5 Chapter 5: Early Childhood


Photos Courtesy of Barney Moss (Left), World Bank Photo Collection (Middle and Right)

At the end of this chapter, you will be able to…

  1. Summarize overall physical growth during early childhood. Identify examples of gross and fine motor skill development in early childhood.
  2. Describe growth of structures in the brain during early childhood.
  3. Identify nutritional concerns for children in early childhood.
  4. Describe sexual development in early childhood. Define preoperational intelligence.
  5. Identify animism, egocentrism, and centration.
  6. Describe changes to attention and memory in early childhood.
  7. Apply Vygotsky theory to early childhood. Illustrate scaffolding. Explain private speech. Explain theory of mind.
  8. Describe language development in early childhood.
  9. Explain Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development for toddlers and children in early childhood.
  10. Contrast models of parenting styles.
  11. Examine concerns about child care.
  12. Explain theory of self from Mead.
  13. Summarize theories of gender role development.
  14. Examine concerns about childhood stress and development.

The objectives are associated with the reading sections below.


Our discussion will now focus on the physical, cognitive and socioemotional development during the ages from two to six, referred to as early childhood. Early childhood represents a time period of continued rapid growth, especially in the areas of language and cognitive development. Those in early childhood have more control over their emotions and begin to pursue a variety of activities that reflect their personal interests. Parents continue to be very important in the child’s development, but now teachers and peers exert an influence not seen with infants and toddlers.

Physical Development during Early Childhood

Growth in early childhood (Ob 1)

Children between the ages of 2 and 6 years tend to grow about 3 inches in height each year and gain about 4 to 5 pounds in weight each year. The 3-year-old is very similar to a toddler with a large head, large stomach, short arms, and legs. During early childhood, children start to lose some of their baby fat, making them less like a baby, and more like a child as they progress through this stage. By around age 3, children will have all 20 of their primary teeth, and by around age 4, may have 20/20 vision. But by the time the child reaches age 6, the torso has lengthened and body proportions have become more like those of adults. The average 6-year-old weighs about 46 pounds and is about 46 inches in height.

This growth rate is slower than that of infancy and is accompanied by a reduced appetite between the ages of 2 and 6. This change can sometimes be surprising to parents and lead to the development of poor eating habits. However, children between the ages of 2 and 3 need 1,000 to 1,400 calories, while children between the ages of 4 and 8 need 1,200 to 2,000 calories (Mayo Clinic, 2016a).

Nutritional concerns (Ob 3)

Malnutrition is not common in developed nations like the United States, yet many children lack a balanced diet. Added sugars and solid fats contribute to 40% of daily calories for children and teens in the US. Approximately half of these empty calories come from six sources: soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk (CDC, 2015). Caregivers need to keep in mind that they are setting up taste preferences at this age. Young children who grow accustomed to a high fat, very sweet, and salty flavors may have trouble eating foods that have subtler flavors such as fruits and vegetables.

Figure caption: Pizza is one of the six sources of empty calories found in children’s diets in the US. Photo courtesty of Dale Cruse on Flickr CC-BY 2.0 

By providing adequate, sound nutrition, and limiting sugary snacks and drinks, the caregiver can be assured that 1) the child will not starve, and 2) the child will receive adequate nutrition. Preschoolers can experience iron deficiencies if not given well-balanced nutrition and if given too much milk. Calcium interferes with the absorption of iron in the diet as well.

Consider the following advice about establishing eating patterns for years to come (Rice, 1997). Notice that keeping mealtime pleasant, providing sound nutrition, and not engaging in power struggles over food are the main goals:

Tips for Establishing Healthy Eating Patterns

Don’t try to force your child to eat or fight over food. Of course, it is impossible to force someone to eat. But the real advice here is to avoid turning food into some kind of ammunition during a fight. Do not teach your child to eat to or refuse to eat in order to gain favor or express anger toward someone else.
Recognize that appetite varies. Children may eat well at one meal and have no appetite at another. Rather than seeing this as a problem, it may help to realize that appetites do vary. Continue to provide good nutrition, but do not worry excessively if the child does not eat.
Keep it pleasant. This tip is designed to help caregivers create a positive atmosphere during mealtime. Meal times should not be the time for arguments or expressing tensions. You do not want the child to have painful memories of mealtimes together or have nervous stomachs and problems eating and digesting food due to stress.
No short order chefs. While it is fine to prepare foods that children enjoy, preparing a different meal for each child or family member sets up an unrealistic expectation from others. Children probably do best when they are hungry and a meal is ready. Limiting snacks rather than allowing children to “graze” continuously can help create an appetite for whatever is being served.
Limit choices. If you give your preschool-aged child choices, make sure that you give them one or two specific choices rather than asking “What would you like for lunch?” If given an open choice, children may change their minds or choose whatever their sibling does not choose!
Serve balanced meals. This tip encourages caregivers to serve balanced meals. A box of macaroni and cheese is not a balanced meal. Meals prepared at home tend to have better nutritional value than fast food or frozen dinners. Prepared foods tend to be higher in fat and sugar content as these ingredients enhance taste and profit margin because fresh food is often costlier and less profitable. However, preparing fresh food at home is not costly. It does, however, require more activity. Preparing meals and including the children in kitchen chores can provide a fun and memorable experience.
Don’t bribe. Bribing a child to eat vegetable by promising desert is not a good idea. For one reason, the child will likely find a way to get the desert without eating the vegetables (by whining or fidgeting, perhaps, until the caregiver gives in), and for another reason, because it teaches the child that some foods are better than others. Children tend to naturally enjoy a variety of foods until they are taught that some are considered less desirable than others. A child, for example, may learn the broccoli they have enjoyed is seen as yucky by others unless it’s smothered in cheese sauce!

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay


To what extent do these tips address cultural practices? How might these tips vary by culture?

Brain Maturation (Ob 2)

Brain weight: If you recall, the brain is about 75 percent of its adult weight by two years of age. By age 6, it is at 95 percent its adult weight. Myelination and the development of dendrites continue to occur in the cortex and as it does, we see a corresponding change in what the child is capable of doing. Greater development in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain behind the forehead that helps us to think, strategizes, and controls emotion, makes it increasingly possible to control emotional outbursts and to understand how to play games.


Figure caption: Shaded area is the prefrontal cortex. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Consider 4 or 5-year-old children and how they might approach a game of soccer. Chances are every move would be a response to the commands of a coach standing nearby calling out, “Run this way! Now, stop. Look at the ball. Kick the ball!” And when the child is not being told what to do, he or she is likely to be looking at the clover on the ground or a dog on the other side of the fence! Understanding the game, thinking ahead, and coordinating movement improves with practice and myelination. Not being too upset over a loss, hopefully, does as well.

Growth in the Hemispheres and Corpus Callosum: Between ages 3 and 6, the left hemisphere of the brain grows dramatically. This side of the brain or hemisphere is typically involved in language skills. The right hemisphere continues to grow throughout early childhood and is involved in tasks that require spatial skills, such as recognizing shapes and patterns. The Corpus Callosum, a dense band of fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, contains approximately 200 million nerve fibers that connect the hemispheres (Kolb & Whishaw, 2011).

Figure caption: image shows the two hemispheres and the Corpus Callosum in between the two hemispheres. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The corpus callosum is located a couple of inches below the longitudinal fissure, which runs the length of the brain and separates the two cerebral hemispheres (Garrett, 2015). Because the two hemispheres carry out different functions, they communicate with each other and integrate their activities through the corpus callosum. Additionally, because incoming information is directed toward one hemisphere, such as visual information from the left eye being directed to the right hemisphere, the corpus callosum shares this information with the other hemisphere.

The corpus callosum undergoes a growth spurt between ages 3 and 6, and this results in improved coordination between right and left hemisphere tasks. For example, in comparison to other individuals, children younger than 6 demonstrate difficulty coordinating an Etch A Sketch toy because their corpus callosum is not developed enough to integrate the movements of both hands (Kalat, 2016).

Neuroplasticity: The control of some specific bodily functions, such as movement, vision, and hearing, is performed in specified areas of the cortex, and if these areas are damaged, the individual will likely lose the ability to perform the corresponding function. For instance, if an infant suffers damage to facial recognition areas in the temporal lobe, it is likely that he or she will never be able to recognize faces (Farah, Rabinowitz, Quinn, & Liu, 2000). On the other hand, the brain is not divided up in an entirely rigid way. The brain’s neurons have a remarkable capacity to reorganize and extend themselves to carry out particular functions in response to the needs of the organism, and to repair the damage. As a result, the brain constantly creates new neural communication routes and rewires existing ones. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change its structure and function in response to experience or damage. Neuroplasticity enables us to learn and remember new things and adjust to new experiences. Our brains are the most “plastic” when we are young children, as it is during this time that we learn the most about our environment. On the other hand, neuroplasticity continues to be observed even in adults (Kolb & Fantie, 1989).

Motor Skill Development (Ob 1)

Figure caption: Bicycling is an example of gross motor skills and cutting paper is an example of fine motor skills. Photos Courtesy of Pixabay (Left) and World Bank Photo Collection (Right)

Early childhood is a time when children are especially attracted to motion and song. Days are filled with moving, jumping, running, swinging, and clapping and every place becomes a playground. Even the booth at a restaurant affords the opportunity to slide around in the seat or disappear underneath and imagine being a sea creature in a cave! Of course, this can be frustrating to a caregiver, but it’s the business of early childhood. Children continue to improve their gross motor skills as they run and jump, and frequently ask their caregivers to “look at me” while they hop or roll down a hill. Gross motor skills involve larger muscle groups in legs and arms or entire body. Children’s songs are often accompanied by arm and leg movements or cues to turn around or move from left to right. Fine motor skills involve smaller action muscle coordination, and are also being refined in activities such as pouring water into a container, drawing, coloring, and using scissors. Some children’s songs promote fine motor skills (have you ever heard of the song “itsy, bitsy, spider”?).

The development of greater coordination of muscles groups and finer precision can be seen during this time period. Thus, average 2-year-olds may be able to run with slightly better coordination than they managed as a toddler, yet they would have difficulty pedaling a tricycle, something the typical 3-year-old can do. We see similar changes in fine motor skills with 4-year-olds who no longer struggle to put on their clothes, something they may have had problems with two years earlier. Mastering the fine art of cutting one’s own fingernails or tying shoes will take a lot of practice and maturation. Motor skills continue to develop into middle childhood, but for those in early childhood, play that deliberately involves these skills is emphasized.

Table: Examples of Motor skill Milestones for children 2 to 5 years old

Gross Motor Skills Fine Motor Skills
Age 2

Can kick a ball without losing balance

Can pick up objects while standing, without losing balance (This often occurs by 15 months. It is a cause for concern if not seen by 2 years.)

Can run with better coordination. (May still have a wide stance.)

Able to turn a doorknob

Can look through a book turning one page at a time

Can build a tower of six to seven cubes

Able to put on simple clothes without help (The child is often better at removing clothes than putting them on)

Age 3

Can briefly balance and hop on one foot

May walk on stairs with alternating feet (without holding onto rail)

Can pedal a tricycle

Can build a block tower of more than nine cubes

Can easily place small objects in a small opening

Can copy a circle

Drawing a person with 3 parts

Feeds self easily

Age 4

Shows improved balance

Hops on one foot without losing balance

Throws a ball overhead with coordination

Can cut out a picture using scissors

Drawing a square

Managing a spoon and fork neatly while eating

Putting on clothes properly

Age 5

Has better coordination (getting the arms, legs, and body to work together)

Skips, jumps and hops with good balance

Stays balanced while standing on one foot with eyes closed

Shows more skills with simple tools and writing utensils

Can copy a triangle

Can use a knife to spread soft foods

Table adapted from (NIH, 2018)

Children’s art: Have you ever examined the drawings of young children? If you look closely, you can almost see the development of motor skills, perceptual understanding, and cognition reflected in the way these images change as pathways become more mature. Early scribbles and dots illustrate the use of simple motor skills. No real connection is made between an image being visualized and what is created on paper.

