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Introduction to child psychology
Introduction to child psychology

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1 What is child psychology?

How are children’s lives changing and what role do child psychologists have in supporting children? Child psychology is a broad area, covering how people change as they grow up from birth through to adolescence and trying to explain how these important changes occur – are 3-year-olds, 7-year-olds and teenagers different just because of their experiences of the world, or what role is played by biological changes within the individual?

Because child psychology is so vast and tries to answer so many questions, researchers and practitioners often separate development into specific areas. Broadly, these tend to map onto children’s physical, cognitive (thinking, learning, memory, etc.) and social/emotional development. Child psychologists attempt to make sense of every aspect of child development, including how children learn, think, interact and respond emotionally to those around them, make friends, understand emotions and their own developing personalities, temperaments and skills.

Children typically reach developmental ‘milestones’. These milestones reflect abilities, such as walking and talking, that are achieved by most children at similar ages. Among other things, we are interested in trying to explain how children reach these milestones and how individual, social and cultural factors may influence how we develop.

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Figure 1 Multiracial group of children

Psychologists also specialise in different areas of interest: while some focus on supporting children in school settings (educational psychologists) others focus on supporting children with atypical development (clinical psychologists).

Activity 1 What do child psychologists do?

In this audio sequence Nathalia Gjersoe, a lecturer in developmental psychology at The Open University, looks at the roles and work of three developmental psychologists, all of whom are concerned with children. Duncan Gillard (an educational psychologist), Silvana Mengoni (a researcher) and Catriona Havard (a forensic psychologist) all give their views about child psychology. Listen to the audio and think about the questions that follow.

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Views on child psychology
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  • How important are developmental milestones in understanding development?
  • How can psychologists support children’s lives?