The aim of this paper is to analyze the behavior exhibited by a child using two psychological theories: Piaget’s cognitive development theory and Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. Analyzing and understanding the theories on childhood development, directly shows how different aspects could impact and how theories could draw on a child’s early development (Boyd & Bee, 2015). Furthermore, the skills required and the importance to conduct an objective observation will be described. Lastly, I will reflect on my practice and the improvement that could be done in future practice.
Observation is crucial in the social work profession, as social workers are specialized in safeguarding vulnerable people from harm, and supporting individuals, families, and communities going through hard times (Beauchamp, 2016). Social workers should also show the ability to understand and aid with issues that have a direct impact on the service user by accurately identifying patterns of behavior, and promptly addressing risks. Hence, with good observation skills, the social worker would be able to make professional decisions and judgments to help with the service user’s problems, so that their lives could be improved.
It is important that social workers use their observations to reflect on their practice critically and link them to the ‘Professional Leadership Framework’ (PCF) (BASW, 2018). For instance, while student social workers are on child placement, they can gain knowledge from the early child educators about how children behave in different stages and understand different setting types provided for children in their early years. Moreover, by engaging with the child and participating in their activities, skills like learning how to share and taking turns could be taught. All these actions could link to ‘knowledge’ and ‘professional leadership’ in PCF (ibid). Hence, social workers could gain experience, and being able to practice their skills while on placement.
Furthermore, children are vulnerable for multiple reasons including poverty, disability, and negligence by parents or carers (East Renfrewshire Child Protection Committee, n.d.). Children under seven years old in particular are most vulnerable (Action4ChildProtection, 2003). Regardless of age, they could hardly refuse requests from people who have power and authority over them or recognize that they are being put in a dangerous situation. For example, if a child is facing domestic abuse, they or could hardly protect him/herself from the abuser’s aggression, as they are physically weaker than a grown-up. They might also be exposed to threats, so they could barely seek help and protection from others. In terms of their intellect and physical capacity, they are not fully independent and tend to be highly influenced by those who abuse them physically and mentally. As a result, they are more vulnerable than adults in various aspects. Social workers not only have to be observant and pay attention to people who might be at risk, but also be trained to account for our actions to the public within a framework of law, so that service users’ human rights could be protected through the legal process. Munro (2011) stated that social workers needed to be experienced on working with the vulnerable and familiarise with child protection procedures so that if a child was into an allegation of abuse or neglect by the family, it could be more effective to provide legal support and intervention in child protection services. Hence, it is crucial that social workers needed to be skilled in undertaking child observations.
The observation was undertaken for five consecutive days at a nursery from 09:30 until 16:30. The child to be observed was a 4-year-old male (A) in a class of 20. Two teachers were in charge of the class. For the protection of his privacy, the name of the child would be annotated as (A), and consent was given by the child’s parent before the observation.
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The approach for recording the observation is mostly narrative, in which intervention by the observer is kept to a minimum. An anecdotal approach was adopted as if there was some sort of pattern in his behavior, this approach would be less time-consuming to record. When I was first introduced to the class at the playground, I observed that (A) was playing around and interacting with peers. To prevent (A) from knowing that he was being observed, an interaction was limited at first. On their first day of class, I did my observation without participating, because I was unfamiliar with their pattern of the environment. Sitting from a distance allows me to observe and take notes about the behavior of the class as a whole. However, the drawback of this method was that the conversation between (A) and his classmates could hardly be heard. Therefore, I decided to occasionally participate in class. During their free time, I would participate and engage with them; so that I could hear every word clearly that (A) said and pay attention to the emotions that he expressed. However, this approach did not allow me to mark notes instantly.
Before the placement, I have to read through the guidelines given by the nursery on safeguarding children. Even though social workers have a responsibility to keep the notes taken confidential, it is important that action should be taken and informs the school if the child discloses abuse (NSPCC, 2019). Also, I have to be aware that my observation is objective and non-discriminating. Based on the HCPC standards of proficiency, it stated that ‘social workers should be able to practice in a non-discriminatory manner and ‘be able to maintain confidentiality (HCPC, 2018). Having a negative bias on the observation about the child will affect what the observant takes, as the misconduct of the child would tend to be recorded (CCDMD, 2014).
