Consider Two Theories Of Child Development Psychology Essay

There are many theories taken from the disciplines of sociology, biology and psychology that explain human development from the each disciplines perspective. Baltes (1987) cited in Crawford and Walker (2010), states that human development is multidimensional. Human development is approached from several theoretical perspectives which may be classified as psychoanalytic, learning, cognitive, sociological, biological or ecological theories.

Broadly, theories of human life course development can be categorised into three disciplines namely; sociological, biological and psychological. Sociological theories emphasise social and environmental factors as having an impact or influence in human development. Biological theories focus on the physical development, genetic influence, human growth stages and instinct. Biological theorists would argue that human behaviour for example, is genetically determined. On the other hand psychological theories focuses on what goes on in the mind, emotional development, personality development and related behaviours. This school of thought describe human development as stages or phases that individuals go through.

According to Crawford and Walker (2010), human development theories can contribute our understanding of people and their situations. Different theoretical approaches lead to different approaches to social work practices. It is important that social workers access apply and critically evaluate these theories when working with children and their families. As a social worker, one should understand the origins, underlying assumptions, strengths and limitations of these theories in practice.

The following is a discussion of two theories of child development and their usefulness in safeguarding the welfare of children.

Bronfenbrenner’s theory of bioecological development

This is a bioecological theory as defined by Boyd and Bee (2009). It explains human development in terms of relationship between people and their environments as illustrated in the diagram below.


Adapted from

Case Study:

John is 14 years of age and lives is a large deprived housing estate with a reputation for anti-social behavior. He does not attend school and spend most of his time with a gang of older teenagers. He has a history of theft and he misuse substances. He has lived most of his life in the care of relatives. His father Paul and grandfather have criminal records. His father is currently in prison. His mother Eve gave birth to John when she was 16 years and she uses drugs and alcohol. John’s aunt and her husband lives a few miles away and have offered to look after John. They are committed Christians and wish to support John and would like to support him to change his behaviour.

According to Bronfenbrenner, human development is influenced by biological, socio-economic-political and cultural environment one grows in. Bronfenbrenner. (1979) bioecological theory states that there are four domains that influence child development and these are biological factors within the child, the family, the immediate surrounding such as school and the community, and the socio-economic environment in the wider world. The contexts of development are like circles within circles. It is therefore imperative that social workers understand the environment that the child grows in to be able to safeguard the welfare of children.

The inner circle is the biological context which caters for the child’s genetic makeup and development. Such factors may include genetic inheritance, sex/gender and healthy all contributing to an extent in the child’s development.

The next levels encompass the role of nurture. This viewpoint argues the environment, experiences and the way a child is brought up influences the child’s development. Social workers have to take this into account in safeguarding the welfare of children.

According to Boyd and Bee (2009), the microsystem relates to variables which children are exposed directly, such as their families, schools, churches, and neighbourhoods. The culture in which the child in born and grows is influenced by the immediate environment. The family values which may include religious upbringing and influences, classroom peers, and neighbourhood has a strong impact on the character and values of an individual. In John’s microsystem, we need to consider the influences of his parents and immediate family members.

Parents’ involvement with the school and the response of the school to their involvement are part of the mesosystem. Shaffer and Kipp (2010), refers to mesostystem as the connections and interrelationships among microsystems such as home, school and peer groups. The child’s development is likely to be optimized by strong supportive links between microsystems. For example, the child’s ability to learn at school depends on the quality of instructions that his teachers provide and also on the extent in which the parents value, support and co-operate with teachers. On the other hand none supportive links between microsystems can spell disaster (Steinberg, Dornbusch and Brown, 1992 cited by Shaffer and Kipp (2010)).

The next level is the exosystem (the socioeconomic). This consists of institutions of culture that indirectly affect the development of children. These include the community, school, parents’ work place, extended family, neighbourhood, and mass media. The exploration of John’s exosystem leads us to look at the local deprived community associated with anti-social behaviours in which John lives.

The macrosystem represents the wider cultural context within which all the other systems are located. This includes the economic, social, cultural, history and laws in which a child grows. This wider context may refer to a country or state a child is brought up. For example, education funding exists in the socioeconomic context. A specific country may strongly believe that children should be educated (cultural context), but the ability to provide universal education can be limited by the country’s wealth (socioeconomic context). The macrosystem in which John lives, include social factors such as the economic and political factors in the country that may impact upon John and his family.

