Ingredients for a Positive Inclusive Narrative
Nature via nurture, that is the explanation behind human development. People do not live and grow within a vacuum; biological and psychological development processes happen simultaneously as we experience all that life has to offer. All of our experiences summarize to form our personal narrative. We use all of our senses like touch, sight, and sound, to record stacks upon stacks of information we use to guide our behaviors. There is a turn-of-phrase that goes “they could fill a book with what you don’t know”, but have you ever wondered how many books could be filled with the information you do know? How about the information you will know? Your personal narrative is the tome in which you store all of your development (Miller et al., 2007).
Developmental scientists are interested in these metaphorical tomes. They want to know what these books are made of, where they come from, how the information inside is recorded, when it got there, and what that recorded information means (Gopnik et al. 1999). Developmental science research, similarly to human development itself, is a process that cannot easily be separated into biological and psychological functions. Researchers of this field study every facet of our biopsychological experiences in an attempt to understand how people grow and mature into their adult forms. Psychology writing standards dictate that the word interventions is the correct word to use, but it is a highly charged word that must be used very carefully to avoid ableist rhetoric. There are a thousand different metaphors for how developmental scientists direct their curiosities and goals, but it is important to understand developmental scientists act strictly in the roles of observers and helpful guides. The long term goal of developmental science is to accurately understand, predict, and promote healthy, positive developmental processes through the use of occasional interventions (Keil, 2014).
Human development is influenced by a massively diverse set of biopsychological influences. People have different DNA, languages, cultures, abilities, and goals which drive their behaviors. Differences are a defining part of human development, but specific differences can be detrimental. Interventions are carefully considered and employed in cases where an individual’s difference is interpreted as a threat to themselves or others. These interventions can relieve pain, symptoms, and even save lives, but interventions are not solutions. A person is not a puzzle, developmental differences are not problems, and the phrase “solution” carries such finality that it should, perhaps, never be used in conjunction with a living being. To act otherwise is to act ableist.
“Ableism refers to the ideological hyper valuation of ableness and the ways in which such norms of abled and disabled identity are given force in law, social policy, and cultural values” (Adams et al., 2015). Phrased differently, ableism is a form of prejudice against disabled populations. Ableism is a bit unique to other forms of prejudice in that there are very few clear definitions of the groups involved. The opposite of disabled, abled, does not have a clear agreed-upon definition. Abled as a status is a moving goalpost of absolute health and perfection. Disabled is also a moving goalpost which is nearly impossible to dodge forever. Disability will almost certainly affect you either temporarily or permanently at some point in your life. If you need glasses, have joint pain, high blood pressure, stress, or any other conditional modifier that affects your current functionality, you might be disabled. When we define people by their personal and historical limitations, we’re placing limitations on theirs and our own future potentials (Adichie, 2012).
The field of psychology has a tumultuous history with the concept of ableism. Psychologists and disabled populations have a complicated past of disagreements, dismissals, and dehumanization (Watermeyer, 2013). Researchers on both sides are trying to bridge this gap, but dismantling systemic ableism has not been easy or expeditious. Some people say ableist rhetoric and behavior has been reduced somewhat, but several disability rights activists disagree strongly.
Psychologist Dr. Briant Watermayer (2013) claims that concepts like APA-friendly person-first language are “naively accommodating prevailing ideas of disability as individual defect, rather than exogenous ideological force”. To correct this wrong-headed course, Wright University program directors have decided to use language proposed by disability rights activists rather than the dehumanizing terminology proposed by psychologists, renaming their programs to include classes such as crip theory and crip history (McRuer, 2008). The simple act of writing this chapter will involve using several words that are considered harmful and offensive by both large parties of this long standing argument. In the face of such difficulties and differences, how can developmental science be used to raise an anti-ableist or a crip-ally child?
This may seem like a strong and bizarre tangent, afterall we are here to learn about cognitive development, and raising hateless children. What does clinical terminology, slang, and historical definitions of words have to do with anything? I mean sure language is important but babies and little kids aren’t toddling around saying things like “neurodivergent” and “ethical ambiguity”, right? It might seem a little far fetched but language like this is actually a relevant and super critical part of raising hateless children. You as the caretaker need to be informed of current issues, appropriate terminology, and potential problems your child will face as they grow. You as the caretaker need to regularly take time to self reflect on your behaviors, take criticisms and work to improve the world. Our aim as caretakers, psychologists, or other professionals is not to raise a child to be “good enough”, we want the best for them, and that means we need to understand what the best is.
