To look at life-span development, we need to be aware of what it is, although the meaning is within the name. It looks at how a ‘normal’ person develops throughout the life-span. This process begins between conception and birth, the miracle of pregnancy where a one-celled organism develops into a foetus and finally a newborn baby emerges into the world. The development of this developing child is affected by the world around them. Affecting growth and at critical points can alter their genetic characteristics, which are developed within the womb, and the expression of these characteristics.
“Our exploration begins … at birth, where who we are and will ultimately become is a life-long endeavour.” (http://www.learner.org/discoveringpsychology/development/ 2001)
In this assignment I am going to look at the infant period of the life-span. Development occurs across three separate yet overlapping domains. Biological, which looks at how the body matures, grows and changes. Psychosocial looks at an individual’s personality and emotions and also their social expectations and interactions. Cognitive involves the mental processes of knowing which includes problem solving, imagining, reasoning and perceiving.
According to Erikson (1950) there are 8 stages of development beginning with 0-1 year old, basic trust versus basic mistrust. This involves trusting that things will happen either through the child’s own ability or trust that the child’s care giver will provide what is needed. A key element in Erikson’s theory is based on a secure attachment being made.
This ties in with Bowlby’s attachment theory (1969), as he believes a secure base must be formed in early years through attachment. He believes this attachment will impact future relationships. For example, attachment in adult intimate relationships can mirror earlier attachments
in childhood, resulting in negative or positive attachments throughout the life-span.
Erikson’s second stage of development is for 2-3 year olds, autonomy versus shame, doubt. At this age children’s biological development includes learning to grasp, walk and other physical abilities which ultimately lead to free choice. The child begins to show control, for example with toilet training. However they may also develop a feeling of shame if the training is not handled adequately. Children need to be enabled to assert some control over their environment. Success with this leads the child to feeling a sense of purpose. However this needs to be balanced as the children who exert too much power can experience disapproval from their care giver which will result in the child feeling guilty.
In social work practice some theories have influenced social work over the years. One example is psychosocial casework which in many ways is a development from psychodynamic theory in particular the ego psychology of writers such as Erikson. However Thompson criticises Erikson’s work on human development as he feels it
“does tend to lack awareness of broader social issues (the significance of gender, for example)” (Thompson, 2009, p89)
A key theory I touched on briefly is attachment. In 1970 Ainsworth and Bell conducted a study which looked at the individual differences in attachment. They used a test called “the strange situation” to conduct the experiment; it involved mothers and 1 year old infants being observed by researchers in a play-room through a two way mirror. This study is relevant in practice as the social worker is the stranger. This is why the situation should be observed and record made of what occurs. As a social worker’s experience grows they may relate to what they observe on an attachment style.
According to Bowlby’s research there are lots of issues affecting attachment, for example, a mother suffering from post-natal depression may have trouble bonding with her child. This can have long-term effects on the child. However the child can form an attachment with another care giver. Although Bowlby insists on it being the mother this does not have to be the case, as children can adapt and attach to any care giver, as long as all needs are adequately met.
Attachment is valid throughout the entire life-span not just in infancy. Every person has an attachment style that is unique to them. However a secure base is still needed as early attachment is crucial. When a child has a good early attachment they will learn to trust a new care giver because the child has previously learnt to trust. This again links Bowlby and Erikson’s theories together, both putting attachment and trust as key issues in infancy.
The intimacy of attachment is greatest at this early stage of infancy. It’s difficult to get more intimate, than a vulnerable child with their primary care giver. There are 3 different kinds of attachment styles, ambivalent, secure and avoidance. Some attachment styles work well together and others don’t. A social worker’s assessment in attachment styles is vital especially in adoption. As an ambivalent parent, who is very needy for love, this would clash with an avoidance child, whose reaction would be ‘get away from me’.
Although Bowlby’s theories are widely respected some feel his specification of the care giver being the mother as sexist. However his theory is valid and can be used with any care giver the child has and is vital in social work theory.
“A number of theorists have reconceptualised Bowlby’s ‘internal working model’ of attachment, which regulates communication with significant others, as a form of regulatory implicit rational memory…” (Bremmer and Slater, 2004, p208)
This shows how Bowlby’s attachment theory can be used as a base to support other theorists.
Another key theorist for this stage of development is Freud. Freud (1905) believes that from the moment of birth the infant’s actions are driven by their desire for sexual and bodily pleasure. In infancy there are 3 stages to go through, the ‘oral’ stage, the ‘anal’ stage and the ‘phallic’ stage. The initial ‘oral’ stage is satisfied through sucking, for feeding. The second ‘anal’ stage is released through the act of defecation. The final stage in infancy, the ‘phallic’ stage is released through the infant’s interest in their sexual organs.
Freud himself recognises the universal outrage that his theory was met with.
