Experience and Development

How Experience Influences Child Development

Toddler feeding dog on kitchen floor
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From the moment babies are born, sensory experiences begin to play a role in development. While early experiences are largely centered on such sensory information, the environment continues to exert a powerful influence on behavior throughout life. Genetics play an important role in development, but experiences are equally important. For example, genetics may influence how a child's brain is wired from birth, but learning and experience that will literally shape how that child's brain grows and develops.

Some of the classic theories of psychology focus on the importance of experience and how it shapes behavior and personality. Three of the major theories that describe and explain how children learn include:

  • Classical conditioning: This type of learning involves making an association between a stimulus and a response. Even if you have only a passing knowledge of psychology, chances are that you have probably heard of Pavlov's dogs. In a classic experiment, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered that repeatedly pairing the sound of a bell with the presentation of food caused dogs to associate the tone itself with food. Once the association was formed, the sound of the bell alone could make the dogs begin to salivate in anticipation of a meal. Children learn in much the same way, developing associations between things in their environment and potential consequences. For example, an infant might quickly begin to associate the sight of a baby bottle with being fed.
  • Operant conditioning: When you reward a behavior, chances are that same behavior is likely to occur again in the future. When a behavior is punished, it becomes less likely that it will occur again in the future. These principles underlie the concept of operant conditioning, a set of learning techniques that utilizes reinforcement and punishment to either increase or decrease a response. For example, when a child is rewarded for cleaning her room, she becomes more likely to repeat the same behavior later on.
  • Observational learning: As you might expect, kids can learn a great deal simply from watching their parents, peers and siblings. Even the behaviors they observe on television, video games and the Internet can impact their own thoughts and actions. Because observational learning is so powerful, it is important to ensure that kids are observing the right kind of behaviors. By modeling good behaviors and appropriate responses, parents can be sure that their kids are learning how to act responsibly.

Other Types of Experience

In addition to the kinds of learning that occur on a day-to-day basis, there are a number of other experiences that can play a major role in shaping a child's development. The experiences that parents and other caregivers provide during the earliest years of a child's life can be some of the most crucial. While some children might receive enriched childhood experiences from parents who are responsive, caring and attentive, other children might receive less attention and their parents might be distracted by worrying about money, work or relationship issues.

As you might imagine, such varying experiences can have a dramatic impact on how these children develop. Children raised in nurturing environments might be more secure, confident and capable of dealing with later challenges, while those raised in less enriched settings might feel anxious and unable to cope with life's difficulties.

Peers

While a child's early social experiences may be centered on family members, this soon expands to other kids at the playground, in the neighborhood and at school. Because children spend so much time interacting with peers in school, it may come as no surprise that other children have a major influence on a child's psychology and development. Children are very influenced by their peers, and these social experiences help shape a child's values and personality. Peer relationships can have a significant effect on development, both in positive and negative ways. Bullying in particular can have an enormously detrimental effect on a child's experience of growing up.

Education

School makes up an enormous part of a child's life. Teachers and classmates play a major role in making up a child's experiences, and academics and learning also leave their mark on development. Remember that genetics and the environment are always interacting in a dynamic way. A child's genetic background will influence his ability to learn, but good educational experiences can enhance these abilities. Some kids might struggle with learning disabilities influenced by genetics, but quality educational interventions can help kids learn and do well in school.

Culture

As you have seen so far, there are many different influences that can play a role in how a child grows and the person they eventually become. The culture that a child lives in adds yet another element to this already complex mix. For example, parents raising kids in individualistic cultures might focus on helping their kids develop autonomy and self-esteem, while parents in collectivist cultures are more likely to stress the importance of community, family, and society.

Even within the same culture, variations in things like social status, income, and educational background can have an impact on how kids are raised. High-income parents might be more concerned with getting their kids into the best private schools, while low-income parents spend more time worrying about whether their children's most basic needs are met. Such disparities can lead to dramatic differences in experience, which can in turn have a powerful impact on how kids develop.

Final Thoughts on How Experience Shapes Child Development

While culture can play a major role in how a child is raised, it is still important to remember that it is the interaction of influences that dictates how a child develops. Genetics, environmental influences, parenting styles, friends, teachers, schools and the culture at large are just some of the major factors that combine in unique ways to determine how a child develops and the person they will one day become.

References

Berk, L. E. (2009). Child Development. 8th ed. United States of America: Pearson Education, Inc.

Hockenbury, D., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2007). Discovering Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Kail, R. E. (2006), Children and Their Development (4 ed.), Prentice Hall.

Levine, R. A. (1988). Human parental care: Universal goals, cultural strategies, individual behavior. In R. A. Levine, P. M. Miller, & M. M. West (Eds.). Parental behavior in diverse societies. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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