Prior to the early twentieth century, scientific observations of children were not common.  Arnold Gesell was one of the first psychologists to systematically describe children’s physical, social, and emotional achievements through a quantitative study of human development from birth through adolescence. He focused his research on the extensive study of a small number of children. He began with pre-school children and later extended his work to ages 5 to 10 and 10 to 16. From his findings, Gesell concluded that mental and physical development in infants, children, and adolescents are comparable and parallel orderly processes.

The results of his research were utilized in creating the Gesell Development Schedules, which can be used with children between four weeks and six years of age. The test measures responses to standardized materials and situations both qualitatively and quantitatively. Areas emphasized include motor and language development, adaptive behavior, and personal-social behavior. The results of the test are expressed first as developmental age (DA), which is then converted into developmental quotient (DQ), representing “the portion of normal development that is present at any age.” A separate developmental quotient may be obtained for each of the functions on which the scale is built.

Gesell’s observations of children allowed him to describe developmental milestones in ten major areas: motor characteristics, personal hygiene, emotional expression, fears and dreams, self and sex, interpersonal relations, play and pastimes, school life, ethical sense, and philosophic outlook. His training in physiology and his focus on developmental milestones led Gesell to be a strong proponent of the “maturational” perspective of child development. That is, he believed that child development occurs according to a predetermined, naturally unfolding plan of growth.  Gesell’s most notable achievement was his contribution to the “normative” approach to studying children. In this approach, psychologists observed large numbers of children of various ages and determined the typical age, or “norms,” for which most children achieved various developmental milestones.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Gesell was widely regarded as the nation’s foremost authority on child rearing and development, and developmental quotients based on his development schedules were widely used as an assessment of children’s intelligence. Gesell argued, in widely read publications, that the best way to raise children requires reasonable guidance, rather than permissiveness or rigidity.

Eventually, the preeminence of Gesell’s ideas gave way to theories that stressed the importance of environmental rather than internal elements in child development, as the ideas of Jerome S. Bruner and Jean Piaget gained prominence. Gesell’s writings have been criticized by other psychologists because he did not readily acknowledge that there are individual and cultural differences in child development, and his focus on developmental norms implied that what is typical for each age is also what is desirable.

Although the developmental quotient is no longer accepted as a valid measure of intellectual ability, Gesell remains an important pioneer in child development, and is recognized for his advances in the methodology of carefully observing and measuring behavior, and describing child development.  He created a foundation for subsequent research that described both average developmental trends and individual differences in development.  He also inaugurated the use of photography and observation through one-way mirrors as research tools.

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