Infant and toddler development is so rapid it can be difficult for parents and caregivers to keep up with all the milestones a child meets during their first year of life. Infants are born with reflexes that are designed to promote survival, but they are completely dependent on others for their care. As they get older, their muscles strengthen, they become more aware of their surroundings, and they enter the early stages of language acquisition. Early childhood educators working with this age group must be knowledgeable about the goals a young child should be working on during this time and plan their days according to the child’s needs. There are also some significant outside influences on a child’s development that caregivers and educators should know about and how they can help or hinder healthy development. Careful assessment of a child’s progress can identify areas of concern and guide proper interventions.
The Stages of Development During the First Year
For the first three months of an infant’s life, they are learning how to survive mainly by using reflexes. In infants, typical physical development starts at the head and center of the body and moves out. The cephalocaudal pattern of development takes into account the size of a human’s brain in relation to their body as well as the priority of the development of internal organs over that of the limbs. Young infants will have some control over their neck muscles and often root around searching for a nipple. They will grasp onto a finger when placed into the palm of their hand. They are also learning how to trust their caregivers so building a caring relationship is crucial to their brain development during this time “These pathways form the physical foundation of trust. Positive experiences stabilize the brain connections” (Gonzalez-Mena & Eyer, 2015, p. 99). The emotional attachments formed in early childhood literally transform how the brain develops.
From ages four months to six, infants begin rapid physical development. Some typical physical milestones for a five-month-old infant, such as the one I observed, include attempts at crawling, sitting up with assistance, grabbing objects and rolling over on their own. Infants at this age are starting to communicate more by babbling and cooing purposefully. This is a perfect time for caregivers to include them in conversation and be responsive to what they are saying. Reading books and singing songs help start the language acquisition process. Major leaps in cognitive development at this age require caregivers to be responsive to their physical needs, but also to their emotional development. It is around this time that infants start to show a fear of strangers and will communicate their displeasure at meeting new people (Raising Children Network, 2017). Children need to feel secure in their environment so they will start to explore and discover the joys of play.
From ages six to nine months, infants are developing their ability to crawl and use their hands independent from each other. Around this time, children start to pull themselves up and attempt to walk. Young children will often use a piece of furniture for support so it is important to make sure heavy bookshelves, dresser drawers, and television sets are secured to the wall so they do not pull them down onto themselves. By the time a child is a year old, they will typically be walking without support and should be able to grab a toy and throw it (Cherry, 2018).
In addition to their physical development, young children are making huge gains in their cognitive and emotional development during the first year. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development tells us that there are four stages of development in a child’s life. During the first two years, children are in the sensory-motor stage of development. At this stage, infants and toddlers often put things in their mouths for the sensory experience. Piaget’s theory focuses on how children construct learning by experiencing their world. Vygotsky’s theory of child development focuses on the social needs of the child and role that culture plays in development. To help children learn independence, educators and caregivers should observe what a child is attempting to do, for example crawling or pulling themselves up, and provide opportunities for them to practice with assistance “By scaffolding children’s learning, they can move through their zone of proximal development and learn new strategies or concepts which can be integrated into their ways of understanding the world” (Spodek, B & Saracho, 1999, p.10). Educators and parents are encouraged not to give too much help or the child will not gain that sense of accomplishment they need to continue and progress.
The Role Gender Plays in Development
While most children follow a predictable pattern of physical development, there are some noticeable differences in how a boy’s brain develops versus that of a girl. Areas such as language and socioemotional skills tend to develop quicker in young girls where boys often have the area of the brain that corresponds to spatial awareness develop faster. Young boys also seem to have better hand-eye coordination. These differences could account for the stereotypical types of play we see in early childhood where boys are more physically active and seem to take more risks in their play as well as focusing on math skills later in life. Young girls are often portrayed as nurturing, playing with dolls or groups of friends in the dramatic play center “It is not hard to see how initial strengths are magnified—thanks to the remarkable plasticity of young children’s brains—into significant differences, even before boys and girls begin preschool” (Zero to Three, n.d., para. 5). Understanding these slight differences in brain development can help early childhood educators prepare all students for learning in subject areas they may not initially be drawn to. Young girls can be encouraged to participate in sports activities by including a social element to the games. Young boys can be encouraged to participate in activities that are stereotypically dominated by young girls, activities such as art and dramatic play, by adding a physical component to them.
Curriculum Design That Promotes Development
Developing a curriculum specifically for infants and toddlers differs in many ways from that of a preschool aged child. Because there is so much rapid development that depends on a child’s experiences educators need to plan activities that promote their development across all domains. When a child is learning how to feed themselves, they will learn language skills while caregivers help them guide the food into their mouths. They get to experience the taste and smell of it and they learn cause and effect when they pick up their plate and drop it on the floor. They are also learning about self-regulation and the social aspect of eating a meal in a child development center.
