What are the main characteristics of life-span perspective?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The life-span perspective is one method for studying and understanding human development. As humans mature from infancy to old age, they undergo many physiological, emotional, and psychological changes. The more traditional approach for studying such changes sees most changes occurring between birth and adolescence, no change occurring during adulthood, and digressions occurring in old age. In contrast, the life-span perspective acknowledges that many developmental changes actually do occur in the five or six decades of adulthood, meaning that changes occur throughout all stages of life.

The life-span perspective sees human development occurring as a result of all the different aspects of life that can promote change, such as "school, socioeconomic status, genetics, and everything else" (Devin Kowalczyk, "Life-Span Perspective: Definition & Characteristics"). The life-span perspective also uses multiple frameworks to understand how each aspect of life can influence development. As humans grow and develop through the various stages of life, humans also become "more complicated," needing "multiple frameworks to understand even a single individual" (Kowalczyk). Below is a discussion of the frameworks:

The first framework through which we understand human development is the idea that development is multidimensional. By multidimensional, we mean that development affects every aspect of a human being, and those aspects even affect each other. By understanding development as multidimensional, we understand that our minds, bodies, emotions, and even relationships are always changing and affecting each other as they change. We also understand that development change occurs biologically, cognitively, and even emotionally (John W. Santrock, Chapter 1, "The Life-Span Perspective").

The second framework is the understanding that development is also multidirectional. More specifically, "development involves [both] growth and decline" (Santrock). For example, as we mature from infancy to childhood, both our size and our verbal skills will increase; however, as children continue to develop into preadolescence, at some point, the rate of increase of verbal skills will start to slow down while their sizes continue to grow, until of course adulthood is reached, and then growth in size will stop. As adulthood progresses into old age, muscle and bone mass will be lost resulting in a decrease in size, and verbal skills may even decrease as well (Santrock).

The third framework sees development as also plastic. By plastic, we mean that human beings aren't made of plastic; we have the ability to change. No one human being is destined from birth to have a certain personality type, a certain IQ, or even a certain height. Instead, growth and development allows for change (Kowalcyzk). However, researchers do point out that we may possess less ability to change as we grow older; nevertheless, research has also shown that even older adults can change through training and development strategies (Santrock).

The fourth framework asserts that development is also historical, or contextual. Both terms can be used in life-span perspective interchangeably. By either historical or contextual, we mean that humans are all born in certain places, at certain times, and under certain circumstances, and those places, times, and circumstances also directly affect development (Kowalcyzk). Circumstances, or contexts can include "families, schools, peer groups, churches, cities, neighborhoods, etc" (Santrock). What's more, even these contexts continue to develop and change, which can influence even further change in an individual. Contexts can change as a result of "historical, economic, and [even] cultural factors" (Santrock).