Unlearning concepts can be difficult, but we can teach and learn new ones much more easily (Kleinknecht, 2020). Developmental science aims to fix the problem of ableism during childhood learning through experience. While children and infants are not entirely shielded from systemic concepts, much of their foundational cognitive development is based on their feedback and direct interactions with their caregivers. It is possible to raise a child to have an inclusive narrative via a supportive, welcoming environment with diverse experiences (Adichie, 2009). All of these large ideas have to be recorded somewhere though, and by something. To better understand how to use developmental science to guide a child towards our desired path, we have to start at the cellular level.
Every one of us starts off as a little nuclear family of cells. The central nervous system begins with neurogenesis (Keil, 2014). Neurogenesis is the creation of the neural tube at just three weeks of prenatal existence (Keil, 2014). The neural-tube is the start of a human brain inside of a fetus. Over the next few weeks and months of life, the neural cells will divide and proliferate. These cells will divide at such a rate, that cell migration is forced to occur as new cells require more and more space. The growth cone will elongate as axons extend out from neural cells during the second trimester of development. At this point, the cells take on the appearance of webby, long-tailed neurons, but they remain unconnected from each other. Synaptogenesis, the potential connection of these neurons, begins about halfway through the third trimester (Keil, 2014). Babies that are beginning to undergo synaptogenesis can use their freshly connected neurons to take in limited amounts of sensory information. This explains why some babies can recognize the voices of their parents. The beginnings of myelination take place in the last few weeks of prenatal development, just before birth. Myelination of neurons allows for faster, more efficient inter-neural communication.
Myelination and synaptogenesis continue beyond birth and into the first two years of the life of an infant (Keil, 2014). Their brains, like their bodies, are changing rapidly in terms of size and ability for the first few years of life. Neural blooming occurs in children between the ages of 2 – 6. Neural blooming is a mass expansion of potential neural connections for the child to take in a wide variety of skills and information (Kleinknecht, 2020). Children aged 6 – 10 experience a neural pruning period and a further myelination period. These stages represent a systemic change in energy priorities. The body diverts energy away from, and removes unused neurons, redirecting priorities towards musculoskeletal growth.
These stages of CNS development are universal, and highly predictable because we follow a model of experience-expectancy. That means that our cells connect to form the sensory processing paths we need, just before we need them (Kleinknecht, 2020). This gives babies the ability to respond to inputs as new inputs are introduced to them. These new senses are untrained in a way, requiring regular use to maintain and develop beyond their new unpracticed state (Reville, 2014). Senses take large amounts of precious energy to maintain, and if a new sense remains unused, the body will quit prioritizing it. Children who grow up receiving limited sensory information will deprioritize those senses, and redirect their energy towards senses they use more regularly. These deficits aren’t necessarily permanent, people can recover lost or damaged brain tissue through neuroplasticity and treatments, but the deficits are often difficult to repair fully.
Sensory is where development shifts from a purely cellular level onto a biopsychological level (Keil, 2014). Our senses are going to be the recorders of our personal narrative, and our senses are going to develop based on our environment. An environment with diverse and intensive sensory enrichment will build a larger, more complex personal narrative with which to understand the world (Reville, 2014). We don’t just experience one environment though, we are subject to the influences of multiple environments. Environments in which we experience frequent, regular, bi-directional feedback will have a much larger influence on our personal narrative and cognitive development than environments that are larger and slower to change. Over time these environments will shape our views of concepts, culture, society, and ourselves.
