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Developmental Principles Guiding Research

The Institute for the Study of Child Development is guided by four philosophical principles.  These principles not only guide its research efforts, but are deeply ingrained in the clinical and educational activities.

  • The development of the child is an interactive process, an outcome of the child’s own skills and biological capacities at any point in time as they interact with and are formed by the environment in which the child is immersed. If we are to understand development, we must not only measure the child’s capacities or behavior - for example, fMRI brain activity or autonomic nervous system functioning such as heart rate variability or cortisol hormones in response to stress - but we also must study the social environment in which the child develops. The Institute’s research activities repeatedly have demonstrated that a combination of detailed characterizations of children’s early capacities and the measurement of the environment in which these capacities are immersed provides the best model to understand the transformation of these skills and capacities as they express themselves later in children’s development.

  • Given its evolutionary history, the child is a social creature, and in order to understand its development we need to understand the social environment. This environment is a social nexus, made up of parents, siblings, and peers, as well as grandparents, uncles, and aunts. The social nexus is an expanding interconnection that with age includes teachers, schools, and the larger community outside the home. In order to understand the child’s relations to, impact on, and effect of this environment, we need to study the relations between people in the nexus and the needs that they serve during developmental processes.

  • Each child is a potentially competent, active learner with multiple and independent skills.  While individual differences might exist that appear to affect children’s competencies, their natural condition propels their development forward. Seeking out information and learning are part of children’s natural underpinning unless seriously disrupted by the nature of their environment. Children possess competencies that impact on their intellectual, social, and emotional abilities, and that form an interconnected lattice supported by memory, reason, ability, and language.

  • The emotional life of children is a central component of their development. Consciousness and its development provide the capacity for self-reflection and a theory of mind, which in turn leads to the interplay between social and moral emotions. These emotions - the self-conscious emotions - provide the motivation for the child to commune with its environment, including the social environment of people as well as the educational environment of school and formal learning. Disruptions in emotional development underlie most of the difficulties considered to be the “new morbidity.”

These basic principles represent broad areas of concern within which specific basic and applied research programs and clinical services of the Institute operate. Our research examines normative growth and individual differences in normal and atypical populations. In the following sections, we will explore the projects that have been and are being undertaken at the Institute in the areas of cognitive, emotional, and social development.