2.4 Why understanding stages of child development is important

From the moment of birth, a baby is in the process of extraordinarily rapid growth and development. As they grow up, children develop many different capacities. These capacities influence how they communicate, make decisions, exercise judgement, absorb and evaluate information, take responsibility, and show empathy and awareness of others. It is recognised in all societies that there is a period of childhood during which children’s capacities are perceived as developing or evolving rather than developed or evolved. When babies are born, they are completely dependent on their caregivers for food, warmth, shelter, cleanliness, and protection from harm. Nevertheless, even small babies are capable of communicating their needs. Through crying, facial expressions, body language, eye contact, they are able to engage with those caring for them, and to convey their feelings, moods and needs. As children grow up they gradually acquire an increasing range of capacities and skills and are able to take increasing control over their own needs.

As a health worker it is important to have some understanding of this process of children’s development. This will enable you to assess whether or not a child is developing appropriately, to understand what they are and are not capable of doing, and to respond to each child’s needs and rights more effectively.

Activity 2.1: Different aspects of development

Children develop in many different ways throughout their childhood. Can you describe what you think each of the following types of development mean? These terms will be used throughout this study session, so it is important that you understand them.

  • cognitive development
  • social development
  • emotional development
  • physical development.
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Aspects of development are all inter-linked, but they can each be understood in the following way:

  • Cognitive development is the development of intelligence, conscious thought, and problem-solving ability that begins in infancy. Children actively learn by gathering, sorting, and processing information from around them, and then using that information to develop perception and thinking skills. Cognitive development refers to how a child perceives, thinks, and gains understanding of his or her world. Much of children’s formal education is concerned with promoting their cognitive development.
  • Social development refers to the development of social skills and empathy that are needed to help children make relationships with other people. In order to develop socially, children need to be able to relate to their peers and adults in a socially acceptable way. Developing good social skills is necessary for them to be able to eventually form healthy relationships and fit into their community. Good relationships with parents are the building blocks for healthy social development in children. By giving lots of love and attention to a baby, parents form a close bond with the child, allowing him or her to grow in a comfortable, secure and socially healthy atmosphere.
  • Emotional development refers to a child’s increasing awareness and control of their feelings and how they react to these feelings in a given situation. It provides children with the capabilities and skills that they need to function and survive in the society as well as the world. Children who have strong emotional development are more likely to be able to deal with things that go wrong or are challenging. Childhood is the critical age in the development of emotions. Those who have predominantly positive or happy memories of childhood will be better adjusted as adolescents and adults than those whose memories centre round unhappy experiences.
  • Physical development can be defined as the progress of a child’s control over his or her own body. This includes control over muscles, physical coordination, and the ability to sit or stand. Physical development starts in human infancy and continues into late adolescent. The peak of physical development happens in childhood and is therefore a crucial time for neurological brain development and body coordination to encourage specific activities such as grasping, writing, crawling, and walking. As a child learns what their bodies can do, they gain self-confidence, promoting social and emotional development. Physical activities geared toward aiding physical development contribute significantly to a person’s health and well-being.

2.3 Recognise why an understanding of child development is relevant and important for health workers

2.5 The different stages of development