When these environments are limited our senses, and our narratives become limited. Prejudices develop in the face of limited and lacking experiences. These prejudices can be checked and actively prevented by promoting diversity and tolerance in a child’s environment. Children need regular feedback to guide their behavior in social interactions, but children cannot receive feedback on how to be an anti-ableist or a crip-ally when diverse populations are not involved in their environment. A child exists within the framework of 6 nested environmental systems of micro, meso, exo, macro, and chrono in a system called the Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-ecological Systems Theory (Kleinknecht, 2020).The layers represent social influences children come into contact with, respectively their closest family, their peers, their community, their country, and the time they live in. Exo, macro, and chrono will be large systems that may be outside of most adult and childrens control, including things like natural disasters, government affairs, mass media, workplace pressure and school rules. Parents will be able to direct more control over a child’s micro and mesa environmental systems which include personal interactions with caretakers, peers, teachers, and religious guides. Ensure a child develops a large personal narrative with strong anti-ableist or a crip-ally concepts by creating environments that include experiences and feedback on a wide variety of personal differences.
Infants begin building their personal narratives the exact moment they can start sensing things (Gopnik et al. 1999). Children and babies are recording enormous amounts of data every moment that they are awake and cognisant. Development happens fast, children who are taught sign language have been shown to begin speaking basic words before they’re even a year old (Reville, 2014). If an 8 month old baby can already speak, what kinds of concepts are they experiencing in their personal narrative? What kinds of beliefs and understandings of the world are they developing? Children are beginning to write the narrative of their lifetime, and its possible to use developmental science to ensure that narrative is a good one.
Communicating a Positive Inclusive Narrative
At what point does perception become cognition? Cognitive processes are strange and remarkable, they can be difficult to explain without using metaphors that compare people to computers. Computers have become a part of regular life for many people, ergo, computer-based concepts and terminology can be an effective way of communicating complex, new topics. People learn by comparing newly acquired information to previously acquired information (Keil, 2014). They receive signals in their central nervous system which is processed into information and then categorized by how it relates to our pre-existing knowledge. These categories allow people to define their understandings into concepts. Separate concepts are connected to form multilayered super-concepts called schemas. A person with no knowledge of cognitive processes would therefore likely benefit from having a computer metaphor as a guide to the comparison and categorization of information in the perception-to-cognition process. Language helps transform cognition by making the process an interactive sharing of information (Keil, 2014). Language directs sensory information towards understanding by communicating a list of concepts that act like assembly instructions for the receptive party’s neural network to follow. It is perhaps the core of our society that can be used to communicate anything we can conceptualize, even concepts of intangible things.
The word instinct comes up a lot in developmental psychology conversations. Children have a language instinct of sorts. It is a natural reflex towards language, but that reflex needs to be carefully nurtured to grow (Keil, 2014). It is incorrect to preemptively characterize the vast multitudes as being oft prone to loquacious bouts of pretentious vernacular verbiage in its very inception, as it would harbor undue burden in the concept that the vox populi was erudite in a methodology of conveyance endemic to their innate constitution; wont only to pontificate in sesquipedalian parlance and surmising that this was some spontaneous intrinsic vestiment rather than some attribute borne of diligent and perennial studious endeavors. The gist of that demonstratively convoluted sentence being that language is very very complicated! No child is born fluent and speaking, but they can learn languages at a shockingly fast pace (Kleinknecht, 2020). While all children have the natural reflexive capability for the primary starting forms of language through gesture and sound, actual literacy and linguistic competence take energy, and guidance to develop.
Linguistic competence is achieved through a series of building blocks with very complex names. Concepts like phonemes and morphemes; which combine with syntax, semantics and prosody to form spoken language (Keil, 2014). A phoneme is the smallest unit of language, in the form of a single sound (Kuhl 2010). These sounds when combined with meanings are called morphemes. Syntax are the rules and order of how these noises should be used, semantics are the meaning of separate words, and prosody is the overall tone and melody applied to words. All spoken languages have these structures, but with massive internal variance. All languages use phonemes, but all languages do not use the same phonemes. The differences span across morphemes, syntax, semantics and prosody as well.
Language development happens via intermodal matching, a series of connections that translate sensory information to meaning (Keil, 2014). Children develop cell assemblies that cross throughout different regions of the brain which relate all kinds of sensory information. This allows children to understand that certain events in their environment are accompanied by sensory feedback. Once this is realized, babies will attempt to further understand and control their effects on their environment. This process takes months to learn and years to master (Kleinknecht, 2020). The act of learning to produce controlled meaningful noise is time consuming, requiring plenty of energy, practice, and social feedback. The social feedback portion cannot be understated. How is a child supposed to learn to use their words without working from examples? They require a steady, interactive stream of words from which to build their base concepts of language. These lived experiences are the nurture portion of language development.
