What are developmental methodologies?

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Developmental methodologies describe how information about age-related changes in people’s physical growth, thought, and behavior is collected and interpreted. Sound methodologies are essential for describing accurately the course of life-span development, comparing people with different environmental and biological backgrounds, predicting developmental patterns, and explaining the causes of positive and negative outcomes in development.
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Developmental methodologies have as their purpose the investigation of questions about age-related changes throughout the life span, and they include both a variety of research methods and the designs within which these methods are applied. The overarching framework for developmental methodologies is the scientific process. This process embodies systematic rules for testing hypotheses or ideas about human development under conditions in which the hypotheses may be supported or refuted. This process also requires that research be done in such a way that it can be observed, evaluated, and replicated by others.

Data collected through developmental methodologies can be characterized as descriptive, correlational, or experimental. Descriptive data simply describe a variable—for example, the average age of the adolescent growth spurt. Correlational data provide information on relationships between variables, such as the association between newborn size and the amount of smoking a mother did during pregnancy. Experimental data result from the careful manipulation of one variable to discover its effect on another, and only in experimental studies can cause-and-effect relationships among variables be inferred. For example, experimental studies demonstrate that training techniques can cause an improvement in the memory performance of persons in late adulthood.

Research Categories

Developmental research methods are commonly separated into three general categories. One of these categories is observational methods, in which researchers observe people as they go about their lives. The settings for such research can be homes, schools, playgrounds, nursing homes, and so on. Observational research may be quite subjective, as in diary studies in which the researcher writes down observations and impressions in a free-flowing manner. The extensive cognitive developmental model of Jean Piaget had its beginnings in hypotheses that emerged from diary studies of his children. On the other hand, observational research may be very rigorous and systematic; researchers carefully define what and how they will observe and record and then train data collectors before any formal observations are made. Videotaping of children’s language samples, which are then carefully segmented and analyzed, is an example of this systematic approach.

The second category, self-report methods, is generally more intrusive than observational research. It involves asking questions of participants and may take the form of interviews, questionnaires, or standardized tests. Interviews may be free-flowing or highly structured, with predetermined questions and sequence. The famous studies of sexual behavior by Alfred Kinsey, for example, used carefully planned interview techniques. Questionnaires and standardized tests are usually structured with both questions and response categories provided. Questionnaires are often used to gather descriptive information such as size of family or educational level, as well as opinions on a variety of social issues. Standardized tests are used to assess a great variety of information, including measured intelligence, vocational interests, and self-concept.

The third category of developmental methods involves experimentation. Experimentation can occur in natural settings where individuals may not be aware that they are participating in research, such as in situational studies of children’s moral behavior. It can also occur in laboratories where individuals may be unaware of their participation or fully aware of the artificiality of the setting and even the study’s intent. Research using a complex apparatus to study newborn perception is one example of the former, while research using nonsense syllables in memory tasks to assess age differences in free recall is an example of the latter.

Research Methods and Designs

Research methods can be compared according to their generalizability and their ability to control participants’ selection, experiences, and responses. Generalizability refers to the extent to which research results are applicable to people beyond those who participated in the study. Generally, methods that are more intrusive and contrived provide the greatest opportunity for control—the extent to which a researcher can regulate who participates in a study, what the participants experience, and how the participants respond. Thus, laboratory experimentation often is associated with high levels of control. For the same reasons, however, questions are raised regarding the applicability to the real world of data collected in the artificiality of a laboratory. Thus, observation in natural settings is often associated with high levels of generalizability. Both control and generalizability are desirable and are sought in developmental research regardless of method.

