Arnold Gesell (1881-1960) is one of the most well-known researchers in the field of child development. Much of his work, from the Yale Clinic of Child Development and later at the Gesell Institute of Child Development, was based on the simple premise that behavior is a function of structure and that humans develop in a patterned, predictable way. Gesell and colleagues studied children for decades to gather “norms,” i.e. normative patterns of behavior and hallmarks from their clinical observations. Even though this data was collected nearly a generation ago, it has been refined and updated, and it remains very much the same today as when it was identified. At each developmental stage, researchers were able to identify characteristic patterns of:
- Mental and physical organization
- Social and emotional behaviors
- Play interests and activities
It was found that these behaviors involve a combination of interaction between child and environment (including other people) and acknowledged individual differences, however, developmental sequences were proven to be similar from child to child and across varying cultures. Following Gesell’s retirement, Dr. Louse Bates Ames, Dr. Frances Ilg, and Dr. Janet Learned continued his work by founding the Gesell Institute of Child Development and to this day, the institute examines the concept of developmental age and school placement. From their website:
Understanding stages of child growth and development and using this knowledge to interpret behaviors, plan appropriate curricula, and manage the classroom are essential to quality teaching practices. Such understanding is also integral to quality parenting, and in implementing best practices in all professions working with children.
Development is a complex process that can be understood when attention and focus is given. This takes an understanding of child development, solid interpersonal skills, and an openness to observe behaviors so that a clear picture can emerge. When school placement, curriculum and instruction are based on developmental age, a child is given the opportunity to be successful with the skills and experiences they have to date, with an eye toward nudging them to take on challenges they can reasonably attain and therefore, grow.
I’ve found this over and over again with very young children all the way through upper elementary years. And as we embark upon searching for colleges and taking the next steps, I find that this focus on development and knowing both the patterns of growth and the individual remain crucial as our children move through high school. In some respects, it’s even far more crucial, as the stakes amp up or the consequences for mistakes loom larger and more permanent.
Taking a holistic approach to guiding teens toward self-knowledge and awareness as they wrestle with the challenges and opportunities which await them after high school is just as essential to tuning into their readiness for education more than a decade ago. Adults, and teens, need to garner an authentic understanding of a teen’s:
- Mental organization – How/what they learn? Where they need support?
- Social emotional behaviors – Where do they need scaffolding, structure, freedom? Do they have the ability (and inclination) to weigh consequences of their actions? How developed is that frontal lobe in guiding such decisions alone? What level of independence they are ready for, what kind of work they are ready to take on, how they manage stress and peer pressure? Are they suited for (not just craving) a big school/small school – any school?
- Play interests and activities – Play and relaxation are still essential to intellectual growth. Where, how and with whom can these kids play? They also serve to provide a sense of belonging, significance and fun that can be met in positive ways.
It’s all just a bit more complex as they grow up, but still worth our time and care before we send them off with a heightened independence. With an emphasis on looking at a child’s developmental age and a commitment to honoring that child and nurturing her towards growth, we move a child forward, whether he is five and moving to kindergarten or 17 moving to college, work or travel. When we impose external and unrealistic expectations generated from outside forces and standards, these practices serve only to challenge, frustrate children and often, adults. Learning should be about growth that is attainable, sustainable, and focused on individual strengths and needs, not about pressure from outside sources, no matter the age of the learner.