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The Role Of Nature And Nurture In Early Childhood Education

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Psychology is the study of human behaviour and a human’s thoughts throughout the different stages in their life. A person’s behaviour as an adult is usually determined by their previous childhood experiences. Throughout this essay, the nature versus nurture debate will be discussed, and how nature and nurture effects a child’s physical, emotional and intellectual growth also the implications that ‘early sensitivity’ hold for pedagogical practice. The start of this assignment will mainly focus on the main milestones of a child’s development and the different theorists and their believes. The second part of this assignment will explore the Aistear framework, language in relation to early sensitivity, the case of Genie Wiley and what we as practitioners can do to ensure we meet the needs for a child’s early sensitivity.

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The nature versus nurture debate is overall, to what extent a person’s development is influenced by biology and what is influenced by the environment. People today favour either the nature or nurture side and believe that one plays a stronger role then the other, but almost no one will argue that it is only one (either nature or nurture). Most people will agree that in order for a child to develop correctly, aspects of both nature and nurture will need to be included John W. Santrock (2007). The nature versus nurture debate consider physical characteristics of the child’s intellectual capacity, weather knowledge is innate or acquired and emotional development. The nature versus nurture debate will be discussed deeply under intellectual development.

Tina Bruce and Carolyn Meggitt (2016) state that ‘physical development is the way in which the body gains skills and becomes more complex in its performance’. The body physically develops in many ways (both visible and non-visible), including fine and gross motor skill development, the five senses and physical growth in height and size. Each child is originally born with reflexes, ‘an innate, automatic response to particular forms of stimulation from the environment’. The reflex is one of the first milestones in a child’s development. These reflexes include the stepping reflex, the Rooting reflex, the Moro reflex, the Palmer grasp and the Babinski reflex. These reflexes then go after six months. The motor and perceptual development then starts to develop at two major milestones, gross motor and fine motor skills development.

The visual capacities of an infant, is one of the least developed senses at birth and continues to develop until they are ten years old. New-borns don’t have a fully developed central area so they can’t see colour. The nature make-up of the baby can have a large impact on the child’s sight. Depending on the parent’s genes, the child may develop a disadvantage to their own vision. The babies hearing is developed from as early as six months in the women’s womb. Hayes (2009) states that ‘the fetus in the womb can hear by the sixth month of development’. The hearing of the baby may be affected by the nature make-up of the child due to the parents genes, but also may be affected by the environment that the child is in, as there could be an issue in the caregivers womb that is preventing the child’s ability to hear. Bruce and Meggitt (2016) state that from the first week babies can recognise their own mothers voice and then his begins to develop, as by six months the baby can recognise and differentiate different voices, pitch and tones of others. For a child to be able the distinguish different voices, they need to be in a language rich environment that allows them to hear communication, so nurture has a large impact on the development of the child’s ability to hear. Hayes (2009) mentions that from the early months in the child’s life, the baby develops from being immobile to becoming restless and mobile by the first 12 months.

By the first year in the child’s life they start to crawl, walk when they are being helped and pulling themselves up with support. This links in with Vygotsky’s theory of the ‘zone of proximal development’. This is ‘the distance between what a child can actually achieve on their own and what they can achieve with the help of others’. The development of the fine motor skills develop majorly between 12 and 18 months. By 12 months the baby will point with their index finger or reach out to try grasp an object using the palmer or pincer grip, depending on the size of the object. Between 15 and 18 months the child can pick up small objects (blocks) and build a tower due to the development of their hand/eye co-ordination and the development of their palmer and pincer grips. Hayes (2009) argues that for the child to effectively develop their fine and gross motor skills they need to be exposed to interactions with the environment and that children should have both indoor and outdoor exposure to play. The development of the physical child includes a strong combination of both, the child’s genetic inheritance and the environmental experiences. All these different changes and development in physical mobility of the child opens up new possibilities for cognitive and emotional growth.