Rhoda Kellogg (1969) noted that children’s drawings underwent several transformations. Starting with about 20 different types of scribbles at age 2, children move on to experimenting with the placement of scribbles on the page. By age 3 they are using the basic structure of scribbles to create shapes and are beginning to combine these shapes to create more complex images. By 4 or 5 children are creating images that are more recognizable representations of the world. These changes are a function of improvement in motor skills, perceptual development, and cognitive understanding of the world (Cote & Golbeck, 2007).

Here are some examples of pictures drawn by Dr. Laura Overstreet’s children from ages 2 to 7 years.



Photo Courtesy of Lumen

The drawing of tadpoles is a pervasive feature of young children’s drawings of self and others. Tadpoles emerge in children’s drawing at about the age of 3 and have been observed in the drawings of young children around the world (Gernhardt, Rubeling & Keller, 2015). Despite the universality of tadpoles in children’s drawings, there are cultural variations in the size, number of facial features, and emotional expressions displayed. Gernhardt et al. (2015) found that children from Western contexts (i.e., urban areas of Germany and Sweden) and urban educated non-Western contexts (i.e., urban areas of Turkey, Costa Rica, and Estonia) drew larger images, with more facial detail and more positive emotional expressions, while those from non-Western rural contexts (i.e., rural areas of Cameroon and India) depicted themselves as smaller, with less facial details and a more neutral emotional expression. The authors suggest that cultural norms of non-Western traditionally rural cultures, which emphasize the social group rather than the individual, may be one of the factors for the difference in the size of the figure. The tadpole figures of children from Western cultures often took up most of the page. Coming from cultures that emphasize the individual, this should not be surprising.


Figure caption: Image of a tadpole drawing where arms and legs come out of the head. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Toilet Training

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

Toilet training typically occurs during the first two years of early childhood (24-36 months). Some children show interest by age 2, but others may not be ready until months later. The average age for girls to be toilet trained is 29 months and for boys, it is 31 months (Boyse & Fitzgerald, 2010). One study indicated that only 40 to 60 percent of children complete toilet training by 36 months of age (Blum, Taubman, Nemeth, 2004). Most children have control over both bladder and bowels and leave diapers behind sometime between 3 and 4 years old. The child’s age is not as important as his/her physical and emotional readiness. If started too early, it might take longer to train a child.

According to the Mayo Clinic (2016b), the following questions can help parents determine if a child is ready for toilet training:

  • Does your child seem interested in the potty chair or toilet, or in wearing underwear?
  • Can your child understand and follow basic directions?
  • Does your child tell you through words, facial expressions or posture when he or she needs to go?
  • Does your child stay dry for periods of two hours or longer during the day?
  • Does your child complain about wet or dirty diapers?
  • Can your child pull down his or her pants and pull them up again?
  • Can your child sit on and rise from a potty chair? (p. 1)

If a child resists being trained or it is not successful after a few weeks, it is best to take a break and try again later. Most children master daytime bladder control first, typically within two to three months of consistent toilet training. However, nap and nighttime training might take months or even years.

Some children experience elimination disorders that may require intervention by the child’s pediatrician or a trained mental health practitioner. Elimination disorders include enuresis, or the repeated voiding of urine into bed or clothes (involuntary or intentional) and encopresis, the repeated passage of feces into inappropriate places (involuntary or intentional) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The prevalence of enuresis is 5%-10% for 5-year-olds, 3%-5% for 10-year-olds and approximately 1% for those 15 years of age or older. Around 1% of 5-year-olds have encopresis, and it is more common in males than females.


Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

During early childhood, there is wide variation in the number of hours of sleep recommended per day. For example, 2-year-olds may still need 14 hours per day, while a six-year-old may only need 9 hours. Sleep is important for mood regulation and attention (NSF, 2015). In cases where children are tired that actually do not look tired. Children needing more sleep may resisting bedtime and become hyper as the evening goes on. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2015 recommendations based on age are listed in the next table.

Table. Age groups and sleep duration recommendations

Age Range Typically needed each day May be appropriate
Infant (4-11 months) 12-15 hours Not less than 10 and not more than 18 hours
Toddler (1-2 years) 11-14 hours Not less than 9 and not more than 16 hours
Preschooler (3-5 years) 10-13 hours Not less than 8 and not more than 14 hours
School age (6-13 years) 9-11 hours Not less than 7 and not more than 12 hours
Teenager (14-17 years) 8-10 hours Not less than 7 and not more than 11 hours
Table adapted from Hirskowitz (2015)

Sexual Development in Early Childhood (Ob 4)

Sexual and gender development are two different processes, but a misconception is that they are connected. We will first focus on children’s sexual development, and later in the chapter discuss gender development. Historically, children have been thought of as innocent or incapable of sexual arousal (Aries, 1962). Yet, the physical dimension of sexual arousal is present from birth. However, it is not appropriate to associate the elements of seduction, power, love, or lust that is part of the adult meanings of sexuality. Sexuality begins in childhood as a response to physical states and sensation and cannot be interpreted as similar to that of adults in any way (Carroll, 2007).

Boys and girls are capable of erections and vaginal lubrication even before birth (Martinson, 1981). Arousal can signal overall physical contentment and stimulation that accompanies feeding or warmth. And infants begin to explore their bodies and touch their genitals as soon as they have sufficient motor skills. This stimulation is for comfort or to relieve tension rather than to reach orgasm (Carroll, 2007).

Early Childhood: Children 4 years old and younger are naturally immodest, and may display open—and occasionally startling–curiosity about other people’s bodies and bodily functions, such as touching women’s breasts, or wanting to watch when grownups go to the bathroom (NCTSN, 2009). Wanting to be naked (even if others are not) and showing or touching private parts while in public are also common in young children (NCTSN, 2009). They are curious about their own bodies and may quickly discover that touching certain body parts feels nice (NCTSN, 2009). Self-stimulation is common in early childhood for both boys and girls. Curiosity about the body and about others’ bodies is a natural part of early childhood as well.

As children age and interact more with other children (approximately ages 4–6), they become more aware of the differences between boys and girls, and more social in their exploration (NCTSN, 2009). As children grow, they are more likely to show their genitals to siblings or peers, and to take off their clothes and touch each other (Okami et al., 1997). In addition to exploring their own bodies through touching or rubbing their private parts (masturbation), they may begin “playing doctor” and copying adult behaviors such as kissing and holding hands (NCTSN, 2009). Boys are often shown by other boys how to masturbate. Boys masturbate more often and touch themselves more openly than do girls (Schwartz, 1999). As children become increasingly aware of the social rules governing sexual behavior and language (such as the importance of modesty or which words are considered “naughty”), they may try to test these rules by using naughty words (NCTSN, 2009). They may also ask more questions about sexual matters, such as where babies come from, and why boys and girls are physically different (NCTSN, 2009). Messages about what is going on and the appropriate time and place for such activities help the child learn what is appropriate.

What is typical for young children’s sexuality? (NCTSN, 2009)

Preschool children (less than 4 years)
■ Explore and touch private parts, in public and in private
■ Rub private parts (with hand or against objects)
■ Show private parts to others
■ Try to touch mother’s or other women’s breasts
■ Remove clothes and wanting to be naked
■ Attempt to see other people when they are naked or undressing (such as in the bathroom)
■ Ask questions about their own—and others’—bodies and bodily functions
■ Talking to children their own age about bodily functions such as “poop” and “pee”
Young Children (approximately 4-6 years)
■ Purposefully touch private parts (masturbation), occasionally in the presence of others
■ Attempt to see other people when they are naked or undressing
■ Mimic dating behavior (such as kissing, or holding hands)
■ Talk about private parts and using “naughty” words, even when they don’t understand the meaning
■ Explore private parts with children

Parents play a pivotal role in helping their children develop healthy attitudes and behaviors towards sexuality (NCTSN, 2009). Although talking with your children about sex may feel outside your comfort zone, there are many resources available to help you begin and continue the conversation about sexuality. It is important to remain calm and event tone and ask open-ended questions when you feel unsettled over something your child said or you have seen him/her do. A behavior that is not typical should not be ignored and it may mean that your child needs to learn something from the situation (e.g., private parts are private). Providing close supervision, and providing clear, positive messages about modesty, boundaries, and privacy are crucial as children move through the periods of childhood (NCTSN, 2009). By talking openly with your children about relationships, intimacy, and sexuality, you can foster their healthy growth and development (NCTSN, 2009).

Basic Information Parents can share with Early Childhood (Before 4 years old) (NCTSN, 2009)

■ Boys and girls are different
■ Accurate names for body parts of boys and girls
■ Babies come from mommies
■ Rules about personal boundaries (for example, keeping private parts covered, not touching other children’s private parts)
■ Give simple answers to all questions about the body and bodily functions.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Safety Information for Early Childhood (NCTSN, 2009)
■ The difference between “okay” touches (which are comforting, pleasant, and welcome) and “not okay” touches (which are intrusive, uncomfortable, unwanted, or painful)
■ Your body belongs to you
■ Everyone has the right to say “no” to being touched, even by grown-ups
■ No one—child or adult–has the right to touch your private parts
■ It’s okay to say “no” when grownups ask you to do things that are wrong, such as touching private parts or keeping secrets from mommy or daddy
■ There is a difference between a “surprise”–which is something that will be revealed sometime soon, like a present—and a “secret,” which is something you’re never supposed to tell. Stress that it is never okay to keep secrets from mommy and daddy
■ Who to tell if people do “not okay” things to you, or ask you to do “not okay” things to them

Basic Information to share with Young Children (approximately 4-6 years) (NCTSN, 2009)

■ Boys’ and girls’ bodies change when they get older.
■ Simple explanations of how babies grow in their mothers’ wombs and about the birth process.
■ Rules about personal boundaries (such as, keeping private parts covered, not touching other children’s private parts)
■ Simple answers to all questions about the body and bodily functions
■ Touching your own private parts can feel nice, but is something done in private

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Safety Information for Young Children (NCTSN, 2009)
■ Sexual abuse is when someone touches your private parts or asks you to touch their private parts
■ It is sexual abuse even if it is by someone you know
■ Sexual abuse is NEVER the child’s fault
■ If a stranger tries to get you to go with him or her, run and tell a parent, teacher, neighbor, police officer, or other trusted adult
■ Who to tell if people do “not okay” things to you, or ask you to do “not okay” things to them (NCTSN, 2009)

Cognitive Development

Early childhood is a time of pretending, blending fact and fiction, and learning to think of the world using language. As young children move away from needing to touch, feel, and hear about the world toward learning some basic principles about how the world works, they hold some pretty interesting initial ideas. For example, how many of you are afraid that you are going to go down the bathtub drain? Hopefully, none of you do! But a 3-year-old might really worry about this as they sit at the front of the bathtub. A child might protest if told that something will happen “tomorrow” but be willing to accept an explanation that an event will occur “today after we sleep.” Or the young child may ask, “How long are we staying? From here to here?” while pointing to two points on a table. Concepts such as tomorrow, time, size, and distance are not easy to grasp at this young age. Understanding size, time, distance, fact, and fiction are all tasks that are part of cognitive development in the preschool years.

Preoperational Intelligence (Ob 5)

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has a stage that coincides with early childhood known as the Preoperational Stage. According to Piaget, this stage occurs from the age of 2 to around 7 years. In the preoperational stage, children use symbols to represent words, images, and ideas, which is why children in this stage engage in pretend play. A child’s arms might become airplane wings as she zooms around the room, or a child with a stick might become a brave knight with a sword. Children also begin to use language in the preoperational stage, but they cannot understand adult logic or mentally manipulate information. The term Operational refers to logical manipulation of information, so children at this stage are considered pre-operational. Children’s logic is based on their own personal knowledge of the world so far, rather than on conventional knowledge.

Let’s examine some Piaget’s assertions about children’s cognitive abilities during the Preoperational Stage.

Pretend Play: Pretending is a favorite activity at this time. A toy has qualities beyond the way it was designed to function and can now be used to stand for a character or object unlike anything originally intended. A teddy bear, for example, can be a baby or the queen of a faraway land!

