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Child Development Theory: Middle Childhood
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Vygotsky's Social Developmental Emphasis

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Though Piaget's basic ideas and observations have stood up very well despite years of research scrutiny, the specifics of his work as originally communicated are now considered out of date. Piaget had proposed that children learn how to perform various concrete operations more or less under their own steam; based upon their own mental observations and private experiments. Newer research suggests this is an incomplete way of thinking about how these complex abilities form. While children's personal observations and private experiments are unquestionably important, more recent research suggests that children's schooling, culture and other interpersonal experiences also affect their cognitive development in important and vital ways. Specifically, Vygotsky's developmental theory has highlighted the important contribution of social, interpersonal and linguistic factors in facilitating children's mental development.

Vygotsky observed that very young children tend to talk out loud as they problem-solve and try to learn a new mental task. This external dialogue helps children guide themselves through tasks. By middle childhood, as children become more efficient and skilled at various mental operations, these out-loud comments transform to become the internalized thoughts familiar to adults. For example, a three-year-old girl may say out loud,

"I want to wear my princess crown. What did I do with my princess crown? Oh, I put it on the couch,"

as she thinks through this situation. In contrast, an older, 8-year-old girl (in the middle childhood stage) may think to herself,

"What did I do with my math book? Oh yeah, I put it on the kitchen table"

rather than voicing these thoughts out loud.

Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky also observed that children learn cognitive tasks through their interactions with older peers and adults. Not only do younger children watch and imitate older people/peers as they complete tasks, but these older guides also help younger children accomplish tasks they couldn't accomplish on their own. Vygotsky coined the term "zone of proximal development" to describe the difference between what children can do alone (i.e., without help) and what they can do with assistance.

According to Vygotsky, in an ideal environment most likely to foster healthy cognitive development children's caregivers, teachers and more mature peers will provide them with a range of experiences and tasks that fall within their zone of proximal development. Exposure to such experiences, accompanied by appropriate prompting, questioning, and adjustments (so as to match demands to children's skill level) will create the best possible environmental conditions necessary to facilitate children's growth. For example, Mom may use the following prompts with Sally as she struggles to read a new word:

"Try looking at that word again. What sound does the 'A' make? What sound does the 'D' make?"

In this situation, Mom helps Sally through a task that is just beyond her current abilities (reading a new and difficult word out loud) by breaking it down into its component parts and encouraging Sally to sound out individual letters. Mom's deconstruction of speaking a word out loud into a series of letter sounds makes the overall task much easier for Sally to accomplish.

Scaffolding

Vygotsky also observed that adults and older peers' instructions to children become less directive across time; a process he called "scaffolding." When working with very young children, adults and older peers are naturally prone to provide a lot of structure and direction, telling children exactly what to do and how to do it. As time goes by, however, and children gain experience with problem solving on their own, adults/peers will naturally decrease the amount of prompting and direction they provide to children. Based on this observation, Vygotsky became a great proponent of reciprocal teaching and cooperative learning. He urged schools to set up learning environments in which older or more accomplished peers were assigned to help younger or struggling peers grasp a subject or learn a new skill, based on the idea that this arrangement would produce the most effective learning.

Information Processing Theory

Information Processing Theory is another theory that has been used to explain children's cognitive development during middle childhood. Basically, this theory describes how children retain, organize, and use information while learning and how these abilities change over the course of children's cognitive development. This is a single minded theory that views children squarely in terms of their ability to consume, digest and regurgitate information. Accordingly, children take "inputs" from their experiences, process them internally, and create behavioral "outputs." There are no specific developmental stages associated with this theory. Instead, children's attention and memory abilities are thought to undergo more or less continuous improvement. The major utility of information processing theory with regard to the middle childhood time period is that it provides concepts and language useful for understanding children's mental abilities in the context of school environments and tasks.