As the old saying goes: the child is the father of the man”, many influential theories have focused


As the old saying goes: “the child is the father of the man”, many influential theories have focused on the child development and how this charts the future course for the individual. These theories stem from varied reasoning or rationale related to child development, but the basic premise remains the same. This premise is that childhood is the most important and influential period in an individual’s life. This essay considers different neurological, psychological and social theories that are related to child development, with the objective of getting an overview of the theoretical approaches to the subject. Particular emphasis is on social and emotional learning and how that impacts child development. The essay considers the SEL programmes and how they are implemented in the UK and the theories around these programmes.

Neurological, psychological and social theories on child development

Childhood is considered to be the most influential period in the development of a person. Neurological theories focus on the development of the brain during this time and the neurological and nervous factors that play an important role in the development of the brain. Developmental changes in the brain happen throughout the fetal, childhood and adolescence, and therefore brain change and adaptation is part of a complex and long process. This means that our brain continues to develop and adapt throughout our life. However, the brain development during the fetal and early childhood period is the most important and dramatic in nature (Cioni & Sganndura, 2013) . The earlier theoretical propositions on the child development revolved around the nature versus nurture debates, with scientists taking opposing views on whether development was influenced by nature or the upbringing of the child (nurture) (Cioni & Sganndura, 2013) . Ford and Piaget postulated the structuralism approach, which used biology and evolutionary precepts to explain brain development. According to the structural- organismic approach, every organism undergoes a universally established structured periods of development through his life course (Cioni & Sganndura, 2013) . The behaviorist approach postulates that all that can be directly observed or measured, can only be scientifically studied. Bandura, a leading exponent of the theory, said that cognitive processes were linked inextricably with environment and behavior (Bandura, 1971) . He postulated that people learnt by direct experience. This includes experiences a person directly undergoes, or observes in the behavior of another person (Bandura, 1971) . The social learning experience puts a person through repetitive situations, where the success or failures of the individual’s responses in the same situations lay the basis for future modes of behavior (Bandura, 1971) . This is due to the exploratory nature of the responses. Here people perform these responses and then note the differential consequences of their actions (Bandura, 1971) . An important neurology theory is the critical period theory, which focuses on the period during early post-natal life, which is the period in which the development and maturation of functional properties and the plasticity of the brain, depends on the experience and the environment of the child (Cioni & Sganndura, 2013) . One study reinforces the idea that the early years of a child’s life, particularly the period from 0 to 5 years, is the critical period of brain development (Leisman, Mualem, & Mughrabi, 2015) . The study points out the important factors that play a role in the development of the child’s brain at this time. First, the child's brain is influenced by the combined roles of genetics and experience. Second, although cognitive, emotional, and social capacities are intertwined through the period of lifetime for a person, the brain’s capacity for change and development decreases as a person grows older. Thirdly, the environment that a child is brought up in, directly affects synaptogenesis. This also has implications in the neurological optimization (Leisman, Mualem, & Mughrabi, 2015) . An important aspect of this study relates to the brain’s architecture, wherein the study argues that early life events are powerful influences on the pattern of brain architecture and also how behavioral development occurs in the individual. Although later experiences also contribute to the wiring diagram of the child's brain, these are not as influential as the early years’ experiences. These are the critical periods that establish the basis for brain development (Leisman, Mualem, & Mughrabi, 2015) . These critical periods are seen from the perspective of key developmental stages, for the reason that specific experiences potentiate or inhibit neural connectivity at these critical time points (Knudsen, 2004 ) . In fact, Knudsen (2004) argues that these critical begin with the sensitive periods, which are when the effect of experience on the brain is particularly strong. As such these are limited period frames in development. During these periods, experience is allowed to instruct neural circuits to process or represent information in the most adaptive manner for the individual. Such sensitive periods become critical periods, when experience provides information that is essential for normal development and alters performance permanently (Knudsen, 2004 ) . This is essential to plasticity of the brain, that the ability of the brain to grow. The socio cultural theory or contextual perspectives focusses on the social and cultural experience on the development of a child. An influential proponent of this theory is Vygotsky, who postulated that the development of the child could be understood best when seen within the context of the social and cultural experience. The individual cognitive development of each child depended on the social world that was the immediate environment of the child (Vygotsky, 1962) . Cultural experiences form an important factor in a child’s upbringing because the adults in the child’s life also supported the cultural norms and values in guiding the child’s upbringing (Bandura, 1971) . The tools that form part of this cultural experience in a child’s life are linguistic or mathematical, symbolic or literacy oriented and even technology tools. These tools are important and do play an important role in the development of the child. The neurological, psychological and social theories are all important in understanding the factors that play a role in development of child. Neurological theories focus on the development of the brain. Here the nervous, neurological and biological factors play a role in the study of the development. The psychological approach focusses on the study of the behavior of the individual to understand the important or critical factors in child development. The social approach chooses to focus on the social and cultural environment in which the child grows up and how these factors play a role in the development of the child. As such the social approach is not focused on the child itself, unlike the neurological and psychological approach, which focus on the study of the individual. The social approach focusses on the social environment and from that study tries to understand the impact of the environment on the child.