“Few of the findings of psychoanalysis have met with such universal contradiction or have aroused such an outburst of indignation as the assertion that the sexual function starts at the beginning of life and reveals it’s presence by important signs even in childhood. And yet no other findings of analysis can be demonstrated so easily and so completely.” (Freud, 1925a: 216-217 cited in Thurschwell, 2009, p40)
Looking at all the theorists and the life-span development in general gives you a benchmark of the ‘norm’. This enables us through the assessment process of any potential abnormalities that may be occurring. The theories are each relevant as they allow us to view why children exhibit certain behaviours. Theory is an integral part of social work, and the necessary tools needed are knowledge skills and values. Having adequate knowledge means knowing the relevant information, which when skilfully applied makes competent social work practice.
Social workers need to be aware of people as ever growing individuals, with a past, present and future. It is vital to understand that service users are constantly changing and adapting to their surrounding environment. Children are not just miniature adult’s, they are their own individuals with separate wants and needs. We need to take this into account when dealing with children, and not talk around them. When this is not possible their best interests need to be at the heart of every decision made.
“Much of the distinction that we can make between adult and child owes a lot to how our society and the various cultures within it have constructed notions of what is appropriate for a child as opposed to what is appropriate for an adult.” (Thompson and Thompson, 2008, p87-88)
Although children need to be treated differently than adults we always need to be aware of the future of possibilities they have in front of them. A lot of who we become is mapped out in our childhood, so behaviours need to be noted and understood to help the individual in later life.
One disadvantage the life-span development does not take into account is the world around us. This depending on the specific factor can lead to Anti-Discriminatory Practice (ADP) or Anti-Oppressive Practice (AOP), for example. a lack of understanding and knowledge of different cultural issues. Societal issues have just as much of an effect on infants as on adults. The structure of society often puts people at a disadvantage, for example, society’s reaction to disability or race can lead to poverty and even social exclusion.
However even with these issues people can sill build up resilience. Resilience enables some individuals to achieve satisfactory outcomes despite their disadvantaged backgrounds. This can be seen through a good school compensating for a delinquent neighbourhood. Even infants show resilience, low birth weight poses a risk to the child, due to the child being unable to grow at the rate required to which in return could affect its immune system, leaving the baby more vulnerable. Therefore overcoming this shows great resilience at a very early age.
Another issue this raises is society labelling those who are considered to be outside the ‘norm’. Labels tend to influence the way people view and respond to what is labelled.
“Labelling theory describes the response and expectations of others to an act labelled deviant. This may create a situation in which the labelled person can do no other than respond in the ways expected.” (Davies, 2000, p181)
The labelling will have an effect on the care giver and therefore on the infant as well.
When looking at infants you need to be aware of the surrounding family. Who at this early and vulnerable stage in development will have a significant impact? So although poverty is not something the infant will even be aware of, the care giver will be all too aware. There are a number of circumstances that may affect the way a child is raised; poverty is just one societal implication that can have an effect on the entire family. Any of these circumstances can lead to unnecessary stress which will then also impact on the infant.
A different factor that can affect growth and development is disease and illness. One example of a condition that affects a child’s development is autism. It is considered that autistic children show a lack of interest in people and therefore fail to show the ‘normal attachment’ to their care giver. Autistic children have varying degrees of communication problems and because learning through play can be restricted, the child’s pattern of development will be affected. In autistic children the overall development is slow and they do not reach the same mental milestones as the child who is ‘normal’. However autistic children are known to reach ‘islands’ of brilliance. For example, although their communication with other children is very limited they may show considerably better powers of memory or drawing skills. So although the development process is very different from the ‘norm’, they adapt to their environment as other children do. In the early years it is just a matter of persevering and learning to get to know the infant the same as any other care giver would. In the case of an autistic child the life-span development would not be very useful, nor would the theories that have been suggested during this assignment.
The social worker working with the infant will have to do their first initial assessment. Here they are laying the foundation for future assessments. They will be looking at the infant’s development and growth but as mentioned earlier the family will also impact on the infant in various ways. This is where knowledge of the entire lifespan is useful. As every person who is involved with the infant plays a part in their development. So an awareness of what is normal for that person is an advantage. The social worker will also be looking at the social implications that have an effect on the family, both positive and negative. So working with the family as a unit, with the infants well-being at the heart of everything, the social worker can focus on reducing the risk and negative impacts and raising awareness of the positives. This should have a positive affect on the well-being of the child.
In conclusion a good knowledge and understanding of the life-span development benefits social workers, as it shows what is considered to be normal development throughout life. This helps social workers recognise when someone is not on target and therefore raises awareness of potential problems. However the disadvantage to this is it doesn’t take into account any outside factors that can affect development. These factors include society issues that can lead to ADP and AOP if not taken into account with users and handled appropriately.