To assess whether age-related changes exist, developmental research methods are applied within larger frameworks of research designs that require that data be collected at two or more points in developmental time. These designs permit inquiry into whether behavior is the result of maturational changes associated with age changes, such as the emergence of language in infancy; the effect of the immediate social context, such as a nation at war; or the effect of historical events which affected everyone born at about the same time (a group known as a cohort, a term which means an identifiable group of people that has a common association), such as growing up during the Great Depression. Two of the most common designs are cross-sectional and longitudinal designs. In cross-sectional designs, data are collected on different cohorts at the same time. These designs permit an examination of age differences in behavior; however, they cannot separate out the effects of different life experiences between cohorts. In longitudinal designs, data are collected on the same cohort a number of times. These designs permit an examination of developmental trends for individuals; however, they cannot separate out the effects of social change, since no comparison can be made to a group not experiencing the social context. An alternative to cross-sectional and longitudinal designs is sequential designs, in which data are collected on a number of cohorts a number of times. These designs are able to reveal the effects of age, cohort, and social context. Because of the difficulties of administering these complex designs and their expense, sequential designs are least often applied, even though they provide the most useful developmental information.

Regardless of the research methods or designs utilized, developmental methodologies must account for the complexity of human development. They must control for multiple variables, such as age, cohort, social context, socioeconomic class, gender, educational level, and family structure. They must take into account the culture of the participants, and they must protect against bias in formulating the research hypothesis, applying the methods, and interpreting the data collected.

Developmental methodologies are applicable to literally any developmental question, from conception to death. Resultant data permit description of current status, comparison between groups, prediction of developmental patterns, and explanation of the causes of developmental outcomes. Description, comparison, prediction, and explanation all contribute to a better understanding of development, which in turn permits the fostering of social settings that promote healthy development, as well as intervention to prevent potential developmental problems or to counter developmental problems already in existence.

Newborn Research

Research on the competencies of newborns provides one demonstration of the relationship between understanding and therapeutic intervention. Observational research of newborns and young infants indicates a cyclical relationship in infant attention when the infant is interfacing with a caregiver. This cycle is one of activation, discharge, and then recovery when the infant withdraws its attention. Caregivers who adjust their behavior to their infants’ rhythms by entering into interaction when their infants are responsive and slackening off when their infants withdraw attention experience a greater amount of time in which the infant looks at them than do caregivers who either attempt to force their own rhythms on their infants or continuously bombard their infants with stimulation.

Psychologists are applying this understanding as part of an overall intervention program with premature infants who enter the world at risk for physical, social, and intellectual impairments. Premature newborns require greater stimulation than full-term newborns before they respond; however, they also are overwhelmed by a level of stimulation to which full-term newborns respond very positively. This narrow range of tolerance can disrupt the relationship between a parent and the premature infant. In experimental research, parents of premature newborns have been trained to imitate everything their infants do, and by so doing follow their infants’ rhythms. This training helps parents remain within the narrow tolerance of their infants and increases the amount of positive interaction both experience. This, in turn, contributes positively to healthy social development of this high-risk group of infants.

Television Studies

Research on the developmental effects of television provides a demonstration of the relationship between understanding and influences on social policy. Beginning in the mid-1950s with a series of inquiries and hearings sponsored by a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, followed by a Surgeon General’s report and associated Senate hearings in the early 1970s and a major National Institute of Mental Health report in the early 1980s, questions about the effect of violent programming on children have been raised in the public domain. Consequently, public efforts have emerged to control the amount and timing of violence on television and to regulate the number and content of television commercials targeted at children. Central to the national debate and social policies surrounding television content has been the application of developmental methodologies.

Significant research in this area emerged in the early 1960s with the now-classic Bobo doll studies of Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura. In a series of experimental laboratory studies, nursery school children observed a variety of televised models behaving aggressively against an inflatable punching-bag clown. Later, when their play behavior was observed in a controlled setting, children clearly demonstrated imitation of specific aggressive behaviors they had viewed. Additional experimental laboratory studies have been conducted; however, they have been consistently criticized for their artificiality. Consequently, field experiments have emerged in which the experimental variables have been actual television programs, and the effects have been assessed on spontaneous behavior in natural settings, such as playgrounds.

