Ecological and Experiential theories

There are some theories that instead look at development as context dependent.  These tend to correspond with more current understanding of development.

Developmental Systems Theory (DST)

This theory places emphasis on understanding how each young person’s unique experiences within their social world shapes their development.  DST looks at the diversity of human development and highlights how variable and complex developmental processes can be.  Therefore, regardless of the past experience there is always potential for change and a reason for optimism.  This view corresponds well with progressive understanding of neuroscience and social science perspectives.

DST demonstrates:

  • How the promotion of positive human development can be achieved by aligning the strengths and potentials of individuals and contexts
  • That biological and psychological processes and developmental milestones are dynamic and influenced by social, cultural and historical factors rather than being predetermined and fixed
  • How multiple factors work together to shape human development

Ecological Systems Theory (EST)

DST evolved from EST which is understood as ‘development in context’.  This theory suggests that everything in a child or young person’s environment affects how they grow and develop and that development is a continuous process rather than discrete stages.  EST specifies four types of environmental systems that shape development, each with their own role, norms and rules.

  • Microsystem – immediate environment (e.g. family, school, peer group, community)
  • Mesosystem – connections between immediate environments (e.g. a young persons connection with home and school or the family’s status in the community)
  • Exosystem – external environment setting that only indirectly affect development (e.g. parent’s workplace)
  • Macrosystem – the larger socio-cultural context

It acknowledges that impact of these systems on the young person’s interactions but equally demonstrates how the young person’s reaction to these interactions affect the response of people and systems.  This introduces the influence of a young person's personality traits on their development.

Cultural History Theory

This theory also considers development as context dependent and holds that development is a continuous process where children and young people learn through hands-on experience.  It introduced two concepts:

  • The ‘zone of proximal development’ – the time when the young person is on the edge of learning a new task.  This theory suggests that development is best facilitated by adults, who are available to provide timely and sensitive intervention at this time.
  • ‘Scaffolding’ represents how the knowledge children already have can be built upon by supportive and available adults.  This concept is widely used in youth work and resilience research.

Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977)

The importance of social experience and observational learning for young people is demonstrated by this theory.  It emphasises that opportunities of modelling, imitation and identification through interacting with significant others and with their environment is critical for learning and development.

Core to Social Learning Theory is the role of reward and punishment.  It introduces the concept of ‘self-efficacy’ – a person’s own judgement of how well he or she can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations.  This concept is central to study of resilience and health behaviour change.

Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory has been significant in how development is understood and nurtured.  Originally the theory held that babies need a secure relationship with adult caregivers and that without this normal social and emotional development will not occur.  The concept of ‘secure base’ is put forth as being instilled through the nurturing provided by a loving parent – particularly a mother.  From this understanding, several ‘attachment patterns’ were put forth that guide the individuals feelings, thoughts and expectations in later relationships. 

Some critiques have been made about Attachment Theory suggesting that an individual’s temperament is a strong predictor of behavioural and emotional reactions rather than the bond between caregiver and infant.  The influence of the caregiver’s behaviour is also put forth.  However more studies have supported the role of early and ongoing attachment in shaping development and in fact has an integral role in helping children and young people develop autonomy and identity.

For more about Attachment.

Further Resources