Piaget believed that children’s pretend play helped children solidify new schemes they were developing cognitively. This play, then, reflected changes in their conceptions or thoughts. However, children also learn as they pretend and experiment. Their play does not simply represent what they have taught (Berk, 2007).

Egocentrism: Egocentrism in early childhood refers to the tendency of young children to think that everyone sees things in the same way as the child. For example, 10-year-old Keiko’s birthday is coming up, so her mom takes 3-year-old Kenny to the toy store to choose a present for his sister. He selects an Iron Man action figure for her, thinking that if he likes the toy, his sister will too. Piaget’s classic experiment on egocentrism involved showing children a 3-dimensional model of a mountain and asking them to describe what a doll that is looking at the mountain from a different angle might see. Children tend to choose a picture that represents their own, rather than the doll’s view. By age 7 children are less self-centered. Additionally, when children are speaking to others, they tend to use different sentence structures and vocabulary when addressing a younger child or an older adult. This indicates some awareness of the views of others.

Animism: Animism refers to attributing lifelike qualities to objects. An example could be a child believing that the sidewalk was mad and made them fall down, or that the stars twinkle in the sky because they are happy. To the imaginative child, the cup is alive, the chair that falls down and hits the child’s ankle is mean, and the toys need to stay home because they are tired. Cartoons frequently show objects that appear alive and take on lifelike qualities. Young children do seem to think that objects that move may be alive but after age 3, they seldom refer to objects as being alive (Berk, 2007).

Figure caption: The story of the Velveteen Rabbit exhibits animism for the stuffed animal to come alive. Photo courtesy of Flickr

Classification Errors: Preoperational children have difficulty understanding that an object can be classified in more than one way. Classification is the ability to simultaneously sort things into general and more specific groups, using different types of comparisons. For example, if shown three white buttons and four black buttons and asked whether there are more black buttons or white buttons or buttons, the child is likely to respond that there are more black buttons. The child does not identify the category of buttons being larger than each subgroup (black and white) indicating a lack of hierarchy classification. Most children develop hierarchical classification ability between the ages of 7 and 10. As the child’s vocabulary improves and more schemes are developed, the ability to classify objects improves.

Conservation Errors: Children in the preoperational stage do not understand conversation. Conservation refers to the ability to recognize that moving or rearranging matter does not change the quantity. Imagine a 2-year-old and 4-year-old eating lunch. The 4-year-old has a whole peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He notices, however, that his younger sister’s sandwich is cut in half and protests, “She has more!” This is a conservation error of number. He does not realize that 2 half sandwiches make a whole sandwich. Often children who fail conservation errors will centrate on one aspect (focusing on number of sandwhiches verses the total size (or mass)). Centration is the act of focusing all attention on one characteristic or dimension of a situation while disregarding all others. He is exhibiting centration by focusing on the number of pieces, which results in a conservation error.

The classic Piagetian experiment associated with conservation involves liquid (Crain, 2005). The child usually notes that the beakers do contain the same amount of liquid. When one of the beakers is poured into a taller and thinner container, children who are younger than seven or eight years old typically say that the two beakers no longer contain the same amount of liquid, and that the taller container holds the larger quantity (centration), without taking into consideration the fact that both beakers were previously noted to contain the same amount of liquid.

Figure caption: Liquid conservation is tested when you start with two identical cups of liquid (a) and then pour liquid into a different shaped cup (b). The last step is to ask the child which has more or are do they have the same amount of liquid (c). Photo Courtesy of Lumen

Irreversibility is also demonstrated during this stage and is closely related to the ideas of centration and conservation. Irreversibility refers to the young child’s difficulty mentally reversing a sequence of events. In the same beaker situation, the child does not realize that, if the sequence of events was reversed and the water from the tall beaker was poured back into its original beaker, then the same amount of water would exist.

Conservation Errors Revisited. Let’s look at Kenny and Keiko again. Dad gave a slice of pizza to 10-year-old Keiko and another slice to 3-year-old Kenny. Kenny’s pizza slice was cut into five pieces, so Kenny told his sister that he got more pizza than she did. Kenny did not understand that cutting the pizza into smaller pieces did not increase the overall amount. Kenny focused on the five pieces of pizza to his sister’s one piece even though the total amount was the same. What error was Kenny making?

Centration, conservation errors, and irreversibility are indications that young children are reliant on visual representations. Because children have not developed this understanding of conservation, they cannot perform mental operations (a requirement for Piaget’s next stage).

Critique of Piaget: Similar to the critique of the sensorimotor period, several psychologists have attempted to show that Piaget also underestimated the intellectual capabilities of  young children. For example, children’s specific experiences can influence when they are able to conserve. Children of pottery makers in Mexican villages know that reshaping clay does not change the amount of clay at much younger ages than children who do not have similar experiences (Price-Williams, Gordon, & Ramirez, 1969). Crain (2005) indicated that preoperational children could think rationally on mathematical and scientific tasks, and they are not as egocentric as Piaget implied. Research on Theory of Mind (discussed later in the chapter) has demonstrated that children overcome egocentrism by 4 or 5 years of age, which is sooner than Piaget indicated.

Children & Learning – The Mozart Effect: Is there a cognitive advantage for children to listen to classical music?

I’m sure everyone has heard at some point in their life that listening to classical music supposedly makes one smarter. There are many different meanings you could interpret from that statement. Does classical music have a permanent effect in raising one’s IQ just by listening? Does it only improve intelligence for a short time after listening? What areas of intelligence is the music supposed to improve? These are all questions you should be asking when you hear a statement such as “listening to classical music makes kids smarter”. This topic became the infamous anomaly it is today from a Russian study in 1993. In this study 36 college students were split into 3 separate groups where each group would sit in a room either listening to Mozart, concentration therapy sounds, or complete silence for 10 minutes. After the 10 minutes was up they all would take a short intelligence quiz with special reasoning tasks. What this study found is that the Mozart listening group scored slightly higher on the test than the other 2 groups.

According to further research, including a meta-analysis (Chabis, 1999), what was found out is the music does not in fact have any benefit in raising one’s intelligence. The classical music puts the listener’s brain in a state of higher awareness than normal so when given a reasoning intelligence task, the listener is more aware and should perform slightly better. Listening to classical music while performing a task such as reading can in fact impair one’s ability to comprehend all the information read because the music distracts the mind when you may not even realize it (Yen-Ning Su, 2017). Another study done showed that learning how to play music very well can improve a person’s spatial intelligence (Bower, 2004). Overall, the relationship music can have on one’s intelligence is clear that it does not in any way raise it, rather it evokes the mind to be on its feet ready for a task.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development (Ob 7)

In contrast to Piaget on the child as the active learner, Lev Vygotsky argued that a child’s intrinsic development and the highest level of cognitive thinking is elicited from the language, writings, and concepts arising from the culture the child is surrounded by (Crain, 2005). He believed that social interactions with adults and more learned peers could facilitate a child’s potential for learning. Without this interpersonal instruction, he believed children’s minds would not advance very far as their knowledge would be based only on their own discoveries. Let’s review some of Vygotsky’s key concepts (as mentioned in chapter 2).

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding: Vygotsky’s best-known concept is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Vygotsky stated that children should be taught in the ZPD, which occurs when they can almost perform a task, but not quite on their own without assistance. With the right kind of teaching, however, they can accomplish it successfully. A good teacher identifies a child’s ZPD and helps the child stretch beyond it. Then the adult (teacher) gradually withdraws support until the child can then perform the task unaided. Researchers have applied the metaphor of scaffolds (the temporary platforms on which construction workers stand) to this way of teaching. Scaffolding is the temporary support that parents or teachers give a child to do a task, sometimes the term guided participation is also used.

Private Speech: Do you ever talk to yourself? Why? Chances are, this occurs when you are struggling with a problem, trying to remember something or feel very emotional about a situation. Children talk to themselves too. Thinking out loud eventually becomes thought accompanied by internal speech (or private speech), and talking to oneself becomes a practice only engaged in when we are trying to learn something or remember something. This inner speech is not as elaborate as the speech we use when communicating with others (Vygotsky, 1962). Piaget interpreted this as Egocentric Speech or a practice engaged in because of a child’s inability to see things from another’s point of view. Vygotsky, however, believed that children talk to themselves in order to solve problems or clarify thoughts. As children learn to think in words, they do so aloud before eventually closing their lips and engaging in Private Speech or inner speech.

Theory of Mind (Ob 7)

Imagine showing a 3-year old child a Band-Aid box and asking the child what is in the box. Chances are, the child will reply, “Band-Aids.” Now imagine that you open the box and pour out crayons. If you ask the child what they thought was in the box before it was opened, they may respond, “crayons.” If you ask what a friend would have thought was in the box, the response would still be “crayons.” Why? Before about 4 years of age, a child does not recognize that the mind can hold ideas that are not accurate. So, this 3-year-old changes his or her response once shown that the box contains crayons. The theory of mind is the understanding that the mind can be tricked or that the mind is not always accurate. At around age 4, the child would reply, “Crayons” and understand that thoughts and realities do not always match.

Three-year-olds have difficulty distinguishing between what they once thought was true and what they now know to be true. They feel confident that what they know now is what they have always known (Birch & Bloom, 2003). For the theory of mind, a child must separate what he or she “knows” to be true from what someone else might “think” is true. In Piagetian terms, they must give up a tendency toward egocentrism. The child must also understand that what guides people’s actions and responses are what they “believe” rather than what is reality. In other words, people can mistakenly believe things that are false and will act based on this false knowledge. Consequently, prior to age 4 children are rarely successful at solving such a task (Wellman, Cross & Watson, 2001).

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

This awareness of the existence of mind is part of social intelligence or the ability to recognize that others can think differently about situations. It helps us to be self-conscious or aware that others can think of us in different ways and it helps us to be able to be understanding or empathetic toward others. This mind reading ability helps us to anticipate and predict the actions of others (even though these predictions are sometimes inaccurate). This is important for communication and social skills.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

The characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder are seen during early childhood (as established by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). So, what exactly is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Children with this disorder show signs of significant disturbances in three main areas: (a) deficits in social interaction, (b) deficits in communication, and (c) repetitive patterns of behavior or interests. These disturbances appear early in life and cause serious impairments in functioning (APA, 2013).

Children with ASD experience difficulties with explaining and predicting other people’s behavior, which leads to problems in social communication and interaction. Children who are diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder usually develop the theory of mind more slowly than other children and continue to have difficulties with it throughout their lives.

The child with autism spectrum disorder might exhibit deficits in social interaction by not initiating conversations with other children or turning their head away when spoken to. These children do not make eye contact with others and seem to prefer playing alone rather than with others. In a certain sense, it is almost as though these individuals live in a personal and isolated social world other are simply not privy to or able to penetrate. These children have dysfunction in social skills which sets the diagnosis apart from other disorders like sensory processing disorder or a specific learning disability.

Communication deficits can range from a complete lack of speech to one-word responses (e.g., saying “Yes” or “No” when replying to questions or statements that require additional elaboration), to echoed speech (e.g., parroting what another person says, either immediately or several hours or even days later), to difficulty maintaining a conversation because of an inability to reciprocate others’ comments. These deficits can also include problems in using and understanding nonverbal cues (e.g., facial expressions, gestures, and postures) that facilitate normal communication.

Repetitive patterns of behavior or interests can be exhibited in a number of ways. The child might engage in stereotyped, repetitive movements (rocking, head-banging, or repeatedly dropping an object and then picking it up), or she might show great distress at small changes in routine or the environment. For example, the child might throw a temper tantrum if an object is not in its proper place or if a regularly- scheduled activity is rescheduled. In some cases, the person with an autism spectrum disorder might show highly restricted and fixated interests that appear to be abnormal in their intensity. For instance, the child might learn and memorize every detail about something even though doing so serves no apparent purpose. Importantly, autism spectrum disorder is not the same thing as intellectual disability, although these two conditions can occur together. The DSM-5 specifies that the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder are not caused or explained by intellectual disability.