Since experimental studies require systematic manipulating of variables for their effects to be observed, and since the manipulations of levels and types of aggression and other relevant variables such as home violence are either unethical or impractical, numerous correlational studies have also been conducted. Most of these have assessed the relationship between the amount of violence viewed and subsequent violent behavior, violent attitudes, or perceptions of violence in the real world. Many of these studies have applied longitudinal or sequential designs covering many years, including one longitudinal study that covered a span of twenty-two years from childhood into adulthood. These studies have controlled multiple variables including age, educational level, and initial level of aggressive behavior. Although not all studies have supported a causal link between television violence and aggressive behavior and attitudes, the large majority of laboratory experimental, field experimental, and correlational studies indicate that children do learn antisocial and aggressive behavior from televised violence and that some of them may directly imitate such behaviors. The effects depend on the characteristics of the viewers and the settings.

Not only have developmental methodologies been used after the fact to discover the effects of television programming, they also have been applied proactively to develop prosocial children’s programming, and then to evaluate the effects of those prosocial programs on children’s development. The program Sesame Street, for example, has as its foundation research into child development, attention, and learning. In fact, one of its objectives has been to act as an experimental variable, intervening into homes in which children are economically and educationally disadvantaged. Although researchers have had limited access to those high-risk homes, both experimental research and correlational longitudinal research support the effectiveness of Sesame Street in developing early academic skills, school readiness, positive attitudes toward school, and positive attitudes toward people of other races.

Evolution of Research

Today’s developmental methodologies have their origins in the nineteenth century, with its advances in science and medicine, the emergence of the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis, and developments in measurement and statistics. Developmental psychological research and methodologies often emerged to deal with concrete social problems. With compulsory education bringing approximately three-quarters of all American children into classrooms at the beginning of the twentieth century, social concerns were focused primarily on child health, education, and social welfare. Consequently, the first major research into child intellectual, social, and emotional development also occurred during this period, and developmental psychology began to consolidate as a distinct discipline of psychology.

The universal draft of World War I required assessment of multitudes of older adolescent and young adult men with vast differences in education, health status, and social and emotional stability. Standardized testing became the tool to evaluate these men, and it has remained a major tool in developmental methodologies, as well as in other disciplines of psychology. Following the war, efforts to understand these individual differences led to the first major longitudinal studies, which were focused on descriptions of normative growth and predictions of developmental patterns; some of these studies have followed their participants and next generations for more than fifty years.

In the two decades following World War II, the baby boom and national anxiety over falling behind the Soviet Union in science and technology rekindled efforts dampened during the war years in the disciplines of developmental and educational psychology. Of particular interest were methodologies in applied settings such as school classrooms, focused on learning and academic achievement. Also during this period, greater accessibility to computers permitted increases in the complexity of developmental research methods and designs, and of resultant data analyses. Complex sequential designs, intricate correlational techniques, and multiple-variable techniques became much more frequently used in research.

Heightened awareness of economic and social inequalities in the United States following the Civil Rights movement led to many carefully designed educational, health, social, and economic interventions into communities that were economically at risk. The interventions were part of developmental methodologies in which experimental, correlational, and descriptive data were collected longitudinally to assess their outcomes. Head Start educational programs are one prominent example.

In more recent decades, with changes in family structure, developmental methodologies have been applied to questions about single parenting, day care, and “latch-key” children. With substance abuse, developmental methodologies have been applied to questions about prenatal development in wombs of addicted mothers, postnatal development of infants born drug-addicted, and developmental intervention for drug-related disabilities in many of these infants. With more adults living longer and healthier lives, developmental methodologies have been applied to questions about learning and memory, self-esteem, and life satisfaction among persons in late adulthood. Clearly, developmental methodologies will continue to be relevant as long as people are motivated to understand and nurture healthy life-span development and to intervene into social problems.


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