Childhood is the initial part of the life cycle of humans that ranges between birth and adolescence. Childhood is an essential and fundamental part of human development.
What Is Childhood?
Childhood is a crucial phase of human development characterized by progressive changes in the brain from the interaction of genetic inheritance and environmental influences in which the child lives. The legal definition of a child generally refers to a minor which is also known as a person younger than the age of majority. Children usually have fewer rights and fewer responsibilities than adults. They are classified as individuals unable to make decisions and legally must remain under the care of their parents or guardians until they come of age.
To ensure healthy childhood development, it is essential to understand the developmental stages of childhood as well the genetic and environmental factors influencing them. Understanding the needs of the child is an essential aspect to promote the integral development of the child. A 2015 study 1 defined childhood development as “part of human development, a unique process of each child that aims to insert him/her in the society where he/she lives. It is expressed by continuity and changes in motor, psychosocial, cognitive and language abilities, with progressively more complex acquisitions in the daily life functions.” A child goes through a number of stages to attain complete development. The developmental stages are laid out below:
Developmental Stages Of Childhood
There are mainly three developmental stages of childhood. They are:
1. Early Childhood
Early childhood begins with infancy and ends in middle childhood when the child starts talking or taking their first steps independently. Toddlerhood ends around age 3 when the child becomes less dependent on their parents for their basic needs. Early childhood lasts till the age of 7. In this stage, the child learns through observation, experimentation, and communication with other people. New scientific evidence 2 reveals that a child’s earliest experiences have a major role in shaping their life. Adult supervision is necessary for this developmental phase since this will ultimately lead to the child being independent. During early childhood, the child forms a strong emotional bond with their caregivers and parents. The children also start preschool and kindergarten at this age. One 2001 study 3 reported that the pace of learning will depend on whether and to what extent the child’s inclinations to learn encounter and engage supporting environments.
2. Middle Childhood
Middle Childhood starts at age 7, approximately in the primary school age. It usually ends with puberty around the age of 12 or 13. This marks the beginning of adolescence. In this period, children tend to develop socially and mentally. Body growth also slows considerably. This phase involves making new friends and gaining new skills that will allow them to become more independent, enhancing their skills as an individual. Middle childhood involves entering the school years wherein they are presented with a different social setting. This creates new challenges for the child. A 2018 study 4 found that in this stage, the individual is still sexually immature but is no longer dependent on parents for survival. Another 2010 study found that social learning is recognized as a key evolved function of middle childhood and is enabled by a global reorganization of cognitive functioning known as the five to seven shift.
In this stage, children are often diagnosed with mental disorders that cannot normally be seen during early childhood. These disorders can include autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and ADHD. In this case, there are special education, least restrictive environments, response to intervention, and individualized education plans that can help children with such disabilities. Middle childhood is the time to understand responsibilities and is the initial phase of being shaped by peers and parents. In this phase, children usually learn from each other, often through observation.
Adolescence is the onset of adulthood. It is usually between the onset of puberty and adulthood. This typically involves the teenage years from 13 to 19. However, it is important to keep in mind that puberty usually begins before the teenage years. One 2017 study 5 found that going through puberty earlier than normal is associated with a host of adjustment problems, including risky sexual activities and delinquency. Even though childhood is considered to be usually in between the stages of birth and puberty, the adolescence phase is socially accepted in some cultures as a part of childhood.
Adolescents are mostly considered minors under the law. The adolescent phase brings about various physical, psychological, and behavioral changes. The end of adolescence marks the beginning of adulthood that varies by country and by function, and is considered to be mature enough to be entrusted by society with certain tasks. A 2008 study 6 demonstrated a primary cognitive feature defining progression throughout adolescence is the ability to control impulses and delay gratification in favor of goal-directed and more optimized outcomes and behaviors.
Childhood Mental And Developmental Disorders
Childhood may also involve certain mental and developmental disorders that surface as the child progresses with age. It encompasses neurodevelopmental, emotional, and behavioral disorders that can have adverse impacts on psychological and social well being. Children with such disorders 7 may require additional support from their families and educational institutions. A 2018 study 8 found that childhood mental health disorders have a significant impact on the individual, the family, and society. Some of the childhood mental and developmental disorders may include anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, autism, or intellectual disability.
1. Anxiety disorders
This disorder is characterized by incessant or excessive fear that is associated with behavioral disturbances and impaired functioning.
This is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by lack of attention and being disorganized with or without hyperactivity resulting in impaired functioning.
3. Conduct disorder
It is characterized by a repetitive pattern of antisocial behavior that is directly responsible for violation of basic rights of others or societal norms.
This is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by the inability to reciprocate social interactions and communication skills.
5. Intellectual Disability
This condition is characterized by mental retardation and impaired cognitive functioning.
Hence it is recommended in all countries to inculcate good parenting skills including psychosocial stimulation, and maternal mental health interventions in order to ensure the reduction in the global prevalence and burden of childhood mental and developmental disorders.