Teachers who work with very young children can start to plan teacher-led activities for their students as young as six months. As soon as a child begins to sit up on their own, their view of the world changes dramatically. At this age, they have more control over how to use their hands and may be able to hold a paintbrush or large crayon for art projects. Providing art supplies at this age helps a child’s fine motor skills as well as their socio-emotional development “There is joy in creating art at all ages, but at this stage especially, many children relish the feedback they are getting from their senses: the way the crayon feels, the smell of the paint, the squishy-ness of the clay” (Zero to Three, 2016, para. 6). At this stage, their drawing will consist of scribbles and lines as they learn how to control the crayon and paper independently. The experience should focus on the enjoyment, not the outcome.
How Community and Family Influences Development
Most parents and caregivers want to give their child the best life they can and enroll them into early childhood centers to help them gain valuable skills early on. Unfortunately, for many families just getting by on the bare minimum is their way of life and this effects how their child develops. Nearly fifteen percent of families in Southern California are considered to be at the poverty line, the majority of which are Hispanic, Latino, and African American (Public Policy Institute of California, 2017). The negative effects of poverty are numerous and can last a lifetime. Poverty affects every area of a child’s life including how they develop physically and cognitively. Children can suffer side-effects of nutritional deficiencies, have lower than average test scores, and low-quality interactions with caregivers. Two of the most significant factors, language development, and parental involvement, can often be addressed in quality early childhood programs. Young children are exposed to language when they interact with their teachers at school during mealtimes, shared book reading, and during outdoor play.
Family involvement is a huge factor in a child’s success at school. Many children of low SES families do not have a strong bond with their caregivers. Single mothers who have to work at low-paying jobs may not have the motivation to take their child to the park, museum, or library to provide enriching activities. Some poor neighborhoods don’t even have these resources available to the community
Teachers and administrators in excellent preschools reach out warmly to parents, involving them in their children’s schooling and providing additional resources to families in need. They alert parents to the importance of their children’s school experiences and share techniques parents can use to support their children’s learning at home. (Lamy, 2013, para. 23)
Quality preschool programs can provide a safe place for caregivers to interact with the child. They can observe how developmentally appropriate practices such as reading a book or doing art projects, can make a difference in the child’s day.
Assessing a Child’s Progress Based on Development
Most early childhood programs have some way of measuring the success of their students. Some centers only ask that their teachers take notes while others have lengthy assessment processes in place. State-funded centers often use the DRSP to help measure goals. This assessment tool can also be used as a curriculum development guide for educators to help ensure their students are working on activities that promote development in all domains. When a child isn’t making progress as rapidly as they should, additional assessments and observations can take place. Teachers can use a running record or time sample to see if there are specific triggers to these negative results. The outcomes of the assessments and observations should be shared with the family and their input should be encouraged during formal assessment times. The results are to be used to make recommendations for additional services.
The key element to a child’s success is that the programs be high-quality, staffed with educated, knowledgeable teachers who understand how important their role is in a young child’s life. Programs such as Headstart and Early Headstart as well as many state-funded centers were designed with the goal of helping young children and their families overcome some of the negative side-effects that poverty causes while promoting development across all domains. Teachers willing to be flexible and follow the child’s lead respect the learning process of a very young child.
- Cherry, K. (2018, May 24). The four stages of cognitive development: Background and key concepts of Piaget’s theory. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/piagets-stages-of-cognitive-development-2795457
- Gonzalez-Mena, J., & Eyer, D. W. (2015). Infants, toddlers, and caregivers: A curriculum of respectful, responsive, relationship-based care and education [Kindle DX version] (10th ed.).
- Lamy, C. (2013). How preschool fights poverty. Educational Leadership, 70(8), 32-26. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may13/vol70/num08/How-Preschool-Fights-Poverty.aspx
- Public Policy Institute of California. (2017). Poverty in California. Retrieved from http://www.ppic.org/publication/poverty-in-california/
- Raising Children Network. (2017, November 16). Baby development at 5-6 months. Retrieved from http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/baby_development_6_months.html
- Spodek, B & Saracho, O (1999) The relationship between theories of child development and the early childhood curriculum, Early Child Development and Care, 152:1, 1-15, DOI: 10.1080/0300443991520101
- Zero to Three (n.d.). Are there any differences in the development of boys’ and girls’ brains? Retrieved from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/1380-are-there-any-differences-in-the-development-of-boys-and-girls-brains
- Zero to Three (2016, February 25). Learning to write and draw. Retrieved from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/305-learning-to-write-and-draw