Cognitive and Social development
Cognitive development is the construction of thought processes, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, including memorization, problem-solving, and decision-making (Neaum, 2010, p.48). Psychologists Piaget and Vygotsky have both developed theories addressing cognitive development and learning among children and teenagers.
Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has defined four age-dependent stages, which are: sensorimotor (0-2 years), preoperational (2-7 years), concrete operational (7-12 years), and formal operational (12+ years) (Davenport, 1996). Since (A) was 4 years old, he was at the preoperational stage of development. During this stage, children start to engage in symbolic play, enabling the development of language, memory, and imagination (Baken, 2014).
Piaget proposed that intelligence was something that grows and develops through different stages and has also discovered that children think differently than adults, in which preoperational children are usually egocentric in the way they think, focusing only on their view and believing everyone has the same point of view (Davenport, 1996). According to Piaget’s three mountains experiment’, he placed a doll on a fixed position between the three mountains model, in which children in aged four to twelve were told to stand at various angles. The egocentric child would not be able to imagine the view apart from the scene they see it. Children aged nine or above, they are able to identify the doll’s perspective (Flanagan, 1996).
(A) has shown that his thinking was still egocentric while (A) was playing with his classmates. He noticed that the classmate was upset, so he went to the play area, grabbed his favorite toy car, and gave it to him. Regarding to Piaget’s claim, this series of actions demonstrates (A)’s egocentric thoughts. (A) thought that by grabbing his favorite toy car to his classmate, his classmate will also like the toy, and he would no longer be upset. Even though preoperational children are still egocentric and immature in the way they think, it will eventually change as they grow up (Flanagan, 1996). Hence, Piaget’s theory sets up a framework for comprehending children’s thinking and capabilities at different stages of their development, and Piaget believed that children do not learn from adults or peers, instead, their “knowledge and the world are both constructed and constantly reconstructed through personal experience” (Ackermann, 2015).
However, Vygotsky suggested that Piaget does not recognize the impact on cognitive development from the social environment (Boyd & Bee, 2015). According to Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, he believed social interaction plays a fundamental role in cognitive development, and everything is learned based on two levels, namely social and individual levels (CEEBL, n.d.). Children learn through interacting with others and develop social learning in the social level, whereas, they tend to internalize their skills in the individual level (ibid). (A) and his classmates were working on a puzzle together and started to discuss where the pieces belong. (A) grabs the pieces and said, “Put it here!” The classmates responded, “No, it is not here.” (A) shouted, “Yes, it is.” After (A) having a few dialogues with his classmate, both internalize the discussion, in which the internal conversation guides them through the puzzle-solving process.
Besides, Flair (2019) stated that one’s potential of cognitive development is limited to the ‘Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), defined as the difference between the children’s current skills, and what they are capable to learn with support. Adults offer guidance and encouragement to the child during a task to assist them in achieving the task. The guidance provided is within the child’s ZPD, specifically, beyond their ability, but not above their capability of learning. This guidance is known as scaffolding (Bee, 1999).
Scaffolding examples are demonstrated between me and (A). I and (A) are playing a ‘beehive colour matching game, in which we had to put different colored bee into the corresponding colored beehive. (A) tried to clip the bee’s body and put it in the beehive but failed to do so. I told him that if he tried to clip the cloth attached to the bee, he could successfully put it in. This was within (A)’s ZPD and has beyond his ability because he knew which bee belongs to which hole, but he could not determine how to actually put it in. I recognized it and demonstrated how to clip it, also I encouraged (A), and said, “Try to clip it again, now you can have a go.” Afterward, he managed to copy my action. This action showed that (A)’s level of potential development was being able to put the bee in with the help of mine, which is considered as an advanced individual. This activity demonstrated that (A) can perform challenging tasks when assisted by a more competent individual, and which scaffolding can help children to instill problem-solving skills in the future.