When given nurture and guidance, language development follows a predictable path (Keil, 2014). Newborns experience a pre-linguistic phase until they are about three months old. Babies in their pre-linguistic phase have been observed behaving in ways that suggest preference towards the phonemes used in their caregivers language (Kuhl 2010). Between the ages of three and six months, babies are beginning to coo, demonstrating behaviors that suggest they have made the intermodal match between their actions and the noises they are hearing. Babies at this phase do not have control of words, phonemes, or even personal volume, but they are beginning to take baby-steps towards speaking. Vocal babbling starts between six and twelve months, though children using nonvocal sign language have been shown to sign some words correctly.
Starting at twelve months, and lasting about twelve months more, children enter the developmental time period of fast mapping (Keil, 2014). During this year children will develop their vocabulary at a high paced rate of up to around 500 new words per month. Children begin to communicate using single words and short, incomplete sentences. These are respectively referred to as holophrases and telegraphic speech. Children practice mimicry, copying words and phrases they hear in their environment. Over regulation tends to occur once children show an understanding that language requires order and rules. Understanding the rules and order of language takes time and many mistakes, and they want to be correct. After all of these steps in language development have been experienced, language optimization can occur. The packaging of language optimization is less predictable than its counterparts, lasting a long time, this phase leads to literacy and linguistic competence.
The developmental benefits of nurture through lived experiences is key, but not limited to language acquisition. While children develop on expected tracks, their paces may vary. It is important to nurture children at their current level of understanding without attempting to force faster development (Kleinknecht, 2020). Infant nurture looks like a diverse array of interactive sensory information, but for older babies, nurture comes in the form of giving supportive behavioral examples and the allowing of mistakes. If children are now allowed to practice skills, those skills will never flourish.
Children need to have an understanding of sensory information before they can understand motor information, and later the effective combination of the two. This learning period is called the sensori-motor stage, it starts at birth and typically lasts about two years (Keil, 2014). During this stage, babies make errors in connecting what their sensory information means about their environment. Babies in the sensory-motor stage demonstrate behaviors that suggest they lack the concept of object permanence. This means they do not understand that an object continues to exist even when they cannot perceive it. Once children have a sense of intermodal matching, children are learning much more than words. They’re learning meanings, spatial relations, environmental cause-and-effect and everything else they’ll need to interact with the world effectively (Kleinknecht, 2020).
This stage of learning is called the preoperational stage (Keil, 2014). The preoperational stage overlaps with the synaptic blooming timeline discussed in the last chapter. Learning during this stage is mainly based on observation and memorization of lived experiences. This means that children are navigating their world and answering questions with information they have gathered from lived experiences. Children do not show an understanding of why certain things are correct, just an understanding that some things are correct, and some things are not.
The next stage is called the concrete-operational stage, and it partially overlaps with the synaptic pruning timeline discussed in the last chapter. The frontal cortex has developed enough by this stage for children to begin practicing their newly acquired executive functions. Children at this stage are beginning to show cognitive flexibility by using logic and reasoning to solve problems. They demonstrate having a mental storage space, where they can consider and manipulate information from memory. Child logic is limited and easily overwhelmed at this stage, especially when the problem is not concrete, has multiple variables, or both.
Development always follows these stages, but the stages might not always happen in the predicted age ranges, especially among diverse populations. The stages themselves are named complete combinations of brain growth, fine motor control, gross motor control, concept storage, concept manipulation, language comprehension and social pragmatics (Keil, 2014). Perhaps ironic, given the stage names, but these stages are really only concrete in their order. Brain development, body development, nurture, and lived experiences will be the determining factors of cognitive development and skill mastery.
