Early Childhood Intervention: Module One – Typical and Atypical Development

Category — 1.2 What is EI: The Nature/Nurture Debate

Risk and Opportunity

In this course, when we refer to “risk,” we are talking about the wide variety of conditions and factors that work against healthy development in children. Early intervention specialists[1] talk about “established” and “suspected” risks. Examples of “established” or known and diagnosed conditions include biological factors, e.g., genetic conditions or illnesses.  Examples of “suspected” risk factors include environmental risk factors, e.g., toxic agents or poverty. These factors exist on a continuum. They are related to each other in a very complex way.

Risk is part of our daily lives. And yet, risks and opportunities go hand in hand. This can be seen in children with developmental delays, as well as for those who are at risk for disabilities.

It’s true that children with disabilities may have disadvantages compared with other children. But, the actions of parents and early childhood interventionists may help reduce the effects of the risk factors to which children were exposed. We see benefits in early diagnoses for children with moderate to severe conditions, and for those with subtle neurological differences.

[1] References:
Spiker, D., Hebbeler, K., & Mallik, S. (2005). Developing and implementing early intervention programs for children with established disabilities. In M.J. Guralnick (Ed.), A developmental systems approach to early intervention: National and international perspectives, (pp.305-351). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.


December 3, 2010   No Comments

Internal or External: The nature/nurture debate

For a long time, researchers and professionals have debated what affects the development of a child more: the child’s biological characteristics or the environment in which they live. This is known as “the nature/nurture debate.”

Although we may not be able to alter what biology (nature) has given us (as we all come into the world with inherited characteristics), we can alter the environment (nurture) in which we live. The environment plays a significant role in infant mental health and on the social and emotional development of children.

Example: The way a baby is cared for, and how well they are able to bond with their primary caregiver, will have an impact on their development and on the kind of person every infant and child will become1

Beyond “nature” or biology, and “nurture” or environment, what we really need to pay attention to in early child development is the relationship between the infant and their primary caregiver. This refers to how well the caregiver can read the infant’s cues, like smiling or crying, and how they respond to them.

Example: A caregiver who tries to play with a tired baby and reads the baby’s mood cues will postpone the play session to a time when the infant in interested in play. The caregiver’s response will greatly influence how comfortable and safe this infant will be in his or her presence.
When infants and young children feel safe and secure, they are more likely to explore and learn from their environment. These babies have learned to trust. This is what researchers have described as babies with secure attachment2 with their caregivers. Secure attachment is more likely to develop when the caregiver can place the infant’s needs ahead of their own.

Example: When an infant cries in the middle of the night, a responsive parent will try to comfort the infant. As hard as this is, especially for a tired parent, responding to the baby’s cry will ensure that the baby learns their caregiver is there for him or her.

1. See Dr Allan Scoufe’s publications at: http://www.cehd.umn.edu/ICD/research/Parent-Child/default.html
2. see References

December 3, 2010   No Comments

The Ecological and Transactional Models of Development

(or How Urie Bronfenbrenner meets Arnold Sameroff)

Objectives:  The next two models will show how looking at the developing child through a model system helps us gain awareness and new perspectives, organize our ideas, guide our  practices, and evaluate intervention techniques

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model

Those who study children try to understand what factors influence their development within a system (Fig. 1) that includes the children’s families.

Two models that will be used in this course are Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model and Sameroff’s transactional model. Both view the child as existing within an intricate system of variables, all of which could have an effect on their development.

Figure 1 shows the solar system where the planets, stars and satellites are all connected, just like in a family system.

Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model:

The ecological model (Fig. 1) outlines how the environment influences child development. It’s divided into a number of “systems” that describe different aspects of an environment. They are:


Fig. 1: The ecological model


Micro System: the child and what they bring to the world with them. This includes temperament and any conditions they may have.

Meso System: the immediate setting in which the child lives, such as the nuclear family.

Exo System: the environment in which the child lives. This includes the school the child attends, the community and neighborhood in which the child lives, and the occupation of the child’s parent.

Macro System: the general society in which the child lives. This includes the broader culture as well as the government and any regulations and policies it has, which may affect the developing child.

Chrono System (Fig.2): this includes any transitions in the child’s life that may impact their development.

Fig. 2: Chronosystem

Arnold Sameroff’s Transactional Model1

Arnold Sameroff proposed the “Transactional Model of Development”2 in the 1970’s. He believed that both nature and nurture are constantly being changed by their interaction with one another. This means, developmental outcomes are a function of neither the individual nor the context alone, but both (Fig 3.).

Fig. 3: This picture illustrates  the transaction that happens between nature (plant) and nurture (person caring for plant)


The transactional model looks at development as a result of a complex interplay between the child and their natural personality and traits, as well as family experiences and economic, social and community resources.

The transactional models also look at “proximal influences” and “distal influences”. Proximal influences are the factors that influence the child closely. Interactions with the parent and family are examples for proximal influences. Distal influences are those affecting the child less directly, for example, the family income and the type of community.  Infants and young children spend more time with their parents and caregivers; this is why they are more dependent on their “proximal influences.” Older children would tend to be more influenced from distal factors including their school and community.

At the same time, distal factors do impact parents/caregivers in ways that may affect their ability to provide for their child. Sometimes negative factors, such as family unemployment, may result on additional risks to the development of a child. Risks are not measured one by one, in terms of how negative the outcomes could be, but in their combined effect on a child’s development.

Sameroff uses the following terms to illustrate his model (Fig. 4):

model illustration
Fig. 4: This image shows that certain genes (genotype) work together in the make-up of an insect (phenotype)


Genotype (see full Glossary) – related to the child’s genes; for example, eye colour or dimple on cheeks;
Phenotype (see full Glossary) – how the child looks; for example, child’s height and weight;
Environtype (see full Glossary) – related to child’s own family and culture (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: This image shows a child behaving in different ways in two different environments
1. see References
2. see References

December 3, 2010   1 Comment