Social and emotional learning: Impact on child development

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a process in which skills such as empathy and self-regulation are developed in children, usually within the settings of their schools (Humphrey, 2013, p. 1) . Despite its seemingly apparent benefits to children, SEL do give rise to complex and conflicting viewpoints on the issue of its utility in engaging children and achieving its objectives. The advocates for SEL claim that its application in school settings will have positive outcomes for children. Some of the outcomes are: a heightened social and emotional competence; polite and considerate behaviour towards people; reduced instances of mental and psychological issues and problems (Humphrey, 2013, p. 2) . There are in fact a range of mental, emotional and social outcomes that are linked with SEL (Qualter, Gardner, Pope, Hutchinson, & Whiteley, 2012) . On the other hand, the detractors of this approach argue that SEL is just another classroom fad (Paul & Elder, 2007) . Some commentators worry that SEL is a waste of time and resources with no possible positive outcomes for children (Craig, 2007) . This essay disagrees with this position. There is a lot of research available today, which showcases the positive impacts of SEL for children and young people, some of which is discussed in this section. SEL is done in two prominent ways and almost always in the settings of the school (Kendal, Callery, & Keeley, 2011) . First, SEL may be applied universally to the entire student body. These are universal interventions. Second, certain students who display emotional or social problems, may only be made the objects of the SEL strategy. This is the targeted interventions. This is for those students, who are shown to be at a risk for social, emotional or behavioural difficulties (Humphrey, 2013, pp. 4-6) . The interventions that are the objects of the underlying philosophy are universal interventions that are done to benefit the entire body of students. SEL is gaining in popularity due its value in inoculating children and young people from the negative outcomes that are manifested in social, emotional and behavioural problems and issues. To strengthen the positive outcomes for children, SEL also ensures that children learn empathy and social skills, which make them more socially competent (Humphrey, 2013) . Therefore, there are two important impacts of SEL on children and young people. As there are such conflicting views on SEL and the range of the benefits offered for children, a joint report by the Cabinet Office, Early Intervention Foundation, and Social and Mobility Child Poverty Commission set out to study the impacts of SEL for children and young people and suggest measures (Feinstein, 2015) . Drawing on the existing literature, the report summarized five important characteristics of social and emotional capability, which are:

Self-perceptions, self-awareness and self-direction (including self-esteem and the belief that one’s own actions can make a difference);  Motivation; self- control/self-regulation (generally characterised as greater impulse control and fewer behavioural problems); Social skills, including relationship skills and communication skills; Resilience and coping (Feinstein, 2015, p. 6) .

An important finding of the report was that emotional health in childhood matters for mental well-being as an adult (Feinstein, 2015) . The report also found that targeted interventions played an important role in prevention of truancy and anti-social behaviour in young people, after studying 39 school intervention programmes in the UK (Feinstein, 2015) . An example of an intervention programme is the UK Resilience Programme (UKRP). The 18 lesson programme was originally aimed at 11-13 year olds, but is now being implemented within different age groups. UKRP is a cognitive behavioural programme and enables young people to develop skills that empower them to be more resilient in dealing with situations both in and out of school. In Wales, a US based system, SAP (Student Assistance Programme) has been implemented for the purpose of improving children and young people’s social and emotional competencies. It is thought that this would help to lessen social, emotional and behaviour problems in children. (Evans, Murphy, & Scourfield, 2015) . Although, research is scanty on the point of benefits of this programme in Wales, there are positive reports regarding the method (Evans, Murphy, & Scourfield, 2015) . Despite the research available that shows the positive impacts of SEL for children, the implementation of these programmes remains a sporadic exercise (Banerjee, 2011) . One study blames this on “the dearth of flexible, causative models that capture the multifarious determinants of implementation practices within complex systems” (Evans, Murphy, & Scourfield, 2015) . There is therefore a need to study this more in depth so that better methodologies and more effective programmes can be evolved for implementing SEL for children and young people.


Childhood is the undoubtedly an influential period of time when much of the foundations for a happy, healthy and successful adult life is laid down. The many theories of childhood development apply different approaches to come to that same conclusion. Psychological theories focus on the external factors that may impact the child development, neurological theories concern with the development of brain at this period of time. Social theories are grounded in social and cultural factors that may impact child development. Social and emotional learning is an emerging technique, unfortunately sporadically implemented at this point in time, but with decided positive outcomes for child development in the social and emotional context. More research is required to understand this area so as to create programmes that can bring positive outcomes, both in the universal as well as targeted interventions.


    1. Leisman, G., Mualem, R., & Mughrabi, S. K. (2015, December). The neurological development of the child with the educational enrichment in mind. Psicologia Educativa, 21 (2), 79–96.
    2. Knudsen, E. (2004 , October). Sensitive periods in the development of the brain and behavior. J Cogn Neurosci, 16(8), 1412-25.
    3. Cioni, G., & Sganndura, G. (2013). Normal Psychomotor Development. In O. Dulac, M. Lassonde, & H. B. Sarnat, Pediatric Neurology, Part 1. Amsterdam: Newnes. Bandura, A. (1971). Social Learning Theory. General Learning Corporation.
    4. Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge: MIT Press.
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    6. Craig, C. (2007). Potential Dangers of a Systematic, Explicit Approach to Teaching Social and Emotional Skills (SEAL). Glasgow: Centre for Confidence and Welll Being.
    7. Feinstein, L. (2015). Social and Emotional Learning: Skills for Life and Work. Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Cabinet Office. London: Early Intervantion Programme.
    8. Evans, R., Murphy, S., & Scourfield, J. (2015, March). Implementation of a School-Based Social and Emotional Learning Intervention: Understanding Diffusion Processes Within Complex Systems. Prevention Science, 16(5), 754-764.
    9. Qualter, P., Gardner, K., Pope, D., Hutchinson, J., & Whiteley, H. (2012). Ability emotional intelligence, trait emotional intelligence, and academic success in British secondary schools: A 5 year longitudinal study. Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 83–91.
    10. Kendal, S., Callery, P., & Keeley, P. (2011). The feasibility and acceptability of an approach to emotional wellbeing support for high school students. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 16, 193-200.
    11. Banerjee, R. (2011). Social and emotional aspects of learning in schools : Contributions to improving attainment, behaviour and attendance. Sussex: National STRATEGIES Tracker School Project.

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