Environmental influences play a large role in our development. While we may be born with certain tendencies and capacities, our environment can determine whether or not these are expressed, and to what degree. Our development may be directed by the influences of the specific class, culture and family in which we are raised. Psychological factors such as aggression, for instance, are more acceptable in certain classes and cultures than others, and children born into these situations tend to develop accordingly. Familial environment has proved to be a major factor in the emotional development of the individual. Sometimes physical or mental growth is temporarily delayed because of a lack of emotional warmth.


Factor – Feature or element which has influence.

A group of children found in a very low standard orphanage, who appeared to be mentally retarded with learning disabilities, were removed to a home for the retarded where they were each put into the care of an older, mildly retarded/learning disabled female. This female behaved as a surrogate mother, spending a lot of time playing with each child. Their environment was enriched with toys and games, and they eventually attended a nursery school. A follow up after twenty years found that most of these children had completed high school, married, and produced children of normal intelligence. Their contemporaries who had remained at the orphanage, on the other hand, had not passed beyond third grade. Many were still not self-supporting, and many had remained institutionalised. Such research results illustrate the power of environmental influences on human development.

The genetic predispositions with which we are born continuously interact with our experience of our environment during the course of our development. Interactionist explanations of learning and development emphasise the importance of our interactions with the environment. They propose that we do not simply develop according to our genetic predispositions but according to our experiences with the world at any particular time. This differs from psychoanalytical explanations, which tell us that our genetic dispositions are most affected by our childhood experiences and traumas; in other words, that our development throughout life is determined by innate factors and what happened in the past. Interactionist explanations emphasise our ongoing interactions with the environment as a major influence on our lifetime development.

Language learning is a good example of how different factors interact. We are born with the biological organs with which to speak, and apparently, a genetic predisposition to acquire language, demonstrated by the fact that the development of language occurs in the same sequence for children all over the world, and will take place even if language development is not actively encouraged. However, children born into a verbally stimulating environment learn at a slightly faster rate, and might later develop a more extensive vocabulary. The language they develop will be culturally specific, and the kind of language they use will be greatly affected by their environment.

A person who enters a new environment where a different language is spoken will learn to communicate in that language also, though the degree and rate of learning will be affected by the perceived need, the responses that are elicited by the person’s efforts and a range of other factors in that person’s current environment.

Development as a Sequence of Stages

During the physical development of a child, their motor skills (i.e. use of muscles and limbs), develop according to a biologically pre-determined sequence, regardless of environmental influences (this development can, however, be slower to mature if there is a lack of environmental influences).  All children learn to roll over before they learn to crawl, and they learn to crawl before they learn to walk.  Some developmental theorists claim that psychological development also occurs according to a predetermined sequence of stages, and that the sequence of maturation is the same in all children. Though psychological in nature, development is highly susceptible to environmental influences however one can still pose a certain blueprint of the sequence of development, stating which particular skills a child develops at a certain age.

Some psychologists emphasise the continuity of the sequential process of development, and thus disapprove of breaking it up into stages. It is easier for us to conceptualise the developmental process however, by describing it in terms of the various stages. We will discuss criticisms of these theories later in the lesson.

The theories of development which we are about to cover are in fact stage-theories, proposed by theorists who believed that the developmental process is punctuated with certain stages during which a high degree of learning activity is observed.

These stage theorists emphasise that:

-behaviours at a given stage are organised around a dominant theme.

-behaviours at one stage are qualitatively different from behaviours that appear at an earlier or later stage.

-all children go through the same stages in the same order. A child cannot skip a stage or arrive at a later stage without going through the earlier stage.

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