Child development can be defined as the process by which a child changes over time. It covers the whole period from conception to an individual becoming a fully functioning adult. It’s a journey from total dependence to full independence.
Child development incorporates, physical growth as well as intellectual, language, emotional and social development. Whilst these aspects are often considered separately, in reality each influences all of the others. For example, as the brain develops physically, so intellectual abilities increase. This in turn allows a child to explore their social world more fully, develop their emotional responses to it and the language needed to describe it, but in turn, this exploration directly impacts on further physical brain development.
A number of factors affect the course and progression of child development within a given individual. These include the innate or the biological makeup of the child themselves and external influences such as family, society, economics, health and culture. Thus, growth and development are directly related to the child’s nutrition, affluence, parenting styles, education and interaction with peers.
Whilst each child develops at their own pace, a number of typical age-related milestones have been identified. Considerable variation around when these milestones are reached is normal. For example, a child will usually start taking their first steps at around 12 to 13 months. The milestone is, therefore, set at around 12 months, but some children don’t walk until 18 months. This represents normal variation. However, a child not walking by 2 years old would need to be followed up.
Different validated screening tools, based on child development theories, have been produced to support developmental assessment and help highlight when a child is not reaching the expected milestones.
Whilst it can just represent normal variation if a specific child does not meet an expected milestone, professionals from education, social care and health need to be able to identify a child who is starting to miss milestones or having problems, in order to support that child and their family.
Gender and sexual identity
Parents and the wider culture shape gender choices, in subtle ways; when they give different toys to boys and girls, paint a child’s room blue or pink or in how they behave with a child, such as in rough play with boys, but not with girls. In addition children learn from others through the role modelling of what is appropriate behaviour for each gender.
In late childhood gender expression becomes more overt with an increased participation in gender role-related behaviours. Sexual behaviour and curiosity becomes more private whilst interest in romantic relationships develops. There can be an onset of bullying based on gender identity, expression or sexual orientation.
In early adolescence with the visible development of secondary sexual characteristics, interest in sexual activity develops. Gender identity and sexual orientation becomes more important and may be disclosed. There may be increased modesty around same sex peers.
In middle adolescence there is an emphasis on appearance and sexual attractiveness. Young people seek physical and emotional intimacy in romantic relationships and there is an increased importance to these chosen relationships over familial ones. Young people are more likely to be open to the possibility that there are more ways of expressing sexuality and gender than the traditional heteronormative way.
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