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Introduction to child psychology
What is child psychology?
How are children’s lives changing and what role do child psychologists have in supporting children? Child psychology is a broad area, covering how people change as they grow up from birth through to adolescence and trying to explain how these important changes occur – are 3-year-olds, 7-year-olds and teenagers different just because of their experiences of the world, or because of biological changes within the individual?
Because child psychology is so vast and tries to answer so many questions, researchers and practitioners often separate development into specific areas. Broadly, these tend to map onto children’s physical, cognitive and social/emotional development. Child psychologists attempt to make sense of every aspect of child development, including how children learn, think, interact and respond emotionally to those around them, make friends, understand emotions and their own developing personalities, temperaments and skills.
Children typically reach developmental milestones. These milestones reflect abilities, such as walking and talking, that are achieved by most children at similar ages. Among other things, we are interested in trying to explain how children reach these milestones and how individual, social and cultural factors may influence how we develop.
Figure 1 Multiracial group of children
Psychologists also specialise in different areas of interest: while some focus on supporting children in school settings (educational psychologists) others focus on supporting children with atypical development (clinical psychologists).
Activity 1 What do child psychologists do?
In this audio sequence Nathalia Gjersoe, a lecturer in developmental psychology at The Open University, looks at the roles and work of three developmental psychologists, all of whom are concerned with children. Duncan Gillard (an educational psychologist), Silvana Mengoni (a researcher) and Catriona Havard (a forensic psychologist) all give their views about child psychology. Listen to the audio and think about the questions that follow.
Transcript: Views on child psychology
Hello, I’m Nathalia Gjerso from the Faculty of Education and Language Studies at The Open University. In this audio, I’ll be looking at some examples of what developmental psychologists do to understand how children develop, why they develop that way, and how best to support them to reach their full potential.
I think, in order to support children, you have to understand development. And that’s where developmental psychology is key. We have to understand what development looks like, and how it happens and factors that may encourage it but also factors that may limit it. But, crucially development of psychology is all about understanding why, and, that’s really, really important, because if we understand what happens in development and why, we can develop interventions to not only help children that may be developing typically but children who also have delays.
Without that in-depth knowledge and expertise in a certain area, I actually think you wouldn’t be preparing children to be life-long learners or be productive citizens.
Developmental psychologists are interested in when and how changes occur in human psychology. As such, developmental psychologists are interested in changes that happen throughout the lifespan but a lot of their work focuses on changes in childhood as this is a period of intense development. Developmental psychologists can work in many different areas. Some focus on research in change in children. Others are trained in how to support children in school, or how to help children with developmental delays. Each of these roles requires a range of skills that developmental psychologists learn over many years of training. Duncan Gillard is an educational psychologist working with young children to support their educational needs and works closely with his local education authority, Avon and Somerset, and teams of other specialists to support children with special needs in several different schools.
I link with 14 primary schools, one secondary school, and one special school, if you like. We support them with a range of different issues. We support them in terms of individual casework so individual young people that the school are having difficulty meeting the individual needs of, all of whom would have some kind of special educational need or special educational needs. And we also support them with a range of different systemic issues as well. I’ll give you a concrete example of a young person who has been on my caseload up until recently. It’s a young person in a mainstream school who has a diagnosis of Williams Syndrome. Young people with Williams Syndrome are usually very sociable and socially motivated. They can be lots and lots of fun to be around and they’re very driven to engage with people socially but quite often underpinning their understanding of social dynamics is an absence of that comprehension of what’s actually going on. This particular young person has learning difficulties that are commensurate with his diagnosis so he has particular difficulties learning across the board of the National Curriculum, that includes literacy difficulties, it includes numeracy difficulties, but he also has difficulties in terms of his development of social skills, his development of appropriate social and personal behaviour skills, of self-help skills. He had needs in terms of toileting. So, we put together what’s called a skills analysis. What kinds of skills would you need in order to be able to go to the toilet completely independently? And then, when you’ve got that skills analysis broken down, you can gradually start to build one skill at a time through a process called backward chaining, which is where you think about those skills as a linear sequence, start from the very last skill in that sequence, use different kinds of prompting and scaffolding processes to achieve mastery of that target and then work back through that chain until that young person can complete the whole sequence of skills. And making those learning processes very clear, very tight, very consistent, and repeated over and over again, eventually, that skill becomes mastered.
Could you explain to me who you work with within the school to support individual children?