Tracking Childhood Development
In order to track your child’s development, experts have created various charts and checklists to help keep track of your child’s development. This involves several aspects that are:
- Physical development
- Cognitive development i.e thinking skills
- Language development
- Socioemotional development
Researchers 9 laid out four of the best known child development checklists. They mentioned a total of 728 different skills and abilities. It is important to keep in mind that every child has their own development pace. Developmental milestones 10 involve the process of supervising and monitoring child development over time in order to ensure healthy development and identify issues, if any. Here’s a quick preview of some common developmental milestones for the initial childhood and before adulthood phase.
Developmental Continuity And Discontinuity During Childhood
Even though different developmental milestones can be clearly marked, many aspects of developmental changes are continuous and they may not display noticeable milestones of change. Developmental milestones can involve growth in stature that is fairly gradual and predictable progress towards being an adult. In the case of discontinuous developmental change, researchers identified age-related milestones of development that children go through called stages. The stages are often associated with a known chronological age range. During each stage the behavioral and physical characteristics are different from what it is at other stages. It also implies a predictable sequence of developmental events associated with characteristic behavioral or physical qualities that must be monitored.
Stages of development may also overlap or be associated with other developmental aspects such as speed or movement. Even in the case of transitioning into the next stage, it may not necessarily mean that the previous developmental stage is completed. For instance, in the book Identity, Youth and Crisis, Erik H. Erikson 11 pointed out that the stages of personality development suggest that a lifetime spent in reworking issues were originally characteristics of a childhood stage. Similarly, the theorist of cognitive development, Piaget, described a situation wherein children could solve one type of problem using mature thinking skills but could not accomplish less familiar problems, a phenomenon known as horizontal decalage.
Even though developmental change runs parallel with age, it may not necessarily be the only cause of development. A 2009 study 12 suggested that genetic factors may also be responsible for cellular changes like overall growth, changes in the proportion of body and brain parts, and the maturation of aspects of function such as vision and dietary needs. Environmental factors may include both diet and disease exposure as well as social, emotional, and cognitive experiences. A 2011 study 13 suggested that examination of environmental factors also shows that young human beings can survive within a fairly broad range of environmental experiences. In a 2009 study (( , it was pointed out that when an aspect of development is strongly affected by early childhood experience, it is said to show a high degree of plasticity (i.e the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization). However, when the genetic makeup is the primary cause of development, plasticity is low.
The development milestones progress with age as babies grow into school-age children. It is important to keep in mind that every child develops at their own individual pace. Developing a milestones checklist may be beneficial to make sure the child is growing in healthy ways. In case you are concerned about a missed milestone, it is important to consult a doctor in order to have a clear picture of the important childhood milestones.
The best way to ensure a happy and safe childhood is to build a strong parent-child bond, follow a nutritious diet, get adequate sleep, and assure a nurturing and safe environment.References:
- de Souza, J. M., & Veríssimo, M. (2015). Child development: analysis of a new concept. Revista latino-americana de enfermagem, 23(6), 1097–1104. https://doi.org/10.1590/0104-1169.0462.2654
- National Research Council (US) Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Early Childhood Development and Learning: New Knowledge for Policy. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. Overview. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK223296/
- National Research Council (US) Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Early Childhood Development and Learning: New Knowledge for Policy. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. Executive Summary. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK223298/
- Worthman, C. M. (2010). The ecology of human development: Evolving models for cultural psychology. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 41(4), 546-562. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022110362627
- Crosnoe, R., & Johnson, M. K. (2011). Research on Adolescence in the Twenty-First Century. Annual review of sociology, 37, 439–460. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-081309-150008
- Casey BJ, Jones RM, Hare TA. The adolescent brain. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008 Mar;1124:111-26. doi: 10.1196/annals.1440.010. PMID: 18400927; PMCID: PMC2475802.
- Scott JG, Mihalopoulos C, Erskine HE, et al. Childhood Mental and Developmental Disorders. In: Patel V, Chisholm D, Dua T, et al., editors. Mental, Neurological, and Substance Use Disorders: Disease Control Priorities, Third Edition (Volume 4). Washington (DC): The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank; 2016 Mar 14. Chapter 8. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK361938/ doi: 10.1596/978-1-4648-0426-7_ch8
- Ogundele M. O. (2018). Behavioural and emotional disorders in childhood: A brief overview for paediatricians. World journal of clinical pediatrics, 7(1), 9–26. https://doi.org/10.5409/wjcp.v7.i1.9
- Misirliyan SS, Huynh AP. Development Milestones. [Updated 2020 May 30]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557518/
- Dosman, C. F., Andrews, D., & Goulden, K. J. (2012). Evidence-based milestone ages as a framework for developmental surveillance. Paediatrics & child health, 17(10), 561–568. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/17.10.561
- Tierney, A. L., & Nelson, C. A., 3rd (2009). Brain Development and the Role of Experience in the Early Years. Zero to three, 30(2), 9–13.
- Institute of Medicine (US) and National Research Council (US) Committee on the Science of Adolescence. The Science of Adolescent Risk-Taking: Workshop Report. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011. 5, The Influence of Environment. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53409/