A theory of childhood development created by the psychologist Arnold Lucius Gesell.
The North American psychologist and pediatrician Arnold Gesell proposed at the beginning of the last century a theory about how boys and girls developed behaviorally, which has been of great importance in the field of educational psychology and pediatrics.
Arnold Gesell’s theory of maturation tries to explain the order in which the main learning and skill development occur during childhood, in addition to giving him an explanation, from the physiological point of view, of why this specific order occurs.
This theory, like so many others in developmental psychology, has not been without criticism, although it must be said that practically a hundred years after being formulated it continues to carry a lot of weight in this branch. Let’s see in more detail what it is about.
Arnold Gesell’s Theory of Maturation
The maturation theory was introduced in 1925 by the American psychologist Arnold Lucius Gesell, who was also a pediatrician and educator. The studies carried out by Gesell focused on finding out how development occurred during childhood and adolescence, both in children without any psychopathology and in those who showed a pattern of learning and development different from that expected.
During the more than fifty years in which Gesell carried out his observational research, carried out mainly at the Yale Clinic of Child Development, this American psychologist and his collaborators described a series of more or less predictable behaviors in childhood.
According to his theory of maturation, all boys and girls go through the same stages of development following the same order but not necessarily presenting them at the same time. That is, each child goes at their own pace, but what is expected is that they carry out the learning in the same sequence.
This theory, although quite classic considering that it was exposed almost a hundred years ago, has penetrated deep into many aspects of the psychology of education, especially in terms of parenting methods.
Definition and direction of ripening
Arnold Gesell considered that genetics and the environment play a very important role in the development of the person, however his research focused especially on the physiological part of development. Using his language, the term ‘maturation’ for Gesell refers to a process more of a biological rather than a social type, in which more weight is given to the influence of genes than to environmental factors to which the person is exposed.
In the research carried out by this psychologist, he was able to observe that development occurred following a fixed sequence in terms of the formation of organs and physical development occurred both as an embryo and during childhood. Physiological development always occurred from head to toe (cephalocaudal direction), both before and after delivery.
When you are still an embryo, the first organ to develop is the heart, followed by the central nervous system, followed by the more peripheral organs, such as the lungs, liver, intestines, and so on. When they have arrived in the world, the first thing that babies do is learn to control their mouth, lips and tongue. Later they begin to acquire better control of their saccades, movements of the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, legs and feet.
As for the more complex behavior, babies learn first to sit, then to stand without the need for adult support, to walk, and finally to run. All babies learn these capacities in the same order according to theory, and the basis for this is that it is because the nervous system develops in the same way in all people, although at different rates.
There are multiple environmental factors to which children are exposed throughout their development, such as the socioeconomic status of their family, relationships with their parents, types of diet, among others.
However, the theory holds that each baby has its own maturation rate, which will be optimized if the social environment is aware of how the child is developing and gives the necessary social stimuli given in due course. From the theory it is deduced that once the child has acquired the full development of his nervous system, it will be able to master multiple individual and social capacities.
Highlights of the theory
Arnold Gesell’s theory of maturation can highlight a series of aspects that, although they have already been introduced in previous sections of the article, will be described in greater detail below.
1. Study of behavioral patterns
Throughout his professional career, Gesell studied the motor behaviors of babies. Based on what she observed, she concluded that behavior was better than being studied not quantitatively but based on behavioral patterns.
By behavioral pattern is understood any behavior that is defined as long as it has shape or size. That is, basically what the baby does, from a simple blink of an eye to throwing a ball with a baseball bat.
Thus, Gesell observed a series of behaviors that all babies manifest sooner or later, following the same pattern and sequence.
This is quite remarkable compared to development models such as those of Jean Piaget and Erikson, who, although they carried out part of their research in an observational way, most of the stages they proposed were more of a theoretical nature.
2. Reciprocal interlacing
This term proposed by Gesell, in English ‘reciprocal interweaving’, refers, both on a motor and personality level, to how the baby behaves in a way that seems to follow two antagonistic tendencies, with the intention of finally finding the balance.
That is, if young children are observed, they are still in a state of personality formation, which makes their relationship with others ambivalent in many contexts, their treatment being more extroverted with some people while with others. others become more closed.
Thus, progressively, throughout development, the child’s personality is reaching a balance between both extremes and his personality traits finally settle.
This can also be seen at the motor level, with many children who in the first months of life make a fairly balanced use of both hands, without being entirely ambidextrous. Subsequently, a greater lateralization is achieved in terms of their actions, becoming definitely right-handed or left-handed.
This is possibly the most striking aspect of Arnold Gesell’s theory, since he went so far as to ensure that newborns are capable of regulating their own behavior, and are even capable of determining their own sleeping and eating schedules.
His research suggests that he can also control his personality and behavioral and motor balance.
4. Generalization and individuality
The maturation theory maintains, as has already been said, that all children develop following the same sequence in terms of their behavioral and physiological development, however, it also points out that each one does it at their own pace.
Thus, there is a generalization regarding how the main behavioral milestones are acquired during childhood, but it is taken into account that each individual, due to individual differences, does so following their own maturation.
How should children be cared for?
Arnold Gesell considered that each child had his own rhythm of development, although the main learnings were developed based on the development of the nervous system, which followed the same pattern and order in all individuals.
However, despite generalizing regarding the acquisition of the main capacities during childhood, Gesell argued that the closest environment should become aware of the rhythm of their own child, in addition to understanding that his son or daughter did not develop at the same time pace than other children his age did not necessarily mean a pathology or a delay.
The best way to ensure that satisfactory maturation is acquired and that the individual acquires the behaviors that allow him to develop fully both socially and intellectually is to make the family aware of the speed that maturity is acquiring. Parents must learn to recognize how their children’s development is biologically programmed.
Criticisms of the theory
Although to date Gesell’s maturation theory is quite widespread and applied in the field of educational psychology, there are many critical voices who have pointed out some limitations of the model.
The main one is that Arnold Gesell focused too much on what he himself understands by physiological maturation, leaving aside aspects more related to the environment and the multiple social stimuli that the infant will receive throughout its development.
A very remarkable environmental aspect that Gesell ignores in his theory is teaching, both in the school environment and in the family, a very powerful stimulus in terms of the formation of the child’s personality and intelligence.
Another aspect that is also quite criticized is that it generalizes too much in terms of the order in which this maturation occurs. Nor does it specify what variability is to be expected for each behavior and learning, nor if there is the possibility that some of them may change their order of acquisition.
It should be said that Arnold Gesell’s research has a very striking limitation, which is the fact that it only investigated children from middle-class American and white families. This means that their observations cannot be generalized neither to other socioeconomic status nor to other cultures.
From Gesell’s model it can be mistakenly interpreted that all children, sooner or later, will end up developing in the same way, so it is not necessary to give them educational support in case they are not developing in the same way as the rest of the children. their congeners. This is very harmful if the child has a real disorder, in which early intervention is necessary to ensure that it develops as fully as possible.
- Crain, W. (2011). Theories of development concepts and applications. Boston, MA: Pearson.
- Daly, W. (2004). Gesell’s Infant Growth Orientation: A Composite. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 31, 321-324.