Emotional development is the ability to express and manage different feelings at different stages in life. Santrock (2007) states that early childhood emotions have been separated into two categories; Primary emotions, these include surprise, joy, anger, fear and disgust and Self-conscious emotions which include consciousness, jealousy, and embarrassment. These emotions first appear at the age of 12- 18 months, but growing from these emotions, children then develop shame, guilt and pride which begin to appear at around the age of 2. ‘Crying is the most important mechanism new-borns have for communicating’. Babies usually have three types of cries which allow the parents/practitioners to try and understand what the baby may need. Santrock (2007) states that these include ‘the basic cry’ a high-pitched cry in a rhythmic cry, he believes that this cry is used when the child may be hungry. ‘The anger cry’ a variation of the basic cry, and the ‘Pain cry’, a sudden long initial loud cry that is then followed by breath holding. Smiling is another emotion that babies develop and can also be used as a source of communication. Santrock (2007) provides us with the two types of smiles found in infants. These include the ’Reflexive smile’, this develops after the first month after birth and usually during sleep and the ‘Social smile’, this occurs in response to any external stimulus. One of the baby’s earliest emotions is fear. Santrock (2007) states that fear usually appears after about 6 months and peaks at 18 months. He also argues that the most frequent expression of fear is stranger anxiety.

Children from 9 months become very alert of strangers by seeing unusual faces and hearing unusual voices, this continues strongly until the child turns 1. Santrock (2007) states that along with stranger fear, children also experience fear of being separated from their caregivers, this peaks when the child is about 15 months old. John Bowlby (1979) believed that emotional love is as essential as food and water to children, this is best known as ‘sensitive period’. Without this love and affection, children may experience a non-organic failure to thrive, this is a growth disorder resulting from a lack of parental love and stimulation. This may then cause trauma and stress to the baby’s amygdala which in some cases may be difficult for babies to recover from. Bowlby’s (1969) attachment theory is ‘the bond or attachment formed by an infant with the primary caregiver that forms the basis of psychological health and well-being for the rest of the individual’s life’.

The environment or the nurture side of the debate is hugely important for emotional development and plays a strong role in the attachment theory. This is because the children need to be in a stimulating environment where they are exposed to language and aren’t left alone. The main idea of the theory is, ‘as the basics of a person’s personality is formed at the earliest years of life, yet there is always changes and progression in relationships, there is a pull back to the original structure’. The internal working model beings to form at roughly 3 years of age, this refers to the child’s ability to represent something around the nature of the caregiver’s relationship. It forms the basis of the child’s expectations from the caregiver (food, interaction and love). This then allows the child to form an idea of their own working value as perceived by another. This can be related to Piaget’s theory of schema. Ainsworth (1978) conducted the ‘strange situation task’, this involved a series of separations between the mother and the baby.

Results of this experiment allowed parents to see their attachment ‘type’ with their baby. The categories of attachment include the ‘insecure avoidant’, the ‘secure attachment’, the ‘insecure resistant’ and disorganised. Overall, in order for children to develop emotionally correct, they must be set in warm and stimulating environment that encourages mainly good emotions (love and joy), and positive relationships with others.

Intellectual development includes the largest debate on nature versus nurture. Two main theorists discussed throughout this topic are Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. On the nature side of this debate, Jean Piaget believed that children’s intelligence, grows and develops through a series of stages called the ‘four stage theory’. This includes the Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years), the Pre-operational stage (2-7 years), the Concreate operational stage (7-11 years) and the Formal operational stages (12+). Piaget believed that all children are born with a ‘schema’, an internal framework that organises all actions, thoughts and incoming information. Piaget’s theory believed that the process of disequilibrium must occur in order for a child to learn.

Disequilibrium is ‘an experience that occurs that doesn’t fit into the existing schema’. As the schema must change for the new information to be added, the child must go through the process of assimilation or accommodation. Assimilation is when the child fits the incoming information to an existing schema. Example: a dog has 4 legs, fur and a tail. A fox also has 4 legs, fur and a tail. The child takes what they know and puts the matching information together, which allows them to think that the two are the same. Accommodation is when the child changes or adapts the schema and incorporates new experiences, the child will then be able to differentiate the two different schemas. On the nurture side of the debate Lev Vygotsky mainly believed that children learn from others, he also believed that language is the central role in mental development. Vygotsky’s theory focused mainly on his idea of ‘the zone of proximal development’. This is the distance between what a child can achieve or learn on their own, and what they can achieve with the aid of others. Vygotsky’s theory states that children will only learn from those who want to communicate with them, and that the child’s interactions with others allows them to learn about the culture they are part of. This happens through two stages; the child observes the interaction between other people and the behaviour then develops inside the child.

