This essay seeks to critically evaluate my role as a child observer. Drawing on two or more theories of child development, I will look at the main theoretical concept and critically evaluate in relation to my observation. First, I begin a brief description of the child I observed and the setting in which the observation took place. Next I attempt to show my understanding of normal child development, and aspects that can disrupt ‘normal’ child development. Throughout the essay, I will critically examine and reflect on the process of undertaking my observation. And finally, issues of ethics and anti- oppressive practises will be discussed.
The child I observed was three and half year’s old girl called Sara (not her real name), of African Caribbean background and English is the only language spoken at home. All three observations took place at the day-centre she attends. The day-care centre gave me permission to observe her, but not to interact and interfere with her educational activities. As this was my first observation, I was a bit anxious about how Sara might react about me watching her, and while her parents consented about the observations, Sara did not know that I am here to observe her; it is this scenario that made me uncomfortable. I was particularly more concerned about the ethical issues of not informing Sara about the observation. One element of anti-oppressive practice is to make sure that people’s rights are not violated. Social workers must put children’s needs first, and to respect their human rights, including rights to liberty, privacy and family life (Dalrymple and Burke, 1995: 57).
In common with anyone who is undertaking child observations, I was quite unsure where to start and how to conduct myself. I was anxious watching Sara in such an intimate way, and thought this could be intrusive to her personal space. For example; early in the observation, Sara was not talking and was mostly sitting quietly and I did not want to upset her. But most importantly, the fact that Sara was the same racial background as mine made my observation a difficult one, because I was not sure whether I would get adequate learning about anti-discriminatory practice. However, because this kind of feeling is common among student child observers, gave me some comfort and internal support. (McMahon, 1994)
During the first 29 minutes of my observations, Sara was not talking at all. I moved closer so that I could see and hear her better. Sara looked up and then smiled at me. I did not know whether Sara talks or not, but to my ignorance I expected three and half years olds to speak at this stage. Up to this point, I was not fully aware what “child development was” I remembered child development lecture we have had at the University, and I recalled the terms “selective mutism” I asked myself whether Sara is in selective mutism mode or whether she is uncomfortable with my intrusion. To my surprise at 10:29 am I heard and saw Sara saying something. When Adult2 said “its playtime” Sara shouted and said something I understood as “playtime” unfortunately, Sara did not say a single word for the rest of the observation for this day. I ask Adult2 about Sara’s ability to speak. “Sara has a delayed speech” She replied. Sara is three and half years old and still is not talking, she says very few words and she seemed to be way behind compared with her peers.
So what is normal child development? Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual theory suggests that children develop through series of stages, he named them as: oral, anal, phallic, latent and genital stages. (see Goswani, 2011) Freud believed normal childhood development is subject to successful completion of these stages. He believed a child becomes ‘fixated’ if any of these stages are not completed. (Parrish, 2010: 59-62).He believed that three parts of personality; id, ego, and superego ‘become integrated during the stages’ (Berk, 2006: 17). This perspective thus suggests that ‘the process of desire and gratification in each stage defines the basis of personality formation’ and paves the way for the type of adult such personality would be later in life. (Avan and Kirkwood, 2010). According to this perspective Sara’s speech delay is caused by unsuccessful completion of one or more of these stages.
While Freud highlights the importance aspects of child development, critics would point out that his tendency to focus on sexual urges to explain his concepts. Another weakness is that the theory seems to be Eurocentric and does not take into account none European cultures. Other theorist such as Erik Erikson’s theory although an extension of Freud’s work ‘placed more emphasis on social influences such as parents and siblings, role models and cultural backgrounds than Freud did, and thus placed less emphasis on sexual urges to explain children’s behaviour’ (Parrish, 2010: 63)
Having said that, understanding developmental expectations of children of similar age would have helped me better understand Sara’s situations. I did not understand why Sara was not able to talk; I was comparing her with my son who was able to talk by the age of two. ‘Slow talking often raises parental and professional concern’. However, knowing what’s “normal” and what’s not is crucial in understanding child development as there are wide variations among the “normal children in the rate of language acquisition” (Sheridan, 1997).