The imagery of language as a series of building blocks grows more and more complicated with time and experience. We start with just a few blocks which we use to form words. We build simple towers as sentences. We grow physically, cognitively, and experientially, gaining new skills and understandings of how we can relate to and manipulate the world around us. Eventually we can be able to use our linguistic building blocks to build poetic castles,pyramids of explanation, or labyrinths of dissertations. Life isn’t a constant upward streak of successes however, and children will naturally make a lot of linguistic and behavioral mistakes on their individual pathways in life. As caretakers, it is our job to assist children through their learning processes. It helps to have a baseline understanding of how children think.
Cross-culturally, young children speak and behave in ways that demonstrate strong essentialist beliefs (Rhodes et al., 2017). This means they struggle with the concept of separating generalizations about groups from individual people until they are school aged (Saxe, 2009). They build very strict mental categories based on appearances, behaviors, and other commonalities, then assign people to these categories (Keil, 2014). Children will observe casual and emotional sweeping generalizations about groups, then hold these generalizations as law. These categories are unavoidable, so we, as caregivers must try to ensure healthy, appropriate social categorization skills (Kleinknecht, 2020). Seemingly harmless moments stack up and regardless of the biases you are trying to avoid sowing, the best thing you can do is focus on positive possibilities. Explain things in terms of what people are capable of doing, and how they are capable of doing those things. Much of the focus of ableist and other biased narratives focuses on limitations. These limitations can easily be rephrased as differences while still offering satisfactory explanations.
With these things in mind we can develop an understanding of what children require to develop healthy sensory and cognitive functions while maintaining a direction towards social justice. What words are you providing children to hear? What gestures are you providing for children to see? What will you do to assuage harmful messages they receive from the media they consume and social situations out of your direct control as a caregiver? Children will develop their understanding of the world, and how to interact with that world based on your examples and your explanations.
The Language of Development
Congratulations, you have reached the final chapter. Hopefully, by now you developed a better understanding of cognitive development! In the last two sections, we thought about neural development, touched on sensory information, perceived perception, and talked about language development. Now I think it’s time to discuss how all of these things come together to form thoughts and behaviors. Hopefully, this reading experience will allow you to commit some of this information to memory.
A lot of what we discussed sofar falls within the framework of Piagetian theories. These theories provide excellent groundwork for understanding how children grow and interact with the world but in a very textbook sense. Psychology is tricky because we need those textbook understandings before we can understand some of the differences in cognitive development. If the world was an empty vacuum, where you as a perfectly unbiased caretaker had control over every possible stimulus a child could experience, we might be able to plot an exact timeline of developmental milestones. Children grow within the bounds of a complex menagerie of overlapping social systems (Kleinknecht, 2020). Vygotsky’s developmental psychology theories focus on exogenous forces and how some aspects of cognitive development are determined by social experiences (Keil, 2014).
In a non-textbook world, children will receive a countless amount of often conflicting messages about how the world is and how the world should be. These messages (even the ones we don’t like) will have an effect on how the child’s thoughts and behaviors develop (Keil, 2014). After the sensory development phase, the caregiver must quickly change their role. Instead of focusing mainly on introducing children to new concepts, caregivers must also try to persuade children away from harmful ideas. Very young children only have their developing logic to apply to new situations, ergo their takeaways may often be skewed or inaccurate. Social generalizations that are figurative, sarcastic, or metaphorical will frequently be understood as literal and universally true. Caretakers must be very careful with the language they use around their children to prevent the internalization of harmful ideas (Kleinknecht, 2020). Children hear phrases like “girls can’t do math” and silently memorize this new fact as a universal truth. These highly generalized ways of categorizing groups and information are called essentialist beliefs (Rhodes & Mandalaywala, 2017).
Essentialist beliefs are made up of five components. Categories are casual, stable, homogenous, strictly defined, and natural (Keil, 2014). Children observe and define social categories very early, so it is important to take steps in preventing them from internalizing harmful essentialist categories. Children observe gender-presentation and racial differences, but disabilities can be difficult to recognize, even for adults. Disabilities vary widely, and children may struggle to understand why the term “disability” applies to elderly people in wheelchairs, young children wearing helmets and classmates who show no differences in outward appearance. This can be a bit of a blessing because disability-inclusive concepts such as “everyone works at their own pace”, “everyone likes different things”, and “everyone has different needs” can be applied to any social category.
