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p. 1Introductionlocked

  • Usha Goswami


The ‘Introduction’ looks at recent developments in child psychology such as new techniques in brain imaging and genetics, and research into cognitive development and social/emotional development. The latter is intrinsically linked to cognitive growth. A key factor for infant development is the quality and quantity of language to which the child is exposed to. A child is an active learner. If children witness early learning environments at home and away from the home that are stable, responsively contingent and linguistically rich, then the brain will have the best opportunity for optimal development.

These are exciting times in child psychology. New techniques in brain imaging and genetics have given us important new insights into how children develop, think, and learn. This Very Short Introduction will summarize recent research on cognitive development and social/emotional development, focusing largely on the years 0–10. Cognitive development covers how children think, learn, and reason. Social/emotional development covers how children develop relationships, a sense of self, and the ability to control their emotions. Social and emotional well-being are intrinsically connected to cognitive growth. A child who is happy and secure in their family, peer group, and larger social environment is well placed to fulfil their cognitive potential. Children who are growing up in environments that make them anxious or fearful will find it more difficult to thrive, cognitively as well as emotionally.

Fortunately, creating optimal environments for young children requires factors that are available to everyone. These factors are time, patience, and love. Studies in child psychology have shown that warmth and responsive contingency are the key to optimal developmental outcomes. ‘Responsive contingency’ simply means responding to the overtures of the child immediately, and keeping the focus on the child’s chosen focus of interest. Effective learning happens when the child experiences a ‘supportive consequence’ to p. 2their overture. Even young infants are not passive learners. Infants are active in choosing what to attend to, and in engaging the attention of others. When a toddler asks for a particular toy, a carer who responds by giving them the toy and extending the interaction (‘Here’s teddy. I think he is hungry!’) is supporting cognitive development. A carer who consistently (not occasionally) ignores the child or responds by saying ‘Be quiet. You don’t need that now’ is not supporting cognitive development. A child who is consistently neglected or ignored or treated without warmth is at risk for impaired social, cognitive, and academic outcomes.

As well as warm and responsive caretaking, a key factor for child development is language. Both the quality and the quantity of language matter. The child’s brain is a learning machine, and the brain requires sufficient input to learn effectively. Studies of toddlers suggest that they hear over 5,000 utterances every day. Indeed, one US study suggested that children living in homes with higher incomes heard on average 487 utterances per hour. In contrast, children in homes with lower incomes heard on average 178 utterances per hour. The authors calculated that by the age of 4 years, the higher-income children had heard about 44 million utterances. The lower-income children had heard about 12 million. Environmental differences like this have very important consequences for the brain. As we will see, the optimal development of grammar (knowledge about language structure) and phonology (knowledge about the sound elements in words) depends on the brain experiencing sufficient linguistic input. So quantity of language matters.

The quality of the language used with young children is also important. The easiest way to extend the quality of language is with interactions around books. Even looking at the pictures in a book together and chatting about them will lead to the use of more complex grammatical forms and the introduction of novel concepts. The language needed for simple caretaking activities is not very complex, although it is important for cementing routines. p. 3Interacting with books every day with a child automatically introduces more complex language, and consequently provides an enormous stimulus to cognitive development. Indeed, studies show that the richness of language input in the early years has effects not just on later intellectual skills, but also on emotional skills such as resolving conflicts with peers.

Natural conversations, focused on real events in the here and now, are those which are critical for optimal development. Despite this evidence, just talking to young children is still not valued strongly in many environments. Some studies find that over 60 per cent of utterances to young children are ‘empty language’—phrases such as ‘stop that’, ‘don’t go there’, and ‘leave that alone’. Obviously, such phrases can be a necessary part of daily interactions with a young child. However, studies of children who experience high levels of such ‘restricted language’ reveal a negative impact on later cognitive, social, and academic development. Effective caretakers use language to support and ‘scaffold’ the child’s activities. For example, a child might be stirring a puddle with a stick. Rather than saying ‘Stop doing that, you’ll get dirty!’, a carer could say ‘Are you using the stick to stir that puddle? Look at the circles you are making. Can you make the circles go round the other way? Yes, good job!’ Such a response extends the ‘learning environment’ around the child’s chosen focus of attention.

When reading the rest of this book, keep in mind that the child is an active learner, not a passive learner. If children experience early learning environments at home, at nursery, and in school that are warm, responsively contingent, and linguistically rich, then the young brain will have the best opportunity for optimal development. These learning environments support all the amazing cognitive and social capacities that develop so rapidly in all infants and children. I shall discuss some of these capacities in the rest of this book.