The qualifier “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder is used to indicate that individuals with the disorder can show a range, or spectrum, of symptoms that vary in their magnitude and severity: Some severe, others less severe. Some individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, particularly those with better language and intellectual skills, can live and work independently as adults. However, most do not because the symptoms remain sufficient to cause serious impairment in many realms of life (APA, 2013).

Early diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

About half of parents of children with ASD notice their child’s unusual behaviors by age 18 months, and about four-fifths notice by age 24 months, but often a diagnoses comes later, and individual cases vary significantly. Typical early signs of autism include:

  • No babbling by 12 months.
  • No gesturing (pointing, waving, etc.) by 12 months.
  • No single words by 16 months.
  • No two-word (spontaneous, not just echolalic) phrases by 24 months.
  • Loss of any language or social skills, at any age.

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

Causes of Autism

Estimates indicate that nearly 1 in 88 children in the United States has autism spectrum disorder; the disorder is 5 times more common in boys (1 out of 54) than girls (1 out of 252) (CDC, 2012). The exact causes of autism spectrum disorder remain unknown despite massive research efforts over the last two decades (Meek, Lemery-Chalfant, Jahromi, & Valiente, 2013). Autism appears to be strongly influenced by genetics, as identical twins show concordance rates of 60%–90%, whereas concordance rates for fraternal twins and siblings are 5%–10% (Autism Genome Project Consortium, 2007). Many different genes and gene mutations have been implicated in autism (Meek et al., 2013). Among the genes involved are those important in the formation of synaptic circuits that facilitate communication between different areas of the brain (Gauthier et al., 2011). A number of environmental factors are also thought to be associated with increased risk for autism spectrum disorder, at least in part, because they contribute to new mutations. These factors include exposure to pollutants, such as plant emissions and mercury, urban versus rural residence, and vitamin D deficiency (Kinney, Barch, Chayka, Napoleon, & Munir, 2009).

There is no scientific evidence that a link exists between autism and vaccinations (Hughes, 2007). Indeed, a recent study compared the vaccination histories of 256 children with autism spectrum disorder with that of 752 control children across three time periods during their first 2 years of life (birth to 3 months, birth to 7 months, and birth to 2 years) (DeStefano, Price, & Weintraub, 2013). At the time of the study, the children were between 6 and 13 years old, and their prior vaccination records were obtained. Because vaccines contain immunogens (substances that fight infections), the investigators examined medical records to see how many immunogens children received to determine if those children who received more immunogens were at greater risk for developing autism spectrum disorder. The results of this study clearly demonstrated that the number of immunogens from vaccines received during the first 2 years of life was not at all related to the development of autism spectrum disorder.

Information Processing in Early Childhood (Ob 6)

The information processing model examines how memory gets stored (mentioned in chapter 2). Information processing researchers focus on several issues in cognitive development for this age group, including improvements in attention skills, changes in the capacity and the emergence of executive functions in working memory. Additionally, in early childhood memory strategies, memory accuracy, and autobiographical memory emerge. Early childhood is seen by many researchers as a crucial time period in memory development (Posner & Rothbart, 2007).


Changes in attention have been described by many as the key to changes in human memory (Nelson & Fivush, 2004; Posner & Rothbart, 2007). However, attention is not a unified function; it is comprised of sub-processes. The ability to switch our focus between tasks or external stimuli is called divided attention or multitasking. This is separate from our ability to focus on a single task or stimulus while ignoring distracting information, called selective attention. Different from these is sustained attention, or the ability to stay on task for long periods of time. Moreover, we also have attention processes that influence our behavior and enable us to inhibit a habitual or dominant response and others that enable us to distract ourselves when upset or frustrated.

Divided Attention: Young children (age 3-4) have considerable difficulties in dividing their attention between two tasks, and often perform at levels equivalent to our closest relative, the chimpanzee, but by age 5 they have surpassed the chimp (Hermann, Misch, Hernandez-Lloreda & Tomasello, 2015; Hermann & Tomasello, 2015). Despite these improvements, 5-year-olds continue to perform below the level of school-age children, adolescents, and adults.

Figure caption: Activities like “I spy” or find specific images in a picture capture children’s selective attention. How well they stay on task is part of sustained attention. Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.

Selective Attention: Children’s ability with selective attention tasks improve as they age. However, this ability is also greatly influenced by the child’s temperament (Rothbart & Rueda, 2005), the complexity of the stimulus or task (Porporino, Shore, Iarocci & Burack, 2004), and along with whether the stimuli are visual or auditory (Guy, Rogers & Cornish, 2013). Guy et al. (2013) found that children’s ability to selectively attend to visual information outpaced that of auditory stimuli. This may explain why young children are not able to hear the voice of the teacher over the cacophony of sounds in the typical preschool classroom (Jones, Moore & Amitay, 2015). Jones and his colleagues found that 4 to 7-year-olds could not filter out background noise, especially when its frequencies were close in sound to the target sound. In comparison, 8 to 11-year-old older children often performed similarly to adults.

Sustained Attention: Most measures of sustained attention typically ask children to spend several minutes focusing on one task, while waiting for an infrequent event, while there are multiple distractors for several minutes. Berwid, Curko-Kera, Marks, and Halperin (2005) asked children between the ages of 3 and 7 to push a button whenever a “target” image was displayed, but they had to refrain from pushing the button when a non-target image was shown. The younger the child, the more difficulty he or she had maintaining their attention.

Memory: Based on studies of adults, people with amnesia, and neurological research on memory, researchers have proposed several “types” of memory.” Let’s examine changes in memory during early childhood.

Sensory memory (also called the sensory register): the first stage of the memory system, and it stores sensory input in its raw form for a very brief duration; essentially long enough for the brain to register and start processing the information. Studies of auditory sensory memory have found that the sensory memory trace for the characteristics of a tone lasts about one second in 2-year-olds, two seconds in 3-year-olds, more than two seconds in 4-year-olds and three to five seconds in 6-year-olds (Glass, Sachse, & Vb Suchodoletz, 2008). Other researchers have found that young children hold sounds for a shorter duration than do older children and adults and that this deficit is not due to attentional differences between these age groups, but reflect differences in the performance of the sensory memory system (Gomes et al., 1999).

Short-term or working memory: The second stage of the memory system. Working memory is the component of memory in which current conscious mental activity occurs. Working memory often requires conscious effort and adequate use of attention to function effectively. As you read earlier, children in this age group struggle with many aspects of attention and this greatly diminishes their ability to consciously juggle several pieces of information in memory. The capacity of working memory, that is the amount of information someone can hold in consciousness, is smaller in young children than in older children and adults. The typical adult and teenager can hold a 7-digit number active in their short-term memory. The typical 5-year-old can hold only a 4-digit number active. This means that the more complex a mental task is, the less efficient a younger child will be in paying attention to, and actively processing, the information in order to complete the task.

Long-term memory also is known as permanent memory: the third component in memory. A basic division of long-term memory is between declarative and nondeclarative memory. Declarative memories, sometimes referred to as explicit memories, are memories for facts or events that we can consciously recollect. Nondeclarative memories sometimes referred to as implicit memories, are typically automated skills that do not require conscious recollection. Remembering that you have an exam next week would be an example of declarative memory. In contrast, knowing how to walk so you can get to the classroom or how to hold a pencil to write would be examples of non-declarative memories. Declarative memory is further divided into semantic and episodic memory. Semantic memories are memories for facts and knowledge that are not tied to a timeline, while episodic memories are tied to specific events in time.

A component of episodic memory is autobiographical memory or our personal narrative. Autobiographical memories are a subset of the declarative memory category. As you may recall from Chapter 4, the concept of infantile amnesia was introduced. Adults rarely remember events from the first few years of life. In other words, we lack autobiographical memories from our experiences as an infant, toddler, and very young preschooler. Several factors contribute to the emergence of autobiographical memory including brain maturation, improvements in language, opportunities to talk about experiences with parents and others, the development of the theory of mind, and a representation of “self” (Nelson & Fivush, 2004). 2-year-olds do remember fragments of personal experiences, but these are rarely coherent accounts of past events (Nelson & Ross, 1980). Between 2 and 2 ½ years of age, children can provide more information about past experiences. However, these recollections require considerable prodding by adults (Nelson & Fivush, 2004). Over the next few years, children will form more detailed autobiographical memories and engage in more reflection of the past.


Executive function (EF): self-regulatory processes, such as the ability to inhibit behavior or cognitive flexibility, that enable adaptive responses to new situations or to reach a specific goal. Executive function skills gradually emerge during early childhood and continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. Like many cognitive changes, brain maturation, especially the prefrontal cortex, along with experience influence the development of executive function skills. A child, whose parents are warm and responsive, use scaffolding when the child is trying to solve a problem, and who provide cognitively stimulating environments for the child show higher executive function skills (Fay-Stammbach, Hawes & Meredith, 2014). For instance, scaffolding was positively correlated with greater cognitive flexibility at age 2 and inhibitory control at age 4 (Bibok, Carpendale & Müller, 2009).

Executive function also is related to the use and selection of mental strategies to aid their memory performance. For instance, simple rote rehearsal may be used to commit information to memory. Young children, however, often do not rehearse unless reminded to do so, and when they do rehearse, they often fail to use clustering rehearsal. In clustering rehearsal, the person rehearses previous material while adding in additional information. If a list of words is read out loud to you, you are likely to rehearse each word as you hear it along with any previous words you were given. Young children will repeat each word they hear, but often fail to repeat the prior words in the list. In Schneider, Kron-Sperl and Hunnerkopf’s (2009) longitudinal study of 102 kindergarten children, the majority of children used no strategy to remember information, a finding that was consistent with previous research. As a result, their memory performance was poor when compared to their abilities as they aged and started to use more effective memory strategies.

Summary of three cognitive theories

We have discussed three theories that connect to changes in cognitive development. Below is a summary table reviewing each theories stance in how changes occur and how variation is considered.

Table Comparative Summary of Three Cognitive Theories

Theme Piaget Info. Proc. Vygotsky
Nature-Nurture Maturation and experience =
Nature and nurture
Not emphasized Environmental factors interact with biological structures=
Nurture on nature
Continuous-Discontinuous Discontinuous= Stages Usually continuous Continuous
Culture? Not really Not emphasized Critical component
Individual diff.? Universal stages Not really but does explain variation Yes

Language Development (Ob 8)

Vocabulary growth: A child’s vocabulary expands between the ages of 2 to 6 from about 200 words to over 10,000 words through a process called fast-mapping. Words are easily learned by making connections between new words and concepts already known. The parts of speech that are learned depend on the language and what is emphasized. Children speaking verb-friendly languages such as Chinese and Japanese as well as those speaking English tend to learn nouns more readily. However, those learning less verb-friendly languages such as English seem to need assistance in grammar to master the use of verbs (Imai, et al, 2008). Children are also very creative in creating their own words to use as labels such as a “nei-nei” for horse or “clopster” for lobster.

Literal meanings: Children can repeat words and phrases after having heard them only once or twice. But they do not always understand the meaning of the words or phrases. This is especially true of expressions or figures of speech which are taken literally. For example, two preschool-aged girls began to laugh loudly while listening to a tape-recording of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” when the narrator reports, “Prince Phillip lost his head!” They imagine his head popping off and rolling down the hill as he runs and searches for it. Or a classroom full of preschoolers hears the teacher say, “Wow! That was a piece of cake!” The children began asking “Cake? Where is my cake? I want cake!”

Overregularization: Children learn rules of grammar as they learn language but may apply these rules inappropriately at first. For instance, a child learns to add “ed” to the end of a word to indicate past tense. They form a sentence such as “I goed there. I doed that.” This is typical at ages 2 and 3. They will soon learn new words such as went and did to be used in those situations. It would seem that the child has solidly learned the grammar rule, but it is actually common for the developing child to revert back to their original mistake. This happens as they overregulate the rule. This can happen because they intuitively discover the rule and overgeneralize it or because they are explicitly taught to add “ed” to the end of a word to indicate past tense in school. A child who had previously produced correct sentences may start to form incorrect sentences such as, “I goed there. I doed that.” These children are able to quickly re-learn the correct exceptions to the -ed rule, and it is a sign of their language learning.

