What Is Development?

If we are going to consider how children develop, we need to start by defining what development is.To do that, we need to think about the relationship between development and change. Ask yourself these two questions: Does development mean change?  Does change mean development? The answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second is no. That said, the answers to these questions aren’t as contradictory as they may first seem.


In answering yes to the first question, we agree with most psychologists who study child development that development is about change (Overton, 2006). Such psychologists are concerned with changes in size, behavior, thinking, and personality during any age period. Thus, development, in a general sense, refers to change (Lerner, 2010; Rutter & Rutter, 1993).In no way, however, does this mean that development and change are the same thing. Many changes in children have nothing to do with development. A young girl may be grumpy, complaining that her cereal is not sweet. Her father adds fruit to the cereal, and the child is now happy. The change in the child’s mood has little to do with development. Clearly, development involves a very specifi c kind of change.

For change to be developmental, it must be systematic, it must be organized, and it must have a successive character (Lerner, 2002; Lerner, 2010; Overton, 2006; Rutter &Rutter, 1993; Travers & Travers, 2008). For example, most very young children walk with assistance, usually by holding the hands of a brother, sister, or parent, before they can walk on their own. By the time these children enter school just a few years later, they are not only walking but also running, hopping, and skipping with ease. Changes like this are developmental because they are systematic  ; that is, they occur in an orderly and predictable way. Walking with assistance occurs before walking independently, and walking independently occurs before skipping. Such changes are organized in thatmany systems work together in a specifi c way to support a child’s fi rst attempts at walk-ing, including brain organization and muscle strength. Finally, changes are successive in that those occurring at a later time have been influenced by those that occurred at an earlier time, as the ability to skip is influ-enced by the ability to walk and hop.

The Study of Development

Development, then, is change that is systematic, organized, and successive in charac-ter. As we discuss children’s development throughout this book, we will often cite the work of developmental psychologists. Developmental psychology is a field con-cerned with describing and understanding how people grow and change systematically over their lifetimes. In studying development, psychologists focus on what develop-mental changes are,howthey occur, how they are maintained, and how the course of development varies among individuals (Rutter & Rutter, 1993). Next, we look at a few of the basic issues that arise in the study of development.

Developmental Domains

Developmental psychologists typically divide their analyses into three general do-mains: physical, cognitive, and psychosocial. Thephysical domain relates to patterns of change in children’s biology and health, including sensory abilities and motor skills.