow’s hierarchy is grounded in potentials, the most important of which is self-actualization (Medcalf, Hoffman, & Boatwright, 2013).
In their analysis of Maslow’s motivational hierarchy, Taormina and Gao (2013) attempted to evaluate the satisfaction of human needs. They report that there are substantial positive interactions among the levels of this hierarchy. Specifically, the more satisfied one is with each lower-level need, the more accomplishments one will reach in the following higher-level need (Taormina & Gao, 2013). Moreover, their research found that life satisfaction, values, and family reinforcement have a beneficial impact on reaching all five needs. At the same time, anxiety was considered as harming the achievement of needs (Taormina & Gao, 2013).
According to Maslow’s hierarchy, the basic needs are physiological, incorporating oxygen for breathing, food for eating, and water for drinking. These needs can be satisfied by almost every person (Medcaff et al., 2013). The second-level needs are concerned with safety, and they presuppose being secure and safe. According to Maslow, only after physiological and safety needs have been met, can one then turn towards higher purposes (Medcaff et al., 2013). On the next level, belongingness, there are such needs as love, acceptance, and affection. As Maslow stated, every person looks for others’ acceptance by offering and consuming affection and love.
Upon fulfilling the first three levels, the person concentrates on esteem needs. Here, Maslow presupposed that an individual feels unworthy if he or she does not experience a sense of being respected by others (Medcaff et al., 2013). Indeed, self-respect and self-esteem play a crucial role in this dimension. Finally, upon satisfying all of the needs at this level, one can move to the very highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualization. This level of needs involves an individuals’ realization of the functions they are destined to perform. According to Maslow, there is only one issue that can prevent a person from reaching self-actualization: obstacles created by society (Medcaff et al., 2013).
In recent studies, scholars have begun to rethink the place of some elements in Maslow’s hierarchy. Oved (2017) remarks that love should not follow the safety level but precede it. According to Oved (2017), love is a significant precondition for the feeling of security. The scholar notes that this fact holds not only for modern society, which is materially safe but also for more dangerous basic societies. As Oved (2017) notes, feeling loved, and knowing that one has friendly relationships with one’s family and friends is more crucial than feeling physically safe. Therefore, love needs are necessary to fulfill safety needs since only upon forming intrapersonal connections can a society be shaped.
Other researchers focus on the investigation of the needs for growth and deficiency. In their analysis of Maslow’s theory, Noltemeyer, Bush, Patton, and Bergen (2012) found that there is a positive association between growth needs and deficiency needs. These scholars point out that although Maslow’s initial position was that each level should be reached in a sequence, the psychologist reconsidered that opinion later in his career (Noltemeyer et al., 2012).
Thus, there is an acceptance that a person can be motivated by several needs concurrently. For instance, an individual with a low level of belongingness can still satisfy their esteem needs, even though the level of fulfillment may be poorer in such circumstances (Noltemeyer et al., 2012). Moreover, there is a possibility that even upon satisfying deficiency needs, an individual can still be motivated by them at some point in the future. For instance, a person who has become redundant may neglect self-esteem needs and focus on deficiency needs (Noltemeyer et al., 2012).
Fernald, Kariger, Hidrobo, and Gertler (2012) apply Maslow’s theory to researching the socioeconomic status of children’s development in low-and middle-income countries. In their analysis, factors such as home stimulation, measures of length, and child development evaluations are considered (Fernald et al., 2012). Their research indicates that the education of the mother and household prosperity are the main determinants of a child’s development in low- and middle-income states.
Fernald et al. (2012) emphasize the relevance of Maslow’s theory by reporting that without satisfying physiological, safety, and belongingness needs, children cannot reach the two highest levels, self-esteem and self-actualization. According to Fernald et al. (2012), the social position has a profound influence not only on a child’s health but also on their memory, behavior, and language. Considerable negative outcomes of poverty on young children are manifested through insufficient parental education or household resources, as well as through a variety of risk factors, including discouraging learning environments, poor quality of care, and low dynamics of processes (Fernald et al., 2012).
Therefore, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a valuable theory for analyzing children’s development. Through this prism, one can identify at what level of the hierarchy an individual is and can predict the needs that should be accomplished next. However, even though this theory is highly suitable for scrutinizing child development, it is not free from deficiencies, and it may be used in combination with other approaches to gain more extensive results.
Gesell’s Maturational Theory
One of the approaches challenging Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is Gesell’s theory of maturation. In Maslow’s theory, little attention is paid to the environment in which a child grows up. In Gesell’s approach, the environment is one of two important factors impacting on a child’s development (Crain, 2014). The second vital component, according to Gesell, is the genetics of the child. An “outstanding” element about the maturational theory is that the child’s growth occurs in fixed sequences (Crain, 2014, p. 22).
