Early Childhood Education

Developmental Systems Theories


Developmental Systems Theories are a family of conceptual models that promote a holistic view of individuals. According to this perspective, development is seen as a dynamic process where all components of the individual and the context interact in mutually influential ways. As such, this theoretical approach views the whole individual as “greater than the sum” of his or her parts. The study of development should not attempt to isolate or disengage individual components of the overall system.

A developmental systems perspective emphasizes the complex relationships that exist between individuals and their ecology, the contribution that people make to their own development, and the importance of viewing a person holistically and in his or her real-life contexts. This perspective has important implications for research and practice in the field of early childhood education and care. According to this theoretical perspective, the relationship between a child and his or her context (e.g. educational program) must be framed by the contribution of the child’s unique qualities to his or her development; in turn, the effects of a program have to be understood in the context of the developmental trajectories and the nature of the broader ecology of the children participating in the program. Thus, a developmental systems perspective provides an important framework for researchers and practitioners in the field of early childhood education.

The importance that these theories place on the relationship between an individual and the multiple levels that comprise his or her ecology, rather than the individual or the ecology alone, means that a person’s development is determined by fused (i.e., inseparable and mutually influential) relations among the multiple levels of the ecology of human development, including variables at the levels of inner biology (e.g., genes, the brain), the individual (e.g., temperament, cognitive style), social relationships (e.g., with peers, teachers, and parents), sociocultural institutions (e.g., educational policies and programs), and history (e.g., normative and non-normative events, such as elections and wars, respectively). The bidirectional relationship between the individual and the context (represented as individual  context), and the multiple levels that are involved in development of this relationship, require that the person  context system be viewed holistically. The continuous interrelation of all levels of the developing system, and how they change, is what constitutes development.

The dynamic (i.e., mutually influential) changes that exist across the developmental system create openness and flexibility in development and thus imply that there is a potential for plasticity (for systematic change) across life. The plasticity of development means that one may be optimistic about the ability to promote positive changes in human life by altering the course of individual  context relations. Furthermore, in comparison to perspectives that regard people as passive recipients of environmental stimulation or of the set of genes acquired at conception, viewing development as a matter of individual  context relations suggests that each person is an important producer of his or her own development. Individuals, through their characteristics of physical, mental, and behavioral individuality, including their setting of goals and the actions they take to pursue their objectives, play an important role in determining the nature of these relationship, and hence, in influencing their own developmental trajectories.

The interaction between an infant and her mother illustrates this active agency of individuals. An infant with an easy temperament (e.g., an ability to rapidly adjust to new events and stimuli, positive mood, and regularity of biological functions such as eating and sleeping) is likely to elicit positive, attentive responses from her parent that in turn, promote further, positive behaviors from the child and ultimately, support a healthy, adaptive parent  child relationship. In this case, the behaviors of both the child and her parent have influenced the behaviors of the other person in the relationship, and the child is coshaping the course of his or her own development. By underscoring the active contribution that each individual has on his or her developmental trajectory, the developmental systems perspective brings the importance of individual differences to the fore. As each individual interacts in a unique way with his or her context, he or she may develop differently from other individuals.

Therefore, from the developmental systems perspective, development is not seen as a simple, linear, cause-and-effect process, but as a complex, flexible process where the actions and intentions of the individual play a causal role. Moreover, this role occurs within the actual ecology of human development. Developmental systems theories place a strong emphasis on ecological validity, that is, the importance of understanding people in settings representative of their real-world settings, as opposed to ecologically unrepresentative laboratory settings.

Thus, a strength of developmental systems theories is that, rather than concentrating on a limited aspect of a person’s functioning, or focusing on people in contrived situations, it focuses on the diversity and complexity of human development as it takes place in the contexts within which children actually spend their lives—a focus brought to the fore by six decades of theory and research by Urie Bronfenbrenner. Accordingly, from this perspective, educational interventions should seek to change the relationship between the active individual and his or her complex, multilevel context; such work should not seek to enhance the educational process or its outcomes within the contrived laboratory context but, instead, should seek to enhance the positive connections among the classroom, school, family, community, faith institution, and other settings in which children live. Furthermore, such interventions may enter the developmental system at any level of the ecology of human development, for example, at the individual, school, family, community, cultural, or social policy level, and still be envisioned to be of potential effectiveness due to the plasticity of the bidirectional relations among all levels of the system.

Thus, developmental systems theories have important implications for early childhood education and care. In particular, given the principle that exists within this perspective about the possibility for positive change, one may maintain that it is feasible to identify individual  context relations that may promote at least some positive transformation in any developmental characteristic. In fact, the ideas of plasticity and of optimism within the developmental systems perspective provide a theoretical foundation for the fundamental goal of educational programs: to promote positive change among all children. Furthermore, given that this perspective suggests that positive change is achieved by fostering a mutually beneficial relationship between the individual and his or her context, programs, educational and otherwise, must remain flexible so that a maximum fit will be created between the diversity (of developmental trajectories) characterizing the children, families, and communities involved in a program. Indeed, to provide the most appropriate services to any specific child, it is important to identify both the individual and more generic characteristics of each child and, as well, to seek understanding of the connections existing between this individuality and the multiple (and themselves diversely constituted) levels of the ecology in which the child is embedded.

Further Readings: Bronfenbrenner, U. (in press). Making human beings human. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Ford, D. L., and R. M. Lerner (1992). Developmental systems theory: An integrative approach. Newbury Park, CA: Sage; Lerner, R. M. (2002). Concepts and theories of human development, 3rd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; Overton, W. F. (1998). Developmental psychology: Philosophy, concepts, and methodology. In W. Damon, series ed. and R. M. Lerner, vol. ed. Handbook of child psychology, Vol 1: Theoretical models of human development, 5th ed. New York: Wiley, pp. 107-187; Thelen, E., and L. B. Smith (1998). Dynamic systems theories. In W. Damon, series ed. and R. M. Lerner, vol. ed. Handbook of child psychology, Vol 1: Theoretical models of human development, 5th ed. New York: Wiley, pp. 563-633.

Jason Almerigi, Steinunn Gestsdottir, and Richard M. Lerner