The Impact of Training: Remember Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development? Children can be assisted in learning language by others who listen attentively, model more accurate pronunciations, and encourage elaboration. The child exclaims, “I’m goed there!” and the adult responds, “You went there? Say, ‘I went there.’ Where did you go?” Children may be ripe for language as Chomsky suggests, but active participation in helping them learn is important for language development as well. The process of scaffolding (Vygotsky’s theory) is one in which the guide provides needed assistance to the child as a new skill is learned.

Psychosocial Development in Early Childhood: A Look at Self-Concept, Gender Identity, and Family Life

Self-Concept (Ob 11)

Early childhood is a time of forming an initial sense of self. Self-concept is our self-description according to various categories, such as our external and internal qualities. In contrast, self-esteem is an evaluative judgment about who we are. The emergence of cognitive skills in this age group results in improved perceptions of the self. If asked to describe yourself to others you would likely provide some physical descriptors, group affiliation, personality traits, behavioral quirks, and important values and beliefs. When researchers ask young children the same open-ended question, the children provide physical descriptors, preferred activities, and favorite possessions. Thus, a 3-year-old might describe herself as a 3-year-old girl with red hair, who likes to play with Legos. This focus on external qualities is referred to as the categorical self. However, even children as young as 3 know there is more to themselves than these external characteristics. Harter and Pike (1984) challenged the method of measuring personality with an open-ended question as they felt that language limitations were hindering the ability of young children to express their self-knowledge. They suggested a change to the method of measuring self-concept in young children, whereby researchers provide statements that ask whether something is true of the child (e.g., “I like to boss people around,” “I am grumpy most of the time”). Consistent with Harter and Pike’s suspicions, those in early childhood answer these statements in an internally consistent manner, especially after the age of 4 (Goodvin, Meyer, Thompson & Hayes, 2008) and often give similar responses to what others (parents and teachers) say about the child (Brown, Mangelsdorf, Agathen, & Ho, 2008; Colwell & Lindsey, 2003).

Herbert Mead (1967) explains how we develop a social sense of self by being able to see ourselves through the eyes of others. There are two parts of the self: the “I self” which is the part of the self that is spontaneous, creative, innate, and is not concerned with how others view us and the “me self” or the social definition of who we are. When we are born, we are all “I” and act without concern about how others view us. But the socialized self begins when we are able to consider how one important person views us. This initial stage is called “taking the role of the significant other.” For example, a child may pull a cat’s tail and be told by his mother, “No! Don’t do that, that’s bad” while receiving a slight slap on the hand. Later, the child may mimic the same behavior toward the self and say aloud, “No, that’s bad” while patting his own hand. What has happened? The child is able to see himself through the eyes of the mother. As the child grows and is exposed to many situations and rules of culture, he begins to view the self in the eyes of many others through these cultural norms or rules. This is referred to as “taking the role of the generalized other” and results in a sense of self with many dimensions. The child comes to have a sense of self as a student, as a friend, as a son, and so on.

Young children tend to have a generally positive self-image. This optimism is often the result of a lack of social comparison when making self-evaluations (Ruble, Boggiano, Feldman, & Loeble, 1980), and with a comparison between what the child once could do to what they can do now (Kemple, 1995). However, this does not mean that preschool children are exempt from negative self-evaluations. Preschool children with insecure attachments to their caregivers tend to have lower self-esteem at age 4 (Goodvin et al., 2008). Maternal negative effect was also found by Goodwin and her colleagues to produce more negative self-evaluations in preschool children.


Self-control is not a single phenomenon but is multi-faceted. It includes response initiation, the ability to not initiate a behavior before you have evaluated all of the information, response inhibition, the ability to stop a behavior that has already begun, and delayed gratification, the ability to hold out for a larger reward by forgoing a smaller immediate reward (Dougherty, Marsh, Mathias, & Swann, 2005). It is in early childhood that we see the start of self-control, a process that takes many years to fully develop. In the now classic “Marshmallow Test” (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Zeiss, 1972) children are confronted with the choice of a small immediate reward (immediate gratification) (a marshmallow) and a larger delayed reward (more marshmallows). Walter Mischel and his colleagues over the years have found that the ability to delay gratification at the age of 4 predicted better academic performance and health later in life (Mischel, et al., 2011). The Marshmallow Test connects to children’s development of self-control and motivation. Self-control is related to executive function (term discussed earlier in the chapter). As executive function improves, children become less impulsive (Traverso, Viterbori, & Usai, 2015) and self-regulate emotions, attention, and behavior.

Figure caption: A famous self-regulation test is the “Marshmallow Test.” Photo Courtesy of Ignite Wellington

Erikson: Initiative vs. Guilt (Ob 9)

By age three, the child begins stage 3: initiative versus guilt. The trust and autonomy of previous stages develop into a desire to take initiative or to think of ideas and initiate action. Children are curious at this age and start to ask questions so that they can learn about the world. Parents should try to answer those questions without making the child feel like a burden or implying that the child’s question is not worth asking. Children may want to build a fort with the cushions from the living room couch or open a lemonade stand in the driveway or make a zoo with their stuffed animals and issue tickets to those who want to come. Or they may just want to get themselves ready for bed without any assistance. To reinforce taking initiative, caregivers should offer praise for the child’s efforts and avoid being critical of messes or mistakes. Soggy washrags and toothpaste left in the sink pales in comparison to the smiling face of a 5-year-old that emerges from the bathroom with clean teeth and pajamas!

During this time, children are taking initiative but also may desire having set routines. Many young children desire consistency and may be upset if there are changes to their daily routines. They may like to line up their toys or other objects or place them in symmetric patterns. Many young children have a set bedtime ritual and a strong preference for certain clothes, toys or games. All these tendencies tend to wane as children approach middle childhood, and the familiarity of such ritualistic behaviors seem to bring a sense of security and a general reduction in childhood fears and anxiety (Evans, Gray, & Leckman, 1999; Evans & Leckman, 2015).

It is possible that the child will not be happy with helping to clean, and the child may even become aggressive or angry, but it is important to remember that the child is still learning how to navigate their world. They are trying to build a sense of autonomy, and they may not react well when they are asked to do something that they had not planned. Parents should be aware of this, and try to be understanding, but also be firm. Guilt for a situation where a child did not do their best allows a child to understand their responsibilities, see their potential, and helps the child learn to exercise self-control. The goal is to find a balance between initiative and guilt, not a free-for-all where the parent allows the child to do anything they want to. The parent must guide the child if they are to have a successful resolution in this stage. A parenting practice is to emphasize a when bad choice and redirect verses shutting down their desire to initiate or feeling he/she is bad.

Gender Identity, Gender Constancy, and Gender Roles (Ob 12)

Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex (APA, 2012). Another important dimension of the self is the sense of self as male or female. Gender identity is a person’s deeply‐felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender neutral) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth or to a person’s primary or secondary sex characteristics. Since gender identity is internal, a person’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.

Gender identity takes on more meaning during the preschool years as children are becoming increasingly interested in finding out the differences between boys and girls both physically and in terms of what activities are acceptable for each. While 2-year-olds can identify some differences and learn whether they are boys or girls, preschoolers become more interested in what it means to be male or female. Children begin to connect the concept “girl” or “boy” to specific attributes. They form stronger rules or expectations for how each gender behaves and looks (Kuhn, Nash, & Brucken 1978; Martin, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2004; Halim & Ruble, 2010).

This self-identification or gender identity is followed sometime later with gender constancy or the knowledge that gender does not change. Around ages 5-6 years-old, children’s thinking may be rigid in many ways for defining gender. For example, 5- and 6-year-olds are very aware of rules and of the pressure to comply with them. They do so rigidly because they are not yet developmentally ready to think more deeply about the beliefs and values that many rules are based on. For example, as early educators and parents know, the use of “white lies” is still hard for them to understand. Researchers call these ages the most “rigid” period of gender identity (Weinraub et al., 1984; Egan, Perry, & Dannemiller, 2001; Miller, Lurye, Zosuls, & Ruble, 2009). A child who wants to do or wear things that are not typical of his gender is probably aware that other children find it strange. The persistence of these choices, despite the negative reactions of others, show that these are strong feelings. Gender rigidity typically declines as children age (Trautner et al., 2005; Halim, Ruble, Tamis-LeMonda, & Shrout, 2013). With this change, children develop stronger moral impulses about what is “fair” for themselves and other children (Killen & Stangor, 2001).

Part of gender identity is the formation of gender roles. Gender roles, or the rights and expectations that are associated with being male or female, are learned throughout childhood and into adulthood. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender‐normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender nonconformity (APA, 2012).


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Learning through reinforcement and modeling: Learning theorists (chapter 2) suggest that gender role socialization is a result of the ways in which parents, teachers, friends, schools, religious institutions, media, and others send messages about what is acceptable or desirable behavior as males or females. This socialization begins early-in fact, it may even begin the moment a parent learns that a child is on the way. Knowing the sex of the child can conjure up images of the child’s behavior, appearance, and potential on the part of a parent. And this stereotyping continues to guide perception through life. Consider parents of newborns, shown a 7-pound, 20-inch baby, wrapped in blue (a color designating males) describe the child as tough, strong, and angry when crying. Shown the same infant in pink (a color used in the United States for baby girls), these parents are likely to describe the baby as pretty, delicate, and frustrated when crying (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1987). Female infants are held more, talked to more frequently, and given direct eye contact, while male infants play is often mediated through a toy or activity.

Sons are given tasks that take them outside the house and that have to be performed only on occasion while girls are more likely to be given chores inside the home such as cleaning or cooking that is performed daily. Sons are encouraged to think for themselves when they encounter problems and daughters are more likely to be given assistance even when they are working on an answer. This impatience is reflected in teachers waiting less time when asking a female student for an answer than when asking for a reply from a male student (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Girls are given the message from teachers that they must try harder and endure in order to succeed while boys’ successes are attributed to their intelligence. Friends discuss what is acceptable for boys and girls and popularity may be based on modeling what is considered ideal behavior or looks for the sexes. Girls tend to tell one another secrets to validate others as best friends while boys compete for position by emphasizing their knowledge, strength, or accomplishments. This focus on accomplishments can even give rise to exaggerating accomplishments in boys, but girls are discouraged from showing off and may learn to minimize their accomplishments as a result. Of course, the stereotypes can influence which kinds of courses or vocational choices girls and boys are encouraged to make. We are recipients of these cultural expectations, but may also modify these roles (Kimmel, 2008).

Figure caption: This is an example of deferred imitation (Piaget) and gender role play. Photo Courtesy of Juhan Sonin

How much does gender matter? In the United States, gender differences are found in school experiences (even into college and professional school, girls are less vocal in the classrooms and much more at risk for sexual harassment from teachers, coaches, classmates, and professors), in social interactions and in media messages. The stereotypes that boys should be strong, forceful, active, dominant, and rational and that girls should be pretty, subordinate, unintelligent, emotional, and talkative are portrayed in children’s toys, books, commercials, video games, movies, television shows, and music. In adulthood, these differences are reflected in income gaps between men and women where women working full-time earn about 74 percent the income of men, in higher rates of women suffering rape and domestic violence, higher rates of eating disorders for females, and in higher rates of violent death for men in young adulthood. Each of these differences will be explored further in subsequent chapters.

The impact in other parts of the world: Gender differences in India and China can be a matter of life and death as preferences for male children have been strong historically and are still held, especially in rural areas (WHO, 2010). Male children are given preference for receiving food, breast milk, medical care, and other resources. It is no longer legal to give parents information on the sex of their developing child for fear that they will abort a female fetus. Clearly, gender socialization and discrimination still impact development in a variety of ways across the globe.