Such a biological approach presupposes that all children develop in the same way – first before birth, and then after being born. Gesell argued that every child required meeting cultural and social needs, along with satisfying physical needs (Crain, 2014). In this respect, Gesell’s theory finds some common features with Maslow’s approach, which also presupposed covering various types of needs as a prerequisite of successful development.
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While there is a grain of common sense in Gesell’s ideas, the theory has been widely criticized both by his contemporaries and modern scholars. In the articles by Harris (2011) and Weizmann (2010), Gesell’s eugenics-driven ideas are discussed. These scholars note that despite the contribution that Gesell made to psychology in the first half of the 20th century, some of his core opinions were rather alarming.
As Harris (2011) remarks, Gesell’s emphasis on biological factors was too strong. As a result, the scholar was in error in proposing that a child’s genes predetermine his or her development, while Weizmann (2010) notes that Gesell’s theory was rather limited because it did not include any discussion of cognitive development.
In general, critics are of the common opinion that Gesell’s theory is not sufficient for appropriate analysis of child development (Guhn & Goelman, 2011; Syomwene, Nabwire, & Musamas, 2015). As Bergen (2017) remarks, if Gesell were working at present, he would defend quite different ideas than he did almost a century ago. Therefore, even though Maslow did not include the biological factor in his theory, his hierarchy is still much more useful to employ for the evaluation of children’s development than Gesell’s theory.
Skinner’s Behaviourism Theory
Another theoretical lens through which child development might be analyzed is Skinner’s behaviorism theory. Skinner’s theory has some features in common with Gesell’s (Crain, 2014). Skinner acknowledged the role of environment and genetics in a child’s development (Crain, 2014). However, unlike Gesell, Skinner put a stronger emphasis on the environment than he did on genes. The major limitation of Skinner’s theory is that it is based on animals rather than humans, which puts some of his findings into question since they were not tested on people. However, a positive characteristic of Skinner’s approach is that he employed quantitative analysis whereas Maslow used only qualitative data (Crain, 2014).
Skinner defended the idea that development was triggered by positive and negative external influences. In particular, the scholar paid much attention to the importance of praise in a child’s upbringing (Crain, 2014). Zentall and Morris (2010) also report that recognition is a crucial motivating factor, and these findings correlate with Maslow’s need levels of belongingness and self-esteem.
Other research findings indicate that praise has a positive effect on boosting children’s self-esteem (Brummelman, Crocker, & Bushman, 2016; Shinohara et al., 2010). At the same time, Skinner was an ardent opponent of neurophysiological explanations of behavior (Zilio, 2016). Despite this, Skinner’s theory admittedly has much in common with critical psychology. Therefore, this approach may be useful in some respects of child development analysis.
Goddart (2014) notes that as well as highlighting the environmental aspect of behavior, Skinner also paid attention to promoting cultural change as a driver of enhancing human welfare. This idea is associated with Maslow’s self-esteem and self-actualization levels. However, despite containing some relevant ideas, Skinner’s theory does not cover as many crucial aspects as Maslow’s hierarchy, which makes the latter a better approach to identifying levels of development more precisely.
The utilization of multiple theories of child development enables analysts to make more comprehensive conclusions than following a single approach would have granted. Maslow’s theory of development, which is based on a hierarchy of needs, is the most relevant way of identifying the level of progress of a person. The major premise of Maslow’s theory is that an individual has to pass one level to move to the next (Crain, 2014; Medcalf et al., 2013).
However, there is also the possibility to miss one level and move to others under certain circumstances (Noltemeyer et al., 2012; Taormina & Gao, 2013). In general, Maslow’s hierarchy is a rather useful tool for analyzing a child’s needs and level of development. However, it would be wrong to consider Maslow’s theory as all positive, and the only possible approach.
The consideration of other theories allows singling out the limitations in Maslow’s system. If compared to Gesell’s maturational theory, one can see that Maslow’s approach lacks analysis of the biological characteristics of children. However, Gesell’s theory has more controversial elements than Maslow’s. Particularly, Gesell concentrates on genetic impacts too strongly, and his initial views were very much concerned with eugenics (Harris, 2011; Weizmann, 2010). Thus, although Gesell’s theory allows drawing a clear distinction between development stages, it is not as useful as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Comparing Maslow’s theory to Skinner’s behaviorism approach, one can conclude that Skinner’s value of stimuli can be correlated with Maslow’s needs for self-actualization and self-esteem. Both psychologists focus on the exceptional role of culture as the environment in which a child grows (Crain, 2014; Goddart, 2014). It is important to note that considering development through only one lens is dangerous because it may lead to one-sided analysis. On the other hand, comparing the dominant theory to others enables researchers to make valuable inferences.
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