Gesell’s Theory of Early Child Development Essay

Gesell’s Theory of Early Child Development

Arnold Lucius Gesell was born in Alma, Wisconsin in 1880 and was a huge contributor to the field of developmental psychology, especially in the field of child development.  Gesell was a pioneer in the field of the scientific observation of infants and children through a sophisticated and innovative system for classifying a huge catalogue of behavioral data on infant and child behavior (Thelen, 1992, p.368).  His practice of developmental testing for children is still used today by psychologists, pediatricians and child specialists who work with children.  Although Gesell’s main area of study was the normal development of children, where he initiated the Gesell dome which was a one-way mirror shaped as a dome to observe children’s behavior, he also studied feral children and adoption.

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            Gesell first received his teaching degree as an educator in 1899 from a Teacher’s College at Columbia University.  After he taught high school and served as a high school principal he went on to teach graduate courses at Yale in 1911.  While he was teaching graduate courses, he began his medical studies at Yale to gain a “realistic familiarity with the physical basis and the physiological processes of life and growth” (Boring, 1984, p.128).  In 1915, at the age of thirty, Gesell received his medical degree from Yale and became the Professor of child hygiene in the graduate school.  He also became the first official school psychologist for the State Board of Education of Connecticut in 1915 and this involved him travelling from different rural schools to study handicapped children and set up specialized classes for these children.

While Gesell was the director of the Yale Clinic of Child Development from 1911 until his retirement in 1948, he was responsible for daily interactions with educators and children at the clinic’s nursery school and it is here that he “recruited ‘well babies’ and deviant children for normative observation and served the New Haven community by providing clinical interventions and advice to parents and adoption agencies.” (Thelen, 1992, pp.368-369).  From Gesell’s earliest studies he also saw the research possibilities using photographic technology and developed the famous photographic dome which allowed an innovative one-way vision screen to observe children undisturbed.  Due to Gesell’s influence, in 1935 the American Board of Pediatrics established the area of growth and development as a primary requirement for specialty certification, which officially acknowledged the importance of the developmental principles for preventive medicine (Boring, 1984, p.135).

            Gesell had an intense tenacity toward biological determinism and was influenced by Charles Darwin, the ground-breaking theorist on the scientific study of the child.  Along with Darwin, Gesell was also heavily influenced by G.E. Coghill who was an early embryologist who detailed processes of behavioral growth experimentally (Thelen, 1992, p.369 ).  Gesell was also influenced by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believed that man is born free and it was only through traditional forms of education that man becomes chained by society.  Rousseau argued that the aim of a right and proper education is not to learn the rules and strictures of a culture, but to learn how to live fully as a good citizen, which he believed to be a natural state of childhood.  Gesell’s work in turn introduced a general public to the science of child rearing, advocating a child-centered approach and his work had a strong influence on Dr. Benjamin Spock and Berry Brazleton and paved a pathway advocating for them to become household child-rearing specialists.

            Gesell’s theories of infant and child development centers around the understanding that “everything that occurs is readying the infant for future steps toward a higher form of behavior patterns that can be used efficiently to solve problems” (Daly, 2002, p.323).  His theories also concluded that the infant has a mind and that he comes by his mind as he comes by his body through the organizing processes of maturation, put simply he believed that the socializing forces achieve the best results when they are congruous with inner maturational principles.   Gesell’s research concluded that the infant develops a “unitary action system” which is manifested in systems of behavior and are “governed by deep-seated ontogenetic laws of developmental sequence” (Daly, 2002, p.323).  Therefore, it is through graded tests of behavior that a determination can be made of the maturity of the “growing action system and the integrity of the underlying nervous system” (Daly, 2002, p.323).

            Gesell was researching in an age that witnessed racial hatred, war, genocide and mass manipulation (Thelen, 1992,  p.376).  He grew up in this climate and would have been influenced by his social surroundings as he witnessed two world wars while observing the rise of Nazism so he had a deep concern for the importance of a nurturing family and a learning environment.   But he maintained a steady belief in the “ultimate outcome of optimal growth” and believed through these tumultuous times that the role of the scientist is bettering human nature, not destroying it and to not manipulate children’s behavior, but to watch, understand and observe it as it progresses on its natural self-righting course.  Gesell believed that “by taking care of our children, we would set the world right” (Thelen, 1992, p.376).

Works Cited

Ames, L.B.  (1989).  Arnold Gesell: Themes of his work.  New York: Human Sciences

Library.

Boring, E.G., Langfield, H.S., Werner, H., & Yerkes, R.M., eds.  (1984). A history of

psychology in autobiography.  Worchester: Clark UP.

Bower, T.G.R.  (1989).  The rational infant: Learning in infancy.  San Francisco:

Freeman.

Daly, W.C.  (2002).  Gesell’s infant growth orientation: A composite.  Journal of

Instructional Psychology, 31(4), 321-324.

Goldman-Rakic, P.S.  (1987).  Development of cortical circuitry and cognitive function.

Child Development, 58, 601-622.

Thelen, E., & Adolph, K.E.  (1992).  Arnold. L. Gesell: The paradox of nature and

nurture.  Developmental Psychology, 28(3), 368-381.

 

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