Gender Dysphoria: A growing body of research is now focused on Gender Dysphoria, or the distress accompanying a mismatch between one’s gender identity and biological sex (APA, 2013). Gender Dysphoria as a diagnosis characterized by “a marked incongruence between” a person’s gender assigned at birth and gender identity (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 453). Gender Dysphoria replaced the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder (GID) in the previous version of the DSM (APA, 2000). Although prevalence rates are low, at approximately 0.3 percent of the United States population (Russo, 2016), children who later identified as transgender, often stated that they were the opposite gender as soon as they began talking. Comments such as stating they prefer the toys, clothing, and anatomy of the opposite sex while rejecting the toys, clothing, and anatomy of their assigned sex are criteria for a diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria in children. Certainly, many young children do not conform to the gender roles modeled by the culture and even push back against assigned roles. However, they do not experience discomfort regarding their gender identity and would not be identified with Gender Dysphoria. A more comprehensive description of Gender Dysphoria, including current treatments, will be discussed in the chapter on adolescence.

Diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria in children include significant distress or impairment due to marked gender incongruence, such as a strong desire to be-or a belief that one is the other gender; preference for the toys, games, roles, and activities stereotypically associated with the other gender, and a strong dislike of one’s sexual anatomy (APA, 2013).

Family Life

Parenting Styles (Ob 9)

Relationships between parents and children continue to play a significant role in children’s development during early childhood. We will explore two models of parenting styles. Keep in mind that these most parents do not follow any model completely. Real people tend to fall somewhere in between these styles. And sometimes parenting styles change from one child to the next or in times when the parent has more or less time and energy for parenting. Parenting styles can also be affected by concerns the parent has in other areas of his or her life. For example, parenting styles tend to become more authoritarian when parents are tired and perhaps more authoritative when they are more energetic. Sometimes parents seem to change their parenting approach when others are around, maybe because they become more self-conscious as parents or are concerned with giving others the impression that they are a “tough” parent or an “easy-going” parent. And of course, parenting styles may reflect the type of parenting someone saw modeled while growing up.

Baumrind (1971) offers a model of parenting that is four styles and measured along levels of responsiveness and demand. In general, children develop greater competence and self-confidence when parents have high, but reasonable expectations for children’s behavior, communicate well with them, are warm, loving, and responsive, and use reasoning, rather than coercion as preferred responses to children’s misbehavior. This kind of parenting style has been described as Authoritative (Baumrind, 2013). Authoritative parents are supportive and show interest in their kids’ activities, but are not overbearing and allow them to make constructive mistakes. Parents allow negotiation where appropriate, and consequently, this type of parenting is considered more democratic. Authoritarian, is the traditional model of parenting in which parents make the rules and children are expected to be obedient. Baumrind suggests that authoritarian parents tend to place maturity demands on their children that are unreasonably high and tend to be aloof and distant. Consequently, children reared in this way may fear rather than respect their parents and, because their parents do not allow discussion, may take out their frustrations on safer targets-perhaps as bullies toward peers. Permissive parenting involves holding expectations of children that are below what could be reasonably expected from them. Children are allowed to make their own rules and determine their own activities. Parents are warm and communicative, but provide little structure for their children. Children fail to learn self-discipline and may feel somewhat insecure because they do not know the limits. Uninvolved parents are disengaged from their children. They do not make demands on their children and are non-responsive. These children can suffer in school and in their relationships with their peers (Gecas & Self, 1991).

Table. Baumrind’s Parenting Style Dimensions classified by Warmth & Control

Warmth/Responsiveness Low High
Low Uninvolved Authoritarian
High Permissive Authoritative

Table. Summary of Baumrind’s Parenting Styles

Parenting Style Characteristics
Authoritative Style The parent gives reasonable demands and consistent limits express warmth and affection and listens to the child’s point of view.

Parents set rules and explain the reasons behind them, but are also flexible and willing to make exceptions to the rules in certain cases.

This is the style most encouraged in modern American society. American children raised by authoritative parents tend to have high self-esteem and social skills.

Effective parenting styles vary as a function of culture and, as Small (1999) points out, the authoritative style is not necessarily preferred or appropriate in all cultures.

Authoritarian Style The parent places a high value on conformity and obedience. The parents are often strict, tightly monitor their children, and express little warmth.

Authoritarian parents probably would not make exceptions to rules because they consider the rules to be set, and they expect obedience.

This style can create anxious, withdrawn, and unhappy kids.

Authoritarian parenting is as beneficial as the authoritative style in some ethnic groups. For instance, first-generation Chinese American children raised by authoritarian parents did just as well in school as their peers who were raised by authoritative parents.

Permissive Style Permissive parents make few demands and rarely use punishment; the kids run the show and anything goes. There are rarely strict rules set for behavior.

The parents tend to be very nurturing and loving and may play the role of a friend rather than the parent.

Children raised by permissive parents tend to lack self- discipline, and the permissive parenting style is negatively associated with grades. The permissive style may also contribute to other risky behaviors such as alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior especially among female children, and increased the display of disruptive behaviors by male children.

There are some positive outcomes associated with children raised by permissive parents, such as higher self-esteem, better social skills, and lower levels of depression.

Uninvolved Style The parents are indifferent, uninvolved, and sometimes referred to as neglectful. These parents may provide for the child’s basic needs, but little else.

The parents don’t respond to the child’s needs and make relatively few demands. This could be because of severe depression or substance abuse, or other factors such as the parents’ extreme focus on work.

The children raised in this parenting style are usually emotionally withdrawn, fearful, anxious, perform poorly in school, and are at an increased risk of substance abuse.

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These four categories are along a continuum and real people tend to fall somewhere in between these styles. Sometimes parenting styles change from one child to the next or in times when the parent has more or less time and energy for parenting. Parenting styles can also be affected by concerns the parent has in other areas of his or her life. For example, parenting styles tend to become more authoritarian when parents are tired and perhaps more authoritative when they are more energetic. Sometimes parents seem to change their parenting approach when others are around, maybe because they become more self-conscious as parents or are concerned with giving others the impression that they are a “tough” parent or an “easy-going” parent. Additionally, parenting styles may reflect the type of parenting someone saw modeled while growing up.

Lemasters and Defrain (1989) offer another model of parenting. This model is interesting because it looks more closely at the motivations of the parent and suggests that parenting styles are often designed to meet the psychological needs of the parent rather than the developmental needs of the child.

  • The martyr is a parent who will do anything for the child; even tasks that the child should do for himself or herself. All of the good deeds performed for the child, in the name of being a “good parent,” may be used later should the parent want to gain compliance from the child. If a child goes against the parent’s wishes, the parent can remind the child of all of the times the parent helped the child and evoke a feeling of guilt so that the child will do what the parent wants. The child learns to be dependent and manipulative as a result. (Beware! A parent busy whipping up cookies may really be thinking “control!”)
  • The pal is like the permissive parent described in Baumrind’s model above. The pal wants to be the child’s friend. Perhaps the parent is lonely or perhaps the parent is trying to win a popularity contest against an ex-spouse. Pals let children do what they want and focus most on being entertaining and fun and set few limitations. Consequently, the child may have little self-discipline and may try to test limits with others.
  • The police officer/drill sergeant style of parenting is similar to the authoritarian parent described above. The parent focuses primarily on making sure that the child is obedient and that the parent has full control of the child. Sometimes this can be taken to the extreme by giving the child tasks that are really designed to check on their level of obedience. For example, the parent may require that the child fold the clothes and place items back in the drawer in a particular way. If not, the child might be scolded or punished for not doing things “right.” This type of parent has a very difficult time allowing the child to grow and learn to make decisions independently. And the child may have a lot of resentment toward the parent that is displaced on others.
  • The teacher-counselor parent is one who pays a lot of attention to expert advice on parenting and who believes that as long as all of the steps are followed, the parent can rear a perfect child. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. There are two major problems with this approach. First, the parent is taking all of the responsibility for the child’s behavior-at least indirectly. If the child has difficulty, the parent feels responsible and thinks that the solution lies in reading more advice and trying more diligently to follow that advice. Parents can certainly influence children, but thinking that the parent is fully responsible for the child’s outcome if faulty. A parent can only do so much and can never have full control over the child. Another problem with this approach is that the child may get an unrealistic sense of the world and what can be expected from others. For example, if a teacher-counselor parent decides to help the child build self-esteem and has read that telling the child how special he or she is or how important it is to compliment the child on a job well done, the parent may convey the message that everything the child does is exceptional or extraordinary. A child may come to expect that all of his efforts warrant praise and in the real world, this is not something one can expect. Perhaps children get more of a sense of pride from assessing their own performance than from having others praise their efforts.

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Lemasters and Defrain (1989) suggest that the athletic coach style of parenting is best. Before you draw conclusions here, set aside any negative experiences you may have had with coaches in the past. The principles of coaching are what are important to Lemasters and Defrain. A coach helps players form strategies, supports their efforts, gives feedback on what went right and what went wrong, and stands at the sideline while the players perform. Coaches and referees make sure that the rules of the game are followed and that all players adhere to those rules. Similarly, the athletic coach as a parent helps the child understand what needs to happen in certain situations whether in friendships, school, or home life and encourages and advises the child about how to manage these situations. The parent does not intervene or do things for the child. Rather, the parent’s role is to provide guidance while the child learns first-hand how to handle these situations. And the rules for behavior are consistent and objective and presented in that way. So, a child who is late for dinner might hear the parent respond in this way, “Dinner was at six o’clock.” Rather than, “You know good and well that we always eat at six. If you expect me to get up and make something for you now, you have got another thing coming! Just who do you think you are showing up late and looking for food? You’re grounded until further notice!”The most important thing to remember about parenting is that you can be a better, more objective parent when you are directing your actions toward the child’s needs and while considering what they can reasonably be expected to do at their stage of development. Parenting is more difficult when you are tired and have psychological needs that interfere with the relationship. Some of the best advice for parents is to try not to take the child’s actions personally and be as objective as possible.

The impact of culture cannot be ignored when examining parenting styles. Responsiveness and demandingness are culturally based where warmth is responsive praise in America and control take the form of explaining and some form of choice. The two models of parenting described above assume that authoritative and athletic coaching styles are best because they are designed to help the parent raise a child who is independent, self-reliant, and responsible (connected to our cultural value of independence). However, outside of Western cultures, authoritative parenting style is rare. These are qualities favored in “individualistic” cultures such as the United States, particularly by the middle class.  African-American, Hispanic, and Asian parents tend to be more authoritarian than non-Hispanic whites. Asian cultures have a tradition of filial piety where children are to respect, obey, and revere authority in greater regard than in the West. In “collectivistic” cultures such as China or Korea, being obedient and compliant are favored behaviors. In Latino cultural beliefs, familismo emphases love, closeness and mutual obligations of Latino family life. Authoritarian parenting has been used historically and reflects a cultural need for children to do as they are told. In societies where family members’ cooperation is necessary for survival, as in the case of raising crops, rearing children who are independent and who strive to be on their own makes no sense. But in an economy based on being mobile in order to find jobs and where one’s earnings are based on education, raising a child to be independent is very important.

Working class parents are more likely than middle-class parents to focus on obedience and honesty when raising their children. In a classic study on social class and parenting styles called Class and Conformity, Kohn (1977) explains that parents tend to emphasize qualities that are needed for their own survival when parenting their children. Working class parents are rewarded for being obedient, reliable, and honest in their jobs. They are not paid to be independent or to question the management; rather, they move up and are considered good employees if they show up on time, do their work as they are told, and can be counted on by their employers. Consequently, these parents reward honesty and obedience in their children. Middle-class parents who work as professionals are rewarded for taking initiative, being self-directed, and assertive in their jobs. They are required to get the job done without being told exactly what to do. They are asked to be innovative and to work independently. These parents encourage their children to have those qualities as well by rewarding independence and self-reliance. Parenting styles can reflect many elements of culture.

Sibling Relationships

Siblings spend a considerable amount of time with each other and offer a unique relationship that is not found with same-age peers or with adults. Siblings play an important role in the development of social skills. Cooperative and pretend play interactions between younger and older siblings can teach empathy, sharing, and cooperation (Pike, Coldwell, & Dunn, 2005), as well as, negotiation and conflict resolution (Abuhatoum & Howe, 2013). However, the quality of sibling relationships is often mediated by the quality of the relationship and the psychological adjustment of the child (Pike et al., 2005). For instance, more negative interactions between siblings have been reported in families where parents had poor patterns of communication with their children (Brody, Stoneman, & McCoy, 1994). Children who have emotional and behavioral problems are also more likely to have negative interactions with their siblings. However, the psychological adjustment of the child can sometimes reflect the parent-child relationship. Thus, when examining the quality of sibling interactions, it is often difficult to tease out the separate effect of adjustment from the effect of the parent-child relationship.

