Why is it important for a teacher to study child development?

It is important for a teacher to study child development for several reasons. First, it provides much-needed context for understanding how learners typically progress. It also helps teachers as they assist parents in educational decisions. Understanding child development also helps teachers assess the source of a student's struggles.

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Studying child development is a crucial part of becoming a teacher. This might not seem obvious as first, as most people associate teaching with merely passing on subject content to students. However, it is not just subject knowledge that matters when it comes to being a good teacher. In some countries, such as Germany, studying child development is even part of the university course that future teachers have to complete, such is the importance of a teacher's knowledge of child psychology and child development.

The first reason you might want to look into is the fact that successful teaching very much depends on the teacher knowing what the current mental capability of their students is. For example, young children find dealing with abstract concepts a lot more difficult than older children. This will impact the teacher's lesson planning, as a teacher will need to incorporate this into the design of their lessons: with younger students, the teacher will need to break the content down into more factual components and clear conclusions, as the teacher can't rely as much on the students' ability to think in abstract concepts.

In a math lesson, for example, this could mean that a teacher might use objects, such as wooden blocks, to demonstrate certain mathematical rules, whereas with older students, the same content could be taught much quicker, as less breaking down will be needed, given the mental ability of older students. Here, just working with numbers written on the board might be sufficient.

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Studying child development is important to teachers for a number of reasons.

First, it provides a context for the stages of development; teachers need this base of understanding in order to develop appropriate curriculum choices for their students. This is why, for example, it doesn't make sense to attempt to teach algebraic concepts to first graders; in most cases, they have not developed the ability to think in such abstract ways. All students will not progress at the same rate, and understanding how the stages of development progress will help teachers modify curriculum choices for students who are struggling or excelling.

Understanding child development also helps teachers as they assist parents in identifying potential concerns in the learning process. If a ten-year-old has not yet developed the ability to understand the perspective of others, he may not have progressed beyond the pre-operational stage. If a fifteen-year-old cannot convey ideas with sound logic, then they may not have progressed beyond the concrete operational stage. Students who fail to develop as expected may need additional educational supports in order to find academic success.

Studying child development can also help teachers assess the source of a student's social or behavioral problems. A student who avoids doing assignments may not just be lazy; he may be unable to complete the work as it has been assigned. It also helps when comparing a child against her peers; teachers who understand the fundamentals of child development will understand that children are all on different continuums of progress, and being "behind" at any given moment does not imply an eventual negative educational outcome. It does give teachers tools for evaluating a child's needs and then targeting ways to encourage further development so that a child reaches her best potential.

Finally, having a thorough understanding of child development helps teachers evaluate new directives, methodologies, and curriculum choices made by those outside their classrooms. Often, people with little to no educational training try to influence the decisions that teachers make with their students. Teachers who have studied child development are better equipped to assess these changes and to then determine which, if any, are relevant and appropriate for their own students.

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By understanding child (and adolescent) development, a teacher can make the most appropriate decisions possible about expectations for students, how to best have students engage with the material, and how to push students to grow academically, emotionally and socially. 

For example, through research into brain development we know that the prefrontal cortex goes through dramatic changes during the teen years. The prefrontal cortex is involved in higher order thinking skills and emotional control. By teachers learning how and when this development occurs, they can better understand that students will be at very different stages of development in these areas and that much structure and modeling will be necessary in the classroom to help them learn how to use their higher level cognitive skills and use self-control with their emotions. With my freshman students this plays out often during projects such as building paper roller coasters. I have to provide a well-laid out structure for how the project will work and what they should be doing each day, but through the process of building their roller coasters they are using higher cognitive skills and practicing self-control by collaborating with group members.

It is a very developmentally appropriate task for them, yet it pushes them every day to improve their skills. This activity would not be as appropriate at an early elementary level where students are still working on fine motor skills and do not have the social skills necessary to collaborate with a group. Learning about child development is an important part of becoming an effective teacher.

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