Caretakers should be careful to avoid voicing generalizations about disabled individuals in order to prevent children from hearing and establishing essentialist categories (Rhodes et al., 2017). Disabled children will also need to learn how to categorize themselves. In cases like these, caretakers must speak carefully to ensure the child does not internalize harmful stereotypes about themself. The most important thing a caretaker can do when educating children about disabilities is to inform and redirect harmful understandings. Gently correct and educate children who use hurtful language when talking about disabled populations. Your classmate isn’t stupid, or gross, or scary. There exist an unfortunately common amount of slurs for disabled populations. Teach children that words like these are incredibly hurtful, and no one likes being bullied.
Disability, similar to race, is a very complex, hot-button topic. Some children can be introduced to concepts of disability via gentle, caretaker guided discussions about respect, and kindness. Other children may be introduced to the concept of disability in traumatic, or even life threatening circumstances. You as a caretaker may need to enlist the help of a licensed mental health professional to ensure your child does not internalize harmful messages from their experiences. Outside of these specific circumstances, topics surrounding disability should just be handled through careful language and direction.
You can lecture a child about inclusivity, or anything else you want them to learn until you’re blue in the face, but time spent teaching a message does not equal likelihood of message internalization. Children learn best when they can figure things out on their own. Learning is kind of like solving a puzzle, and there is little interest in watching someone else solve a puzzle while you are forbidden to participate. Vygotsky talks about the “zone of proximal development” where children learn best (Keil, 2014). In this zone, they are under just the right amount of eustress to want to learn things. Caretakers provide children with “scaffolding” in the form of pictures, or songs, whatever carefully steers a child towards the correct lesson without announcing it.
This type of learning environment leads to children learning much more than just the lesson you intended to teach. Children who practice this method are learning how to manage executive functions (Tippett, 2020). They are learning how to learn and recall information effectively. Children in this educational framework learn to set goals and follow plans to reach goals. If this skill is practiced and honed, children with a good handle on their executive functions will be able to use these skills to help reach more advanced goals. They will be able to make plans, self-correct personal behaviors, and apply learning strategies in a variety of environments.
The zone of proximal development is important for semantic, episodic, and autobiographical memory. Semantic memory is a menagerie of all the different facts a child knows that aren’t associated with lived experiences (Keil, 2014). It is the first type of memory infants experience as they come to understand how the world works. Episodic memory comes after semantic. Episodic memory is composed of lived events, and the ability can be observed in children before they’re able to speak. We can tell by observing children who exhibit deferred imitation. Children witness an action with a reaction, then attempt to repeat the behavior by acting it out. Autobiographical memory comes after semantic and episodic but does not follow a strict developmental timeline (Fivush & Nelson, 2004). Autobiographical memory is a type of episodic memory where children can remember being a part of the memory. This type of memory is unlocked through language and a sense of self-concept.
Autobiographical memory can be observed in children as young as two years old but more often begins emerging in recognizable form between the ages of 4-7. Children who are frequently exposed to and engaged with personal stories from caretakers tend to develop autobiographical memory much earlier than their peers who lack such experiences. Frequent, interactive dialogues between caregivers and children help make learning environments more effective. Language isn’t just for communication, it’s also how we store and recall information. Language is probably the most important tool in a caretaker’s kit. Language can be used to develop memory through stories, build scaffolding to learn new skills, discuss needs and concepts.
In chapter one we discussed how everyone has a metaphorical book of sorts where our lived experiences are recorded. These psychological tomes are completely intangible but they’re still filled with words. Language is our way of relating, recalling, and expressing the many sensations, thoughts, beliefs, and events we have experienced. Developmental science is made up of countless, complicated, inseparable biological, and psychological concepts that aren’t yet fully understood. Developmental science is a developing field. We can help develop the field, develop ourselves, and ensure healthy development in future generations through communication. Caretakers can dedicate themselves to understanding language and concepts in order to expand the personal narratives of ourselves and the children we care for. Trying to live and grow hatelessly is difficult. The meaning of hateless can feel like a moving goalpost at times. Use your language. Reframe the concept. A moving goalpost means that we are constantly improving, and that we can all play together a little longer.
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