Why do we need to know child development? A good knowledge of child development and understanding theories that underpin such knowledge is essential, because it allows us to understand the concept of child development, hence theories of child development. Similarly, understanding theories of language development can help us identify how children such as Sara develop their own language and communication skills. It is therefore important that Social workers understand the process of human growth and how children such as Sara acquire language acquisition. (Doherty and Hughes, 2009: 5)
There are a number of theories associated with child development; behaviourism and nativists are two of them. Behaviourism focuses on the process of language acquisition, it suggest that children learn through observation and reinforcement. For example, when a parent encourages a child to say ‘Mama’ or ‘Papa’ and the child responds the parent gets excited and encourages the child to so say it again; chances are the child is more likely to try to repeat it. Behaviourist such as Watson (1924) and B. F. Skinner suggested that child development is a ‘continuous process of change shape by the environment and it is one that could be differed according to the individual’. (Doherty and Hughes, 2009: 37) Although reinforcement and imitation can help early language development, this perspective is primarily concerned with visible behaviour, and therefore does not address or ignores important child behaviour such as ‘thoughts, feelings and emotions’. (Berk, 2006: 355).
Clearly, Sara used language to label objects of interest to her. In one occasion, I observed Sara naming shapes. For example, I heard her saying ‘green colour’ ‘yellow colour’ she was also able to name complex shapes such as ‘hexagon’ and ‘octagon. When I enquired how Sara learned these, objects, I was told she uses ipad at home. However, Sara demonstrated difficulty with simple instructions such as ‘put your shoes on’ or ‘take your coat off’ and she found difficult to consistently follow simple instructions, but she was able to repeat phrases such as ‘let’s go’ and ‘ready set go’ she therefore demonstrated the core principle of behaviourism, which is learning through imitation and reinforcement as she was able to repeat what she saw on the ipad and what she heard from others. However, what behaviourism does not tell us are Sara’s thoughts and emotions, and this is the some of the weaknesses of this perspective.
Thus, theoretical knowledge is the key to effective intervention and good assessment when assessing children in need and their families. Critical awareness and self‐reflective has allowed me to re-examine my own values, and biases and as result I have gained basic knowledge of child development. The observation and my ongoing learning of aspect of human growth module allowed me to become aware of positions of power and how such power can impact child development. For example, parents or staff at day-care centres or even a social worker abusing their power when dealing with children.
Berk, (2006) Comments that behaviourist arguments cannot ‘account for language development’. And while early reinforcements may help children learn some phrases, it’s the adults who ‘influence children’s language development through interaction’. (Berk, 2006: 355). Furthermore, while this perspective emphasis on nurturing through reinforcement, in contrast, nativist proponent such as Noam Chomsky would argue that children have their own way of learning language without being reinforced by adults. In other words they have ‘inborn human ability to learn’. Chomsky focuses on grammar and contends that it is, too ‘complex to be directly thought to a child, even if such child is cognitively sophisticated’ (Berk, 2006: 355)
These different views helped me understand more about children growth and their language development. Before the observation, I rarely thought and tried to find out how children develop their language skills. But having read the deference perspectives about children development helped me understand and gave me a basic knowledge about child development. For example behaviourism’s reinforcement concept reminded me how I actually did this to my own children without knowing it.
Another theory that interested me is Jean Piaget’s Cognitive development theory. Like Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual theory, also suggests that children develop through series of stages, namely; sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operational periods (see (Doherty and Hughes, 2009 for more details). But unlike Freudians, the perspective suggests that all these stages take place inside child’s brain (Doherty and Hughes, 2009) the aim of the theory is to explain the process by which a child, develops into a personality that can reason and think. Paiget believed that children’s development is marked by ‘qualitative differences in their thinking as they grow up (Miller, 2011: 653)’. His theory suggested that children do not necessarily learn from their care givers and peers or experience, instead, they ‘actively construct knowledge and experience through interacting with the world and reflecting on these experiences’. (Miller, 2011: 653). He highlighted the importance of ‘maturation’; he believed that children are natural learners. Although Piaget’s theory has been influential and contributed Western understanding of child development, some of the criticism of his work is that, the stages of development seemed to be Eurocentric and therefore overlooked other cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, Berk (2006), comments that although Piaget’s work contributed to the field of child development, he ‘underestimated the competencies of infants and preschoolers’ (Berk, 2006: 23).
In contrast to Piaget’s view, Lev Vygotsky Socio-cultural theory (1978) (see Goswani, 2011: 673) suggested that children’s social interactions with important figures such as parents can have positive impact on their developing. He argued that children learn by example, they tend to copy the language or behaviour they see or hear being used around them. (Goswani, 2011: 673) Although Vygotsky’s theory relates to Piaget’s cognitive development theory, unlike Piaget he did not see children as solitary learners. But as learning through social interaction that involve observing what others are doing, learning from them and then communicating with them. He further, believed that children’s parents, teachers and peers are crucial to their cognitive understanding (Daniels, 2011: 673).