Eventually, after their observations the child develops the ability to communicate. Vygotsky once stated that ‘language is the vehicle that drives cognitive development’. Language is a cognitive and social mechanism. It allows us to talk about the past and future, other sources of communication can’t do this, and it also provides us with a greater array of information then observational learning can ever do. Chomsky suggests that language is an innate feature in the human body, but other theorists like Skinner and Vygotsky believe that we develop language because of our social interactions with others. Skinner is famous behaviourist, he developed the theory of ‘Operant Conditioning’, the main idea of his theory is that behaviour is determined by the consequences that may follow. Weather the consequence be a punishment or a praise, it will then determine if the behaviour will occur again. He strongly believed that positive reinforcement will strengthen a target behaviour, as the child will value the praise they received and will encourage them to use that behaviour again. Skinner, like Vygotsky believed that the development of language was due to the environmental influence on the child (nurture).

The influence of the ‘sensitive period’ on children in the early years is greatly important as it can define the child for the rest of their life. Psychologists agree that early experiences carry a huge impact on all aspects of the child’s development. We as practitioners spend a large time of the child’s day with the child, usually more time than the parents get to spend with their son/daughter. This means that it is in our hands to ensure that the child is nurtured and cared for in their early years. Practitioners and services should provide a language rich and stimulating environment to allow the child to explore new objects, think critically, explore their imagination and to unlock the creativity in their brain. Montessori believed strongly in early sensitivity. She discovered six different sensitivities that children feel including the sensitivity to order, language, walking, the social aspects, small objects and learning through the senses. We see her theories of early sensitivity displayed through-out the Aistear framework. The NCCA (2009) describe that ‘Aistear is the curriculum framework for children between the age of 0-6 years old’. The Aistear framework sets forth four themes; communication, well-being, identity and belonging and exploring and thinking.

Aistear is unbelievably important to young children as it set for children aged 0-6, this age group would also be known as the ‘sensitive period’ for children. Communication as an Aistear theme pays a huge role in the development of the child, but also as an element of early sensitivity for the child. Language is the main source of communication between a child and us as practitioners or the parents. Many children in Ireland experience language delays or disorders but may go un-recognised for many of their early years. This may then hinder their ability to communicate in the later stages of their childhood as the sensitive period for language, like many other developments including cognitive and emotional is between the age of 0-6. Children that are deprived from language during the sensitive period find it very difficult to then try and catch up. A famous case of complete neglection is Genie Wiley. Genie was a child who was locked away by her father, in a dull and dark room with no source of communication or interactions with the outside world.

Santrock explains that when she was found at the age of thirteen, she could not speak or stand upright. Rymer states that ‘he never communicated with her in words, he growled and barked at her instead’. Santrock explains that Genie spent every day of her life for 13 years, naked and locked to a child’s potty seat. When she was finally set free, she spent a number of years in rehab trying get as educated as possible. After a long period of time Genie learned how to walk, and finally learned many different words but yet couldn’t put a full sentence together as all she was learning was grammar. As Genie was past the sensitive period, she couldn’t learn how to use the language correctly. This is a prime example proving that early sensitivity is vital for children between the age of 0-6. To the best of their ability, practitioners should be encouraging language as much as possible, especially at the 0-6 age period. In order for us as practitioners to promote the language development, the key idea as stated by Santrock (2012), is to be patient.

Children find it very difficult to put their thoughts and emotions into words and we should try to support their effort in communicating, and not try and finish their sentences or cut them off. Practitioners should never tell a child that their vocabulary, sentence structure or pronunciation is wrong, instead it might be better to try and model the correct way of saying it. Rhymes, play, drama and songs are great ways to introduce new words and to develop language. This is supported by Vygotsky’s nurture theory towards early sensitivity, which states the development of the child does happen between the age of 0-6 and that it also is hugely reliant on the environment that the child is exposed to.

There is no doubt that the nature versus nurture debate plays a vital role on a child’s physical, emotional and intellectual development. Yes, people favour either the nature or nurture side and believe that one plays a stronger role then the other, however considering the arguments made above to support both sides it is clear the best approach is a mixture of the both, nature and nurture. In relation to the early sensitivity and the sensitive periods, the points raised as part of this paper, would strongly suggest that the best way time for a child to develop is between the ages of 0-6. This was greatly supported by the case of Genie Wiley. Also, that the early sensitivity period for a child relies heavily on practitioners in relation to the nurture, care and opportunities they provide for the children.

31 October 2020

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