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American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner is best known in early childhood for something called the Ecological Systems Theory. In its simplest form, his theory is that children learn from their environment and interactions, while in turn influencing the environment around them and their interactions with others.
His theory gets its name from his belief that it’s important to “study” children in multiple environments (called ecological systems in his thinking) to learn more about who they are and how they learn.
There are a number of systems in the life of a child - home, early childhood setting, school, society, culture - and each of those systems impact on the child, while the child in turn impacts on them.
One of his most famous quotes is “A child needs the enduring, irrational involvement of one or more adults in care of and in joint activity with that child. In short, somebody has to be crazy about that kid”
Society, he believes, needs to provide time, resources, and contexts sufficient for this relationship to develop. His theory is an important one for educators to keep in mind when developing programs of learning for children, and also when advocating for powerful change in the way the world views them.
Erik Erikson was once a teacher, who became a developmental psychologist who specialised in child psychoanalysis and was best known for his theory of psychosocial development.
At the heart of his theories is the idea that a person passes through eight developmental stages that build on each other. At each stage we face a crisis. By resolving the crisis, we develop psychological strengths or character traits that help us become confident and healthy people.
When it comes to working with children in early childhood, Erikson’s theories are important because the first three stages - trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. doubt and initiative vs guilt - very much govern the way in which educators communicate and scaffold learning for children.
Of all the theorists outlined above, Erikson is the one who focuses on relationships at the centre of his work. The full quote of the words used above says "Children love and want to be loved and they very much prefer the joy of accomplishment to the triumph of hateful failure. Do not mistake a child for his symptom," with Erikson encouraging educators to remember to keep children’s accomplishments and achievements at front and centre, and to guide them with compassion and care.
Maria Montessori is best known for her belief that every educator should follow the child, and prepare an environment which optimises their chances for learning.
By having a carefully prepared space, children’s developmental needs will emerge, and children will move through what she terms “planes of development”, with each plane building on the one before.
In early childhood, from birth to the age of six, Dr Montessori believed that children are in a plane termed “absorbent mind” where they are taking in and absorbing information and behaviour from their environment, its language and culture.
"In the same way, the caterpillar and the butterfly are two creatures very different to look at and in the way they behave, yet the beauty of the butterfly comes from its life in the larval form, and not through any efforts it may make to imitate another butterfly. We serve the future by protecting the present. The more fully the needs of one period are met, the greater will be the success of the next."
Montessori learning environments are characterised by tidy spaces which are visually appealing, where everything has a space and a purpose, and where practical life activities are encouraged.
Our guide to theorists in early education condenses all our early childhood education theorists into a simple place so that you and your team have a single place of reference.Download full guide
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