Social development and play
Piaget and Vygotsky both defined ‘pretend play’ from different psychological perspectives. In Vygotsky’s theory, ‘pretend play’ refers to imaginative play which is defined as when a child uses his or her imagination to play the roles that he or she has seen, experienced or wants to experience (Smidt, 2009). In the classroom, there was a costume box for children to put on different cartoon costumes. During the ‘free play time, (A) and three boys chose costumes from the box, in which (A) and one boy chose Spiderman, and the other two boys chose Batman. After they have dressed up, they started to chase around. One boy ran to (A) and said, “We are Spiderman.” (A) responded with, “Go fight with the Batman.” After the other two boys heard it, they started chasing after each other, and said: “Let’s fight the bad guys.” This is an example of cognitive development through ‘pretend play, in which children imagined a story as well as the characters involved. (A) and other boys were pretending they were superheroes and trying to defeat the villains, such a process involves them having dialogues with each other. Smidt (2009) explained that imitating things in the real world could provide further development in children’s language prospects. By plotting their own story, like the interpretation of defeating the villain, helps them to practice problem-solving and communication skills.
In contrast, ‘pretend play’ in Piaget’s theory refers to symbolic play. This is refined as the ability of children using objects represent other objects (Nicolopoulou, 1993). (A) demonstrates his symbolic thoughts through action; he had placed an ornament on a stick and was witnessed using a stick as a representation of a magic wand. This illustrates cognitive development through ‘pretend play’ in relation to understanding the world that (A) lives in (ibid).
Hence, both share different perspectives, like the duration of ‘pretend play. Although Piaget notes that during the preoperational stage, ‘pretend’ play and cognitive development mostly occur, Vygotsky stated that individuals can develop cognitive development throughout their whole life (ibid). Although both researchers share different explanations for ‘pretend play, they believed play and social interaction is an essential part of early childhood (Lindon, 2005).
Social and Language development
Language also plays a crucial role in child development; it defines as a foundation of social interactions and a way of communication that is strongly interrelated with the child’s cognitive and brain development (Neaum, 2010, p.50). To explain the development of language, multiple theories have been applied.
The brain and language development of a child in an early age is crucial, as it includes a neurological process that establishes patterns of behavior and emotion during its lifespan. Brains are built over time, in which cognitive, emotional, and social capacity throughout life is inextricably connected (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2019). Since the brain of a child will start to shape and develop at their early years, developing a connection with healthy and capable adults in their early years is important (Oates and Grayson, 2006). Moreover, ‘nature’ was defined as the biological factors relating to the genes inherited from parents and how it contributes to the child’s personality and physical appearance (Neaum, 2010). According to Chomsky, children are born with an innate capacity of the development of language, which means they have an inherited ability to acquire language (Flanagan, 1996). For ‘nurture’, humans are social animal that is influenced by environmental factors, their childhood experience, social relationships, etc. (Neaum, 2010). Taking social relationships as an example, parents can actively engage with their children by having face-to-face interactions and providing experiences that allow the child to develop their language skills. For example, repeating and differentiating the words that are being spoken, and the ability to recognize words being said. Hence, parents provide a direct impact in their children’s early year of language development. It directly affects the formation of their neural and lifespan development. Therefore, the three aforementioned factors can be regarded as bio-socio-neurological development.
As previously mentioned, children’s thinking in the preoperational stage are egocentric. During playtime of (A), the egocentric speech was demonstrated between (A) and his classmates. (A)’s thinking was still egocentric, according to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, it stated that preoperational children are usually egocentric in the way they think and focusing only on their view, and believe everyone shares the same point of view (Davenport, 1996). (A) was playing with a classmate next to each other, in which (A) was doing coloring and the other was playing with marbles. (A) said, “I want the yellow pen.” The classmate said, “I want all the marbles.” and (A) said, “I want to draw a butterfly.” The classmate said, “How many marbles are there?” Throughout this conversation, it is noticeable that (A) and the classmate is talking to each other in sequence, but not intended to the content of the conversation. Hence, this shows “collective monologues”, which is defined as two or more children are playing different games in close proximity. They are talking apparently together but are not realizing the correlation of their context of speech (California State University Northridge, n.d.). This phenomenon explained that egocentric speech is demonstrated in their conversation.