Social workers must understand and appreciate that the development of the child encompasses biological, the role of the immediate environment like, parents, siblings, classroom peers and in the wider context involves the extended family, neighbours, and also the socio-economic condition in which the child lives. For example, the development of the unborn child may be affected by the impact of drug use of the mother. Crawford and Walker (2010), states that the Bronfenbrenner approach is based on the principle that the development and behaviours of individuals can be fully understood in the context of the environment in which they live.

Attachment theory:

Bowlby (1969) defines attachment as;

“A deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space”

It does not have to be reciprocal. Furthermore, Bowlby (1969), states that attachment in children is characterised by specific behaviours like seeking to be in touch or proximity with the attachment figure whenever one is threatened or upset. Attachment behaviour in adults is displayed with how they respond to the child’s needs.

Attachment theory provides understanding to how parent-child relationship emerges and has a bearing in subsequent years. Children need to feel secure in their relationship with adults or care giver. Early relationships are important as they are viewed as having critical role in the child’s emotional well-being throughout their life development. Regarding this later life, Payne, 2005 p81 cited by Crawford and Walker (2010), p43 states that;

“How we are depends on how we experience early relationships. Warmth, mutuality, support, and security are qualities of relationships that tend to produce coherent and well organized later selves”.

Bowlby believes that child development personality lay in the early years of childhood and that any failure in the early relationships would permanently influence the development of the child’s personality. Bowlby (1969) believes that attachment develops through four attachment phases as briefly described below.

Pre-attachment phase (birth to 3 months): This is often referred to as indiscriminate attachment phase. A baby can be attached to any care giver. An infant forms attachment to whoever feeds it.

Focus on one or more figures (3 to 6 months): Infants learn to distinguish between primary and secondary care givers and would accept care from anyone.

Secure based attachment phase (6 to 24 months): True attachment develops in this phase. Infants look to certain care givers for security, protection and comfort. Fears of strangers and unhappiness when separated from attached care giver known as separation anxiety, is a characteristic of this phase.

The reciprocal relationship phase (24 months and beyond): In this phase a child becomes increasingly more independent and forms several attachments. These several attachments can include attachments to siblings, grandparents, neighbours and friends.

The attachment phases leads to the following types of attachments and social workers need to understand these if they are to effectively work with children and families. Attachment can be described as secure. As long as the care giver is present a securely attached child will play comfortably and react positively to strangers and will become visibly upset when their mothers leave. Attachment can also be described as avoidant. This is for example; a child avoids contact with the mother at reunion after an absence. The child does not show any preference to mother over a stranger. The insecure/ambivalent attachment type is where the child shows little exploration and is wary of strangers. The child gets very upset when separated from the mother. The child may show anger at reunion and resist comfort from the mother and stranger. The last type is the insecure/disorganised attachment which is characterised by confusion, disoriented behaviour.

Boyd and Bee (2009), states that social workers should understand that early emotional relationships shape late ones in life. Securely attached children in infancy are later more sociable, positive in their behaviour towards friends and siblings, less dependent on teachers, less aggressive and disruptive, more empathetic and emotionally mature in their interactions in school and outside the home. If attachment is not made between 0-3 years from birth, the child may never form an attachment with anyone. A securely attached child is able to develop resilience, independence, compliance, empathy, control over their feelings, and health self-esteem. Taylor, (2010) argues that for healthy and secure attachment to develop, a child needs to experience both proximity and separation. On the other hand, insecurely attached children tend to have difficulties in establishing relationships, appear indiscriminately friendly to whoever is around, extremely withdrawn and little or no interest in other people.

Social workers can use attachment theory in assessment of children and families. For example, the social worker can use attachment theory to understand how past experiences relate to present difficulties. Gambie et al (1992) cited by Daniel et al (2010) assumes that a traditional nuclear family provides a superior child rearing environment. The majority emphasis is on a western model of the nuclear family which may not be experienced by children who may be cared for by extended family members who are part of their attachment network. Social workers need to be respectful and sensitive towards varied patterns of care giving and attachments within different communities. The key consideration should be the assessment of whether or not basic needs are being met. The majority of children encountered by social workers working with child safeguarding have difficulties which can be attributed to attachment issues. Attachment theory can therefore offer insight to guide intervention. For children in care, attachment theory can help to understand both the impact of separation from important people and the process involved in making new attachments.