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While parents want positive interactions between their children, conflicts are going to arise, and some confrontations can be the impetus for growth in children’s social and cognitive skills. The sources of conflict between siblings often depend on their respective ages. Dunn and Munn (1987) revealed that over half of all sibling conflicts in early childhood were disputes about property rights. By middle childhood this starts shifting toward control over social situations, such as what games to play, disagreements about facts or opinions, or rude behavior (Howe, Rinaldi, Jennings, & Petrakos, 2002). Researchers have also found that the strategies children use to deal with conflict change with age, but that this is also tempered by the nature of the conflict. Abuhatoum and Howe (2013) found that coercive strategies (e.g., threats) were preferred when the dispute centered on property rights, while reasoning was more likely to be used by older siblings and in disputes regarding control over the social situation. However, younger siblings also use reasoning, frequently bringing up the concern of legitimacy (e.g., “You’re not the boss”) when in conflict with an older sibling. This is a very common strategy used by younger siblings and is possibly an adaptive strategy in order for younger siblings to assert their autonomy (Abuhatoum & Howe, 2013). A number of researchers have found that children who can use non-coercive strategies are more likely to have a successful resolution, whereby a compromise is reached and neither child feels slighted (Ram & Ross, 2008; Abuhatoum & Howe, 2013). Not surprisingly, friendly relationships with siblings often lead to more positive interactions with peers. The reverse is also true. A child can also learn to get along with a sibling, with, as the song says “a little help from my friends” (Kramer & Gottman, 1992).


Birth Order is an Important Factor that Impacts Children’s Personality and Identity

We all know the term “middle child syndrome,” especially when our siblings have done something wrong and use their age as an out. However, the commonalities between middle children, eldest children, youngest children, and even only children, is astounding. Some even believe that it has an effect on intelligence and personality. Recent research suggests the same as well. Overall, it is found that eldest children have the highest need for achievement, and better grades in school (Eckstein & Kaufman, 2012) they are also commonly tagged with professions such as doctor, engineer, pharmacist, and other academic careers (Herrera, Zajonc, Wieczorkowska & Cichomski, 2003). On the other hand middle children are found to be more sociable and compassionate, with the fewest acting-out problems (Eckstein & Kaufman, 2012) but other research also associates the feeling of not belonging with the middle child (Schooler 1972). Middle children are also found to have jobs such as nurses, law enforcement officers, firefighting, and other personable careers (Herrera, Zajonc, Wieczorkowska & Cichomski, 2003). Youngest children on the contrary are pegged with characteristics such as the most rebellious, empathetic and artistic, it is also found that they are most likely of the children to abuse drugs and alcohol (Eckstein & Kaufman, 2012). However, they still have meaningful careers such as writer, artist, musician, and many other expressive careers (Herrera, Zajonc, Wieczorkowska & Cichomski, 2003). Then there are only children, only children are linked with a need for achievement, and college goers, and only children are also very susceptible to behavior problems (Eckstein & Kaufman, 2012). However, career status for only children has not had much well developed research (Herrera, Zajonc, Wieczorkowska & Cichomski, 2003).
Another finding within the research suggests that our birth order alone impacts our choices for identity (Zajonc, Markus, & Markus, 1979). De-identifying is the concept of intentionally attempting to be different from the disliked identity (Eckstein & Kaufman, 2012). Children will see how their siblings act and choose to de-identify themselves, therefore making sure that they are not the same. When this was researched, it was found to be most common in twins, or siblings within 3 years of one another. (Eckstein & Kaufman, 2012). Overall, we do see differences of traits, personality, characteristics, and hobbies across siblings and their birth order.



Freud, Vygotsky, and Piaget all saw play as providing positive outcomes for children. Parten (1932) observed 2 to 5-year-old children and noted six types of play. Three types she labeled as non-social (unoccupied, solitary, and onlooker) and three types were categorized as social play (parallel, associative, and cooperative). Younger children engage in non-social play more than those older; by age five associative and cooperative play are the most common forms of play (Dyer & Moneta, 2006).

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Parten’s Classification of Types of Play in Preschool Children:

Unoccupied Play Children’s behavior seems more random and without a specific goal. This is the least common form of play.
Solitary Play Children play by themselves, do not interact with others, nor are they engaging in similar activities as the children around them.
Onlooker Play Children are observing other children playing. They may comment on the activities and even make suggestions, but will not directly join the play.
Parallel Play Children play alongside each other, using similar toys, but do not directly act with each other.
Associative Play Children will interact with each other and share toys, but are not working toward a common goal.
Cooperative Play Children are interacting to achieve a common goal. Children may take on different tasks to reach that goal.


By age 4, many children use the word “friend” when referring to certain children, and do so with a fair degree of stability (Hartup, 1983). However, among young children “friendship” is often based on proximity, such as they live next door, attend the same school, or it refers to whomever they just happen to be playing with at the time (Rubin, 1980).

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Imaginary Companions

An intriguing occurrence in early childhood is the emergence of imaginary companions. Researchers differ in how they define what qualifies as an imaginary companion. Some studies include only invisible characters that the child refers to in conversation, or plays with for an extended period of time. Other researchers also include objects that the child personifies, such as a stuffed toy or doll, or characters the child impersonates every day. Estimates of the number of children who have imaginary companions vary greatly (from as little as 6% to as high as 65%) depending on what is included in the definition (Gleason, Sebanc, & Hartup, 2000). Little is known about why children create imaginary companions, and more than half of all companions have no obvious trigger in the child’s life (Masih, 1978). Imaginary companions are sometimes based on real people, characters from stories, or simply names the child has heard (Gleason, et. al., 2000). Imaginary companions often change over time. In their study, Gleason et al. (2000) found that 40% of the imaginary companions of the children they studied changed, such as developing superpowers, switching age, gender, or even dying, and 68% of the characteristics of the companion were acquired over time. This could reflect greater complexity in the child’s “creation” over time and/or a greater willingness to talk about their imaginary playmates. In addition, research suggests that contrary to the assumption that children with imaginary companions are compensating for poor social skills, several studies have found that these children are very sociable (Mauro, 1991; Singer & Singer, 1990; Gleason, 2002). However, studies have reported that children with imaginary companions are more likely to be first-borns or only-children (Masih, 1978; Gleason et al., 2000, Gleason, 2002). Although not all research has found a link between birth order and the incidence of imaginary playmates (Manosevitz, Prentice, & Wilson, 1973). Moreover, some studies have found little or no difference in the presence of imaginary companions and parental divorce (Gleason et al., 2000), a number of people in the home, or the amount of time children are spending with real playmates (Masih, 1978; Gleason & Hohmann, 2006). Do children treat real friends differently? The answer appears to be not really. Young children view their relationship with their imaginary companion to be as supportive and nurturing as with their real friends. Gleason has suggested that this might suggest that children form a schema of what is a friend, and use this same schema in their interactions with both types of friends (Gleason, et al., 2000; Gleason, 2002; Gleason & Hohmann, 2006).

Children and the Media

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Media is more present in children’s lives than in the past. Almost all-American families have at least one TV set, and half own three or more (Nielsen Company, 2009). For children age six and under, two-thirds watch television every day, usually for two hours (Rideout & Hamel, 2006). Even when involved in other activities, such as playing, there is often a television on nearby (Christakis, 2009; Kirkorian, Pempek, & Murphy, 2009). Research has consistently shown that too much television adversely affects children’s behavior, health, and achievement (Gentile & Walsh, 2002; Robinson, Wilde, & Navracruz, 2001). Young children are less able to focus on active, hands-on play while the television is on, and background TV can negatively affect cognitive and language development as well as be linked to attention problems later in childhood (Schmidt, Pempek, & Kirkorian, 2008; Courage, Murphy, & Goulding, 2010).

Child Care Concerns (Ob 10)

About 75.7 percent of mothers of school-aged and 65.1 percent of mothers of preschool-aged children in the United States work outside the home (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018). Since more women have been entering the workplace, there has been a concern that families do not spend as much time with their children. This, however, is not true. Between 1981 and 1997, the amount of time that parents spent with children has increased overall (Sandberg & Hofferth, 2001). Modern numbers for this vary widely, as many parents who work outside of the home also devote significant amounts of time to childcare, to 14 hours a week, compared with 10 in 1965 (Geiger, Livingston, Gretchen, & Bialik, 2019).

Seventy-five percent of children under age 5 are in scheduled child care programs. Others are cared for by family members, friends, or are in Head Start Programs. Older children are often in after-school programs, before school programs, or stay at home alone after school once they are older. Quality childcare programs can enhance a child’s social skills and can provide rich learning experiences. But long hours in poor quality care can have negative consequences for young children in particular. What determines the quality of child care? One consideration is the teacher/child ratio. States specify the maximum number of children that can be supervised by one teacher. In general, the younger the children, the more teachers required for a given number of children. The higher the teacher to child ratio, the more time the teacher has for involvement with the children and the less stressed the teacher may be so that the interactions can be more relaxed, stimulating and positive. The more children there are in a program, the less desirable the program as well. This is because the center may be more rigid in rules and structure to accommodate the large number of children in the facility. The physical environment should be colorful, stimulating, clean, and safe. The philosophy of the organization and the curriculum available should be child-centered, positive, and stimulating. Providers should be trained in early childhood education as well. A majority of states do not require training for their child care providers. And while formal education is not required for a person to provide a warm, loving relationship to a child, knowledge of a child’s development is useful for addressing their social, emotional, and cognitive needs in an effective way. By working toward improving the quality of childcare and increasing family-friendly workplace policies such as more flexible scheduling and perhaps childcare facilities at places of employment, we can accommodate families with smaller children and relieve parents of the stress sometimes associated with managing work and family life.


To set criteria for designation as a high-quality preschool, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) identifies 10 standards (NAEYC, 2016). These include:

  • Positive relationships among all children and adults are promoted.
  • A curriculum that supports learning and development in social, emotional, physical, language, and cognitive areas.
  • Teaching approaches that are developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate.
  • Assessment of children’s progress to provide information on learning and development.
  • The health and nutrition of children are promoted, while they are protected from illness and injury.
  • Teachers possess the educational qualifications, knowledge, and commitment to promoting children’s learning.
  • Collaborative relationships with families are established and maintained.
  • Relationships with agencies and institutions in the children’s communities are established to support the program’s goals.
  • Indoor and outdoor physical environments are safe and well-maintained.
  • Leadership and management personnel are well qualified, effective, and maintain licensure status with the applicable state agency.

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Parents should review preschool programs using the NAEYC criteria as a guide and template for asking questions that will assist them in choosing the best program for their child. Selecting the right preschool is also difficult because there are so many types of preschools available. Zachry (2013) identified Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, High Scope, Parent Co-Ops, and Bank Street as types of preschool programs that focus on children learning through discovery. Teachers act as guides and create activities based on the child’s developmental level.

Head Start: For children who live in poverty, Head Start has been providing preschool education since 1965 when it was begun by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his war on poverty. It currently serves nearly one million children and annually costs approximately 7.5 billion dollars (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2015). However, concerns about the effectiveness of Head Start have been ongoing since the program began. Armor (2015) reviewed existing research on Head Start and found there were no lasting gains, and the average child in Head Start had not learned more than children who did not receive preschool education.