Piaget argues that language was one of the ways that children show their feelings and thought and believed that cognitive development promotes language development (Smidt, 2009). By contrast, Vygotsky sees language as a separate system and believed that language was a key to cognitive development. It is considered where child becomes connected with words and begins to have verbal thinking (Flanagan,1996).
In line with Vygotsky’s theory of language development, he had also classified three forms of language, as outlined below, namely social speech (2-3 years), private speech (3-7 years), and silent inner speech (7+ years) (Mcleod, 2014). During the period of private speech, Tan (1999) stated that children start to speak aloud to themselves or no one in particular and use it as a tool for self-regulation or facilitating cognitive processes. For instance, solving difficult tasks, and enhancing their imagination and thinking. (A) demonstrated using private speech while he was looking for a toy car. “Where did I put it? Red car.” He said, “Ah, over there.” once he found it. This shows that he had used of self-answered questions, in which (A) asked a question and immediately responded it with an answer. It also shows that verbally planned and regulate the problem by using his private speech. Hence, Vygotsky (Flanagan,1996) believed that language facilitates cognitive development in a result of both environmental and biological factors.
On the other hand, as mentioned above, children in the preoperational stage would start to engage in pretend play. It involves imitating teachers, parents, and peers, in which children often use the word that they hear what adults say and mimic their use of language during imaginative play (Smidt, 2009). (A) was seen role-playing with his classmates, where they have self-assigned a role for themselves, and (A) and his other two classmates were being the student and another child was being a teacher. They were in a scenario of having lunch and everyone pretended they were eating (A). While the teacher was distributing the food, children besides said thank you as how they normally do once they received their food. However, when (A) received his food, he immediately complained and said, “I don’t like this food.” The child who was playing the role of the teacher immediately picked up his food and replied, “No problem!”. Their dialogues demonstrated how (A) and other preschoolers develop their language by engaging in role play and imitating things that they have heard or observed in their daily life.
Piaget’s cognitive development theory and Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory were used to interpret the behavior of the child, in which they explained that the cognitive abilities in children would develop at different stages. By applying Piaget’s preoperational stage, I was able to identify how knowledge was constructed and learned through personal experience and self-discovery. However, through this observation, I was able to recognize the importance of the guidance given by the adults and interacting with other children, as argued by Vygotsky who stated that children tend to learn through interacting with peers. Additionally, language plays a significant role in child development. In this observation, during pretend play, (A) demonstrated private speech through verbalizing his inner thoughts. This was evidence of Vygotsky’s theory of language development, and he believed that language is the key to cognitive development. ‘Children use more sophisticated language when playing with other children than with playing with adults. They have to provide contextual clues.’ (Wenner, 2009, p.25). It proves that children playing together could enhance their social and language development, as being able to socialize using sophisticated language between children. Furthermore, pretend play also shows how children could learn through social interaction by imitating things in the real world, this helps them to enhance problem-solving skills and shows their imagination.
Observation is an important element in social work, especially using it as a tool to reflect our practice. By observing (A), I can see patterns in (A)’s behavior, how he learns in class, and how children in class interact with others. Reflecting in action (Schön, 1992), I was a bit reserved at first, as I was unfamiliar with their learning environment. After discussing with the teachers about their models of teaching, I gained more confidence and started to engage with the children. When (A) throws tantrums and refuses to do as asked, he was calmed by my encouragement, which shows my problem-solving skills.
Through this experience, I realize a big difference in the education system of kids living overseas and where I am from. Recalling my childhood memories, we spent most school time having class indoors instead of playing outdoors. Parents in Hong Kong believe ‘winning at the starting point is tied to the success of their child.
They believe enrolling their child to private tuition after school could increase their child’s competitiveness and have a greater advantage over their peers (Cheung, 2018). On the contrary, schools in the UK believe learning through play is important, for cognitive development and developing problem-solving skills (Whitebread et al., 2012).
Overall, I found the placement enjoyable. Having an opportunity to experience the way of teaching in the UK and broadening my perspective on how preschoolers act. For the upcoming placement, I hope I could improve my communication skills, by having more confidence in myself. Additionally, by learning more skills and theories from the lectures, I could have a greater understanding on people’s different aspects of development and keep on improving my skills in the future.
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