Dworetzky et al (1989), states that our understanding and knowledge of human development are limited by the fact that no two human beings are ever exactly the same. Because of this, theories of human development will never be 100 per cent or even close to it. Furthermore, Lightfoot et al (2009) states that there is no single theory that can fully explain human development. Social workers work with vulnerable people. Of the two theories described above, each has its own strengths, weaknesses and context in which it is useful. According to Shaffer and Kipp (2010), families are complex social systems that are dynamic. Every family member is constantly developing and their relationships change with time.

The complexity nature of family life and its influence on human development can best be described by Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory. Boushel 1994, p.179 cited by Daniel et al (2010) states the following regarding Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory and what social workers need to take into account when safeguarding the welfare of children and families;

“The framework for assessment of a child’s protective environment will need to acknowledge the part played by the state and society in general, the part played by the community within which the child live and the part played by the individual family”.

The African proverb “it takes the whole village to raise a child” is true for this theory. This approach recognises that children do not grow up in a vacuum. In the case study above, John’s behaviour has been influenced by the microsystem (family) and also the exosystem (neighbourhood). In assessing John’s needs, the social worker will need to use these aspects of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory. This approach requires that the child never be assessed in isolation. Daniel et al (2010) argues that the bioecological approach to child development suggests that detailed assessment of all aspects of the child’s situation include considerations of all levels that are immediate and of wider impact and is essential to the planning of intervention with children and families by social workers. This theory provides understanding that each lifespan is unique as each individual in influenced by their unique environments. This theory helps in influencing government policies and programs that can benefit a given community. In the case of John’s environment, resources can be channelled in developing the estate and proving facilities for young people to get busy and occupied.

On the other hand, Shaffer and Kipp (2010), argues that bioecological theories are inadequate in giving account of human development. The inner individual level encompasses the role of nature in child development. This viewpoint argues that our genes predetermine who we are and our characteristics are inherited. We have in born biological characteristics that are hereditary from our birth parents at a point of conception. This position suggests that change is not possible and we are what we are and we cannot do anything about it. This argument has the potential to stereotype people which leads to support prejudice and oppressive behaviour and social workers should be aware of this in safeguarding the welfare of children. Despite it being a bioecological theory, it has little to say about specific biological contributions to human development. The emphasis is on the developing person and the constant changing environment.

Attachment theory may be important for work with children but its application to adults is less evidenced. Konstantinos and Georgios (2006)’s research supports Bowlby’s conclusion that cross culturally; attachment has an influence on one’s socio-emotional development as well as emotional well-being through life course. There are many limitations that have been cited on attachment theory. Attachment theory does not account for some people who had insecure attachment relationships with their mother but however went on to form secure romantic relationships with their partners in adulthood. Attachment can still occur in adulthood. The attachment approach ignores the temperaments and personalities of individuals. Harris (1998), argues that parents do not shape the personalities and characters of their children. He believes that their peers have more influence in personality and character building than the parents. Take for example, a child whose parents are immigrants. The child can continue to speak the parents’ native language at home, but at the same time learn new language and speak it without a foreign accent. Harris (1998) argues that children learn these from their peers so as to fit in. Following from above, social workers should understand that parents are not totally responsible for the way the children develop. They can be held responsible to a certain degree, because after all they did give them their genes and therefore do have some influence. However, children rely more on their parents. Another limitation of attachment theory stated by Field (1996) is that the mother is viewed as the primary attachment figure and fails to include the father and siblings who can also be attached to the child at the same time. Another limitation is that attachment is confined to infancy and early childhood as defined by Bowlby. This does not account for attachment that occur in adolescence (first love), adulthood (spouse) and later life.

In conclusion, there is no single theory that can fully explain human development. Attachment theory is more suitable for explaining infancy development despite its limitations. On the other hand, Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory is more suitable for explaining child development in their adolescence for they do interact more with the microsystem, exosystem and macrosystem than the infancy do.

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