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A July 2015 evaluating the effectiveness of Head Start comes from the What Works Clearinghouse. The What Works Clearinghouse identifies research that provides reliable evidence of the effectiveness of programs and practices in education and is managed by the Institute of Education Services for the United States Department of Education. After reviewing 90 studies on the effectiveness of Head Start, only one study was deemed scientifically acceptable and this study showed disappointing results (Barshay, 2015). This study showed that 3- and 4-year-old children in Head Start received “potentially positive effects” on general reading achievement, but no noticeable effects on math achievement and social-emotional development. Nonexperimental designs are a significant problem in determining the effectiveness of Head Start programs because a control group is needed to show group differences that would demonstrate educational benefits. Because of ethical reasons, low-income children are usually provided with some type of preschool programming in an alternative setting. Additionally, Head Start programs are different depending on the location, and these differences include the length of the day or qualification of the teachers. Lastly, testing young children is difficult and strongly dependent on their language skills and comfort level with an evaluator (Barshay, 2015).

Recent research supports the Head Start program in its positive and significant impact on school readiness of preschool children, particularly those at the bottom of the achievement distribution and Spanish speakers (Bitler, Hoynes, & Domina, 2016). While these gains do decline as children enter elementary school, other research points to gains that appear later in life (Currie, 2001, Luwig et. al, 2007; Demig, 2009). The study conducted by Bitler et. al (2016) analyzed the effect of the Head Start program on child cognitive and social and emotional outcomes, using data from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS), a longitudinal randomized control study of around 5,000 children ages three and four from 84 nationally representative communities in the U.S. where local Head Start programs were oversubscribed. The use of a randomized design enables the possibility to identify the effect of Head Start independently of other factors on child outcomes, and the longitudinal data allows for the impact of short-term and long-term gains. Head Start leads to positive and large gains in vocabulary knowledge and receptive language skills during the preschool period, particularly for children with low achievement levels and for Spanish-language speakers. While the early cognitive gains tend to diminish or “fade out” as children enter elementary school, there is evidence of benefits that appear in adolescence and young adulthood (Demig, 2009).

Childcare: To evaluate how early childcare affects children’s development, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2006) conducted a longitudinal study. This study is considered the most comprehensive childcare study to date and began in 1991 when the children were one month of age. The study included an economically and ethnically diverse group of 1364 children assessed from 10 sites around the country. By design, the study involved single parents, minority backgrounds, and differing formal education levels. Childcare was defined as “any care provided on a regular basis by someone other than the child’s mother” (p. 4). A regular basis included more than 10 hours per week. Childcare arrangements included: Care from the father or another relative, care from a caregiver not related to the child in the child’s home, small group care in the caregiver’s home, and center-based care.

Overall results indicated that children cared for by their mothers did not develop differently than those who were cared for by others. Parents and family characteristics were stronger predictors of child development than childcare facilities. Specifically, greater cognitive, language and social competence were demonstrated when parents were more educated, had higher incomes, and provided emotionally supportive and cognitively enriched home environments. When comparing higher quality childcare with lower quality child care differences were noted. Higher quality care, as measured by adult-to-child ratios, group size, and caregivers’ educational and training levels, resulted in higher cognitive performance, better language comprehension, and production, and higher levels of school readiness. Lower quality care predicted more behavioral problems and poorer cognitive, language, and school readiness.

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The higher the teacher to child ratio, the more time the teacher has for involvement with the children and the less stressed the teacher may be so that the interactions can be more relaxed, stimulating and positive. The more children there are in a program, the less desirable the program as well. This is because the center may be more rigid in rules and structure to accommodate the large number of children in the facility. The physical environment should be colorful, stimulating, clean, and safe. The philosophy of the organization and the curriculum available should be child-centered, positive, and stimulating. Providers should be trained in early childhood education as well. A majority of states do not require training for their child care providers. While formal education is not required for a person to provide a warm, loving relationship to a child, knowledge of a child’s development is useful for addressing their social, emotional, and cognitive needs in an effective way.

By working toward improving the quality of childcare and increasing family-friendly workplace policies, such as more flexible scheduling and childcare facilities at places of employment, we can accommodate families with smaller children and relieve parents of the stress sometimes associated with managing work and family life.

Child Abuse

What’s the difference between child abuse and physical punishment during discipline? Physical or corporal punishment signifies noninjurious, openhanded hitting with the intention of modifying child behavior (Gershoff, 2008). The term “physical punishment” is more common in the United States while “corporal punishment” is used internationally. Parents’ goals in using corporal punishment, as in using any form of discipline, are to put an end to inappropriate or undesirable behavior and to promote positive and acceptable behavior (Gershoff, 2008). The research summarized by Gershoff indicates evidence that corporal punishment is more effective than other techniques in securing immediate child compliance. While physical punishment is better than no discipline, research reviewed indicates that physcial punishment decreases moral internalization (that is, the child’s internalizing positive moral values) (Gershoff, 2010). In one meta-analysis including 27 studies, all reported studies found that the more parents used corporal punishment, the more aggressive their children were (as cited in Gershoff, 2010). Further, research from Blagg and Godfrey (2018) suggest that physical abuse can trigger an aggression mindset. Physical punishment can become abuse. In reviewing casese where Child Protective Services were called for child abuse, nearly two-thirds of the abusive incidents began as acts of physical punishment meant to correct a child’s misbehavior (Gershoff, 2010).

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2013) defines Child Abuse and Neglect as: Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm (p. viii). Each state has its own definition of child abuse based on federal law, and most states recognize four major types of maltreatment: neglect, physical abuse, psychological maltreatment, and sexual abuse. Each of the forms of child maltreatment may be identified alone, but they can occur in combination.

Victims of Child Abuse: During 2016 (the most recent year data has been collected) Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies received an estimated 4.1 million referrals involving approximately 7.4 million children, and 58 percent were investigated (USDHHS, 2018). For 2016, approximately 3.5 million children were the subjects of at least one report. While 82.8% were determined to be non-victims of maltreatment, a total of 17.2 percent of children were classified as victims with dispositions of substantiated (16.5%) and indicated (0.7%) (USDHHS, 2018). In 2016, nationally, there were an estimated 676,000 victims of child abuse and neglect (USDHHS, 2018). The victim rate was 9.1 victims per 1,000 children in the population (USDHHS, 2018). Alcohol and drug abuse factors rose. For all victims younger than 1 year, percentages of victims with the alcohol abuse child risk factor increased from 3.1 in 2012 to 4.8 in 2016 (USDHHS, 2018). The rates per 1,000 children of the same age increased from 0.7 to 1.2, respectively (USDHHS, 2018). For all victims younger than 1 year, percentages of victims with the drug abuse child risk factor increased from 12.3 percent in 2012 to 15.2 percent in 2016 (USDHHS, 2018). The rates per 1,000 children of the same age increased from 2.6 to 3.9, respectively (USDHHS, 2018). Children in their first year of life had the highest rate of victimization at 24.8 per 1,000 children of the same age in the national population. American-Indian or Alaska Native children had the highest rate of victimization at 14.2 per 1,000 children in the population of the same race or ethnicity; and African-American children had the second highest rate at 13.9 per 1,000 children of the same race or ethnicity (USDHHS, 2018).

Sexual Abuse: Childhood sexual abuse is defined as any sexual contact between a child and an adult or a much older child. Incest refers to sexual contact between a child and family members. In each of these cases, the child is exploited by an older person without regard for the child’s developmental immaturity and inability to understand sexual behavior (Steele, 1986). Research estimates that 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 10 boys have been sexually abused (Valente, 2005). The median age for sexual abuse is 8 or 9 years for both boys and girls (Finkelhorn, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990). Most boys and girls are sexually abused by a male. Although rates of sexual abuse are higher for girls than for boys, boys may be less likely to report abuse because of the cultural expectation that boys should be able to take care of themselves and because of the stigma attached to homosexual encounters (Finkelhorn et. al., 1990). Girls are more likely to be abused by a family member and boys by strangers. Sexual abuse can create feelings of self-blame, betrayal, and feelings of shame and guilt (Valente, 2005). Sexual abuse is particularly damaging when the perpetrator is someone the child trusts and may lead to depression, anxiety, problems with intimacy, and suicide (Valente, 2005).

Childhood Stress and Development (Ob 13)

What is the impact of stress on child development? Children experience different types of stressors. Normal, everyday stress can provide an opportunity for young children to build coping skills and poses little risk to development. Even more long-lasting stressful events such as changing schools or losing a loved one can be managed fairly well. Children who experience toxic stress or who live in extremely stressful situations of abuse over long periods of time can suffer long-lasting effects. The structures in the midbrain or limbic systems such as the hippocampus and amygdala can be vulnerable to prolonged stress during early childhood (Middlebrooks & Audage, 2008). High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can reduce the size of the hippocampus and affect the child’s memory abilities. Stress hormones can also reduce immunity to disease. The brain exposed to long periods of severe stress can develop a low threshold making the child hypersensitive to stress in the future. However, the effects of stress can be minimized if the child has the support of caring adults.

Early childhood experiences of trauma

Preschool and young school-age children exposed to a traumatic event may experience a feeling of helplessness, uncertainty about whether there is continued danger, a general fear that extends beyond the traumatic event and into other aspects of their lives, and difficulty describing in words what is bothering them or what they are experiencing emotionally (NCTSN, 2010).

This feeling of helplessness and anxiety is often expressed as a loss of previously acquired developmental skills (NCTSN, 2010). Children who experience traumatic events might not be able to fall asleep on their own or might not be able to separate from parents at school (NCTSN, 2010). Children who might have ventured out to play in the yard prior to a traumatic event now might not be willing to play in the absence of a family member (NCTSN, 2010). Often, children lose some speech and toileting skills, or their sleep is disturbed by nightmares, night terrors, or fear of going to sleep (NCTSN, 2010). In many cases, children may engage in traumatic play—a repetitive and less imaginative form of play that may represent children’s continued focus on the traumatic event or an attempt to change a negative outcome of a traumatic event (NCTSN, 2010).

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
The toxic stress that young children endure can have a significant impact on their later lives. According to Merrick, Ford, Ports, and Guinn (2018), the foundation for lifelong health and well-being is created in childhood, as positive experiences strengthen biological systems while adverse experiences can increase mortality and morbidity. All types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur before the age of 18 are referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) (CDC, 2019). ACEs have been linked to risky behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential and early death, and as the number of ACEs increase, so does the risk for these results.

When a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support, the child’s stress response systems can be activated and disrupt the development of the brain and other organ systems (Harvard University, 2019). Further, ACEs can increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years. Felitti et al. (1998) found that those who had experienced four or more ACEs compared to those who had experienced none, had increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide attempt, increase in smoking, poor self-rated health, more sexually transmitted diseases, an increase in physical inactivity and severe obesity. More ACEs showed an increased relationship to the presence of adult diseases including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. Overall, those with multiple ACEs were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life.

What to learn more about Adverse Childhood Experiences? Check out the CDC website on ACE, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/.

How to help: For young children, parents can offer invaluable support, by providing comfort, rest, and an opportunity to play or draw (NCTSN, 2010). Parents can be available to provide reassurance that the traumatic event is over and that the children are safe. It is helpful for parents, family, and teachers to help children verbalize their feelings so that they don’t feel alone with their emotions (NCTSN, 2010). Providing consistent caretaking by ensuring that children are picked up from school at the anticipated time and by informing children of parents’ whereabouts can provide a sense of security for children who have recently experienced a traumatic event (NCTSN, 2010). Parents, family, caregivers, and teachers may need to tolerate regression in developmental tasks for a period of time following a traumatic event (NCTSN, 2010).


Although we have divided up children’s development into different domains, these areas are complementary. We see that cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development are mutually supportive areas of growth. Social skills and physical dexterity influence cognitive development, just as cognition plays a role in children’s social understanding and motor competence. Early childhood is a critical time period that forms a foundation for children’s well-being and learning.

Chapter 5 Key terms

Neuroplasticity Autism Spectrum Disorder
Preoperational stage Initiative vs Guilt
Conservation self-regulation
Centration self-control
Ireversibility Authoritative parenting style
Egocentrism Authoritarian parenting style
Classification Permissive parenting style
Animism Uninvolved parenting style
Theory of mind LeMaster’s and DeFrain’s parenting styles
Divided attention gender identity
Sustained attention gender Dysmorphia
Executive function gender roles
Long Term mermory
Implicit vs explicit memory


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Psychology Through the Lifespan Copyright © 2020 by Alisa Beyer and Julie Lazzara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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