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Physical development

Physical development impacts on psychological functioning. Our bodies, including our brain, are continually changing. Think back to when you rst started school and think of yourself now. You are bigger and stronger, with ner motor skills – you can hold a pen correctly and tie your shoelaces. These changes have led to your independence.
Body changes at puberty, menopause and old age also impact on our psychological development. For instance, they a ect the way we think and solve problems, our self- esteem and our relationships with others.


Cognitive development

Cognitive development refers to the development of our mental abilities through the course of the lifespan. Our memories, language, thinking and problem-solving abilities change throughout our lives. Were you mature enough in Year 7 to study the di erent perspectives of psychology in the detail required at Unit 1 Psychology level? Probably not! Your cognitive abilities have come a long way in four years.


Social and emotional development

You develop the ability to regulate your emotions. As infants get older, they become more interested in expanding their social network. This network expands from their main caregivers to include a range of other people, including friends and teachers. How we express emotions also changes and is in uenced by the environment and society. Think about when it is acceptable to cry. Also think about your emotions: are they becoming more sophisticated as you age? As we get older, we develop a sense of self – a sense of our own identity, which includes gender roles, self-esteem and moral standards.


Table 9.1




Maturation is a genetically programmed process that governs growth. It directs physical and biological development, including the development of an infant’s muscles and brain. Being able to reach out for a toy, rolling over, walking, talking and toilet training are all under the initial control of maturation.


Learning and how it connects to maturation

Learning can be de ned as a relatively permanent change in behaviour due to experience. Maturation and learning work together – babies cannot learn skills such as walking until their brains and bodies are physically ready (su ciently mature) to carry them out. Learning can be achieved through practice. Although maturation is necessary to reach motor development milestones, practice is required to become pro cient at them.


I born reflexes

automatic responses to speci c stimuli. These re exes are not learned behaviours; they are not a product of the environment as they do not rely on experience or the development of cognitive skills. Essentially, inborn re exes are entirely due to nature (heredity). Genetic material programs them to occur in newborn babies. Babies do not have to think about inborn re exes – they occur automatically. The absence of a re ex at birth (for full-term babies) or the persistence of a re ex beyond the age when it is meant to disappear may indicate problems with the functioning of the brain. Further assessment into brain activity is often required. The majority of the inborn re exes disappear as the baby’s nervous system and muscles mature and a baby’s movement becomes more voluntary.


Developmental norms

Developmental norms indicate the average age that a certain behaviour or skill will be achieved. They are based on the mean age of a large sample. Developmental norms provide feedback on whether the infant is progressing normally in relation to the rest of the population. Comparing an infant’s progression to developmental norms can
be useful. It can alert health professionals to a situation and allow appropriate action.


Critical periods + teratogens

Critical periods in development are times of special sensitivity to certain environmental factors that can shape the individual’s capacity for future development. As researchers started to nd clear links between toxic substances and the development of the unborn child, the concept of critical periods in development was formed. These toxic substances, known as teratogens, are capable of harming an unborn child. They will a ect an unborn child’s development if the unborn child is exposed to them at speci c times in their development. Their e ects can be tragic and cause serious life-long consequences, as seen in the case of rubella and other related birth defects.

Critical periods tend to begin and end abruptly and beyond this period, the phenomenon will not appear. For instance, if a greylag goose does not imprint to
a moving object within the rst 36 hours after hatching, it will never imprint.


Sensitive periods

best or optimal times for psychological development in certain areas, such as learning to speak in the rst years of life. These periods of maximal sensitivity are seen to begin and end more gradually than critical periods. Sensitive periods coincide with times when our brain’s nervous system is undergoing rapid growth, such as forming new synapses between neurons or equally importantly pruning neurons that have not been used or activated by the environment.
Sensitive periods allow for the possibility that, given the right circumstances, individuals can still experience psychological development, even if the individual began with deprived conditions.

Once the sensitive period has lapsed, we may be able to learn some aspects of language, such as vocabulary, but it is harder to acquire this outside this period.


Sensitive periods in learning and experience expectant

Brain plasticity relates to the extraordinary ability of the brain to change throughout life as a result of experience. Rapid brain growth occurs in the early years, a time when the brain is very plastic. As children and adolescents grow, their brains become less plastic and their neural pathways become more xed.
Certain periods in development are particularly suited to learning certain things. At these times, the growing brain needs speci c types of stimulation so that neural pathways are established. Usually, this stimulation occurs as part of a person’s natural development. However, it is vital that the individual is exposed to the necessary experiences to allow for the changes through learning.

This is experience- expectant learning (experience-expectant synaptogenesis).


Experience dependant

Experience-dependent learning is a form of learning that can occur at any time during an individual’s life. It refers to adaptive plasticity, encoding new experiences that occur throughout life, fostering new brain growth and re ning existing brain structures. These vary for every individual according to their unique set of experiences throughout life. For example, learning to read and write in one’s native tongue is a form of experience-dependent learning.
If an individual misses out on the appropriate experience-dependent learning opportunities during a sensitive period, it does not necessarily mean that learning will never occur. A person learns throughout life so the missed learning can take place outside of the sensitive period, but it will require more time and cognitive energy and sometimes the learning might not be as e cient or strong.