Arnold Gesell’s maturation theory: what it is and what it proposes

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Arnold Gesell's maturation theory

The American psychologist and pediatrician Arnold Gesell proposed at the beginning of the last century a theory about how children developed behaviorally, which has been of great importance in the field of educational psychology and pediatrics.

Arnold Gesell’s maturation theory tries to explain the order in which the main learnings and skills development occur during childhood, in addition to giving an explanation, from the physiological point of view, of why this specific order is given.

This theory, like many others in developmental psychology, has not been without criticism, although it is possible to say that practically one hundred years after being formulated it still has a lot of weight in this branch. Let’s see in more detail what it is.

Arnold Gesell’s maturation theory

The maturation theory was introduced in 1925 by the American psychologist Arnold Lucius Gesell, who was also a pediatrician and educator. The studies carried out by Gesell focused on finding out how development occurred during childhood and adolescence, both in children without any psychopathology or those who showed a different pattern of learning and development than expected.

During the more than fifty years in which Gesell carried out his observational research, mostly conducted at the Yale Clinic of Child Development, this American psychologist and his collaborators described a series of more or less predictable behaviors in childhood.

According to their theory of maturation, all children go through the same stages of development in the same order but not necessarily presenting them at the same time. That is, each child goes at their own pace, but the expected thing is that they do the learning in the same sequence.

This theory, although quite classic considering that it was exposed almost a hundred years ago, has penetrated deeply into many aspects of the psychology of education especially as far as parenting methods are concerned.

Definition and direction of maturation

Arnold Gesell considered that genetics and the environment play a very important role in the development of the person, however his research focused especially on the physiological part of development. Using his language, the term ‘maturation’ for Gesell refers to a more biological process that is not so much social, in which the influence of genes is given more weight than environmental factors to which the person be exposed.

In the research carried out by this psychologist, he was able to observe that the development occurred following a fixed sequence in terms of the formation of the organs and physical development that occurred both as an embryo and during childhood. Physiological development always occurred from head to toe (cephalocaudal direction), both before and after delivery.

When it is still an embryo, the first organ to develop is the heart, followed by the central nervous system and then the most peripheral organs, such as lungs, liver, intestines and others. When the world has already arrived, the first thing babies do is learn to control their mouth, lips and tongue. Later they begin to acquire a better control of their saccadic movements, movements of the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, legs and feet.

As for the more complex behavior, babies first learn to sit, then to stand up without the need of adult support, walking and finally running. All babies learn these abilities in the same order according to the theory, and the reason for this is that it is because the nervous system develops in the same way in all people, although at different rates.

There are multiple environmental factors to which the child is exposed throughout his development, such as the socioeconomic status of his family, relations with his parents, types of food, among others.

However, the theory holds that each baby has its own maturation rate, which will be optimized if the social environment is aware of how the child is developing and gives the necessary social stimuli given in due course. From the theory, it is extracted that once the child has acquired the full development of his nervous system, he can master multiple individual and social capacities.

Highlights of the theory

Arnold Gesell’s maturation theory can highlight a number of aspects that, although they have already been introduced in previous sections of the article, will be described in greater detail below.

1. Study of behavioral patterns

Throughout his professional career, Gesell studied the motor behaviors of babies. Based on what he observed, he concluded that the behavior was better to be studied not quantitatively but based on behavioral patterns.

Behavioral pattern means any behavior that is defined as long as it has a shape or size. That is, basically what the baby does, from a simple close and open eye to throw a ball with a baseball bat.

Thus, Gesell observed a series of behaviors that all babies manifest sooner or later, following the same pattern and sequence.

This is quite remarkable in comparison with development models such as those of Jean Piaget and Erikson, which although they conducted part of their research in an observational manner, most of the stages they proposed were more theoretical.

2. Reciprocal interlacing

This term proposed by Gesell, in English ‘reciprocal interweaving’, refers, both at the motor and personality level, to how the baby behaves in a way that seems to follow two antagonistic tendencies, with the intention of finally finding balance.

That is, if young children are observed, they are still in a state of formation of their personality, which makes their relationship with others ambivalent in many contexts, being their most outgoing treatment with some people while with others become more closed.

Thus, progressively, throughout the development, the child’s personality is reaching a balance between both extremes and finally his personality traits settle.

This can also be seen at the motor level, with many children who in the first months of life make fairly balanced use of both hands, without being completely ambidextrous. Subsequently, greater lateralization is achieved in terms of their actions, becoming definitely right-handed or left-handed.

3. Self-regulation

This is possibly the most striking aspect of Arnold Gesell’s theory since he came to ensure that newborns are able to regulate their own behavior, and are even able to determine their own sleep and food schedules.

His research suggests that he can also control his personality and behavioral and motor balance.

4. Generalization and individuality

The theory of maturation maintains, as has already been said, that all children develop in the same sequence in terms of their behavioral and physiological development, however, it also points to each one doing so at his own pace.

Thus there is a generalization as to how the main behavioral milestones are acquired during childhood, but it is taken into account that each individual, due to individual differences, does so by following their own maturation.

How should children be cared for?

Arnold Gesell considered that each child had its own pace of development, although the main learning was developed based on the development of the nervous system, which followed the same pattern and order in all individuals.

However, despite generalizing as to the acquisition of the main capacities during childhood, Gesell maintained that the closest environment should become aware of the rhythm of his own child, in addition to understanding that his son or daughter did not develop at the same rhythm that other children his age did not necessarily mean a pathology or a delay.

The best way to ensure that satisfactory maturation is acquired and that the individual acquires the behaviors that allow him to fully develop both socially and intellectually is to make the family aware of the speed that maturation is acquiring. Parents must learn to recognize how their children’s development is biologically programmed.

Criticisms of the theory

Although today Gesell’s maturation theory is quite widespread and applied in the field of educational psychology, there are few critical voices who have pointed out some limitations of the model.

The main one is that Arnold Gesell focused too much on what he himself understood by physiological maturation, leaving aside aspects more related to the environment and the multiple social stimuli that the infant will receive throughout its development.

A very remarkable environmental aspect that Gesell ignores in his theory is the teaching, both in the school and in the family environment, a very powerful stimulus in terms of the formation of the child’s personality and intelligence.

Another aspect also quite criticized is that it generalizes too much as to the order in which this maturation occurs. Nor does it specify what variability is expected for each behavior and learning, nor if there is the possibility that some of them may change their order of acquisition.

It should be said that Arnold Gesell’s research has a very striking limitation, which is the fact that he has investigated only children from middle-class American and white families. This means that their observations cannot be generalized to other socioeconomic status or to other cultures.

The Gesell model can be misinterpreted that all children, sooner or later, will end up developing in the same way, so it is not necessary to give them educational support if they are not developing in the same way as the rest of the children. This is very harmful if the child has a real disorder, in which early intervention is necessary to ensure that it develops as completely as possible.

Bibliographic references:

  • Crain, W. (2011). Theories of development concepts and applications. Boston, MA: Pearson.
  • Daly, W. (2004). Gesell’s Infant Growth Orientation: A Composite. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 31, 321-324.

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