Like Piaget, Vygotsky saw children as active learners in their own right, but believed that this needs ‘access to rich and stimulating environment’ (Doherty and Hughes, 2009: 269) in light of what I have observed about Sara, I think she needs access to speech and language therapy which would help her support her language development needs. During my third observation, I observed number of factors which I taught were crucial in child development. Sara was playing with her peers away from where I was. This gave me an opportunity to observe her in naturalistic setting. I observed that Sara’s playing skills were far better than her speaking ability. She was able to play alone and with groups and was clearly learning from them. From above simple observation, it is clear Sara’s behaviour resembles those described in Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory. During my observation, I noticed that while Sara was not able to initiate her own speech, she was able to copy and say what she saw or heard. Furthermore, her social interaction was impressive, she played and interacted well with her peers and did not exhibit any sign of isolation. By observing this child, I have gained insight into the child’s strengths, weaknesses interests and skills. I have noted barriers that might be holding back this child’s development, such as speech delay.
As child observation has become an important tool for understanding child development, issues such ethics, values and anti-oppressive practice needs to be taken into account. Good relationship between social workers and services users are central to the effectiveness of good anti-oppressive practice. Dalrymple and Burke (1995) states that social workers should seek knowledge, understanding and be able to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding how one’s own behaviour and emotions impacts on services users is vital for the profession. Although I did not witness any wrong doing during my observations at the day-care centre, I felt that it is paramount important that one needs to be encouraged to use anti-oppressive practices when working with children and families, in settings such as day-cares and nurseries. ‘One element of anti-oppressive practice is to ensure that children’s rights are not violated’ (Dalrymple and Burke, 1995: 30) Anyone working with children also needs to be aware of and familiar with statutory legislations such as Children Act 1989 and Human Rights Acts 1998 in order to effectively engage good anti-oppressive practice.
In conclusion, in this essay I have stated that how child observation tasks I have undertaken has opened my eyes to the world of children. Because I have learned something I knew, but did not realise that I knew it. Every day I observed my own children but I rarely give a second thought about such observations. I have also talked about how my understanding of child development was very limited and the module contents and the child observations boosted my understanding immensely. In addition, I mentioned the child I observed was the same racial background as mine, and felt that I might not get sufficient learning in terms of anti-oppressive and anti-discriminately practice, and because as a potential social worker, it is vital that I need to be exposed to other cultures.
I have also commented that the ethical dilemmas I have faced whilst observing. For example the child was not told that I will be observing her. I looked at the various perspectives in relation to child development, what do they have in common and where they differ, their strengths and weaknesses. I have also talked about how anti-oppressive practice is vital when dealing with vulnerable service users, and those intend to work with children need to be made aware the statuary legislations that underpin child protection and Human rights. And finally, I have stated how this observation boosted my understanding of child development and that not all children speak and grow up at the same rate and how the adverse effects such as speech delay can impact on ‘normal’ child development.
Word count: 2566
Avan, B.I. and Kirkwood, B.R. (2010) ‘Review of the theoretical frameworks for the study of child development within public health’, J Epidemiol Community Health, vol. 64, no. doi:10.1136/jech.2008.084046, p. 390.
Berk, L. (2006) Chidl Development, Boston, USA: Pearson International edtion.
Dalrymple, J. and Burke, B. (1995) Anti-Oppressive Practice: Social Care and the Law, 2nd edition, Maidenhead, Birkshire: McGraw-Hill International.
Dalrymple, J. and Burke, B. (1995) Anti-oppressive practice: Social care and the law, Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Daniels, H. (2011) ‘The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Congitive Development’ Chichester, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Doherty, J. and Hughes, M. (2009) Child Development: Theory and Practice 0-11, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Goswani, U. (2011) The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Congitive Development, 2nd edition, Chichester, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
McMahon, L.&.F.S. (1994) ‘‘Infant and child observation as preparation for social work practice’, Social Work Education vol., vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 81-89.
Miller, P. (2011) ‘The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Congitive Development’ Chichester, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Parrish, M. (2010) Social Work Perspectives On Human Behaviour, Maidenhead, Birkshire: Open Universtiy McGraw-Hill.
Sheridan, D.M. (1997) From Birth to Five Years: Children’s Developmental Progress, London: Routledge.