Arnold Lucius Gesell (June 21, 1880 – May 29, 1961) was a pioneer in the field of child development, whose research on developmental milestones is still widely used by pediatricians, psychologists, and other professionals who work with children. He developed techniques for observing children in natural play situations without disturbing them, thus providing behavioral measures free from the effects of interference by researchers. Gesell recognized the importance of both nature and nurture in children's development. He believed that children go through the stages he identified in a fixed sequence, within a certain time period, based on innate human abilities. He maintained that children should be raised through "reasonable guidance," supporting the natural growth of their abilities. Thus, parents should neither impose strict control nor allow excessive freedom. His work influenced many twentieth-century theorists, stimulating research to discover the conditions required to support normal growth and psychological development for all children.
Arnold Gesell was born in Alma, Wisconsin. His parents raised their son to value education very highly, and young Arnold decided to become a teacher. He received his bachelor degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1903, after which he served as a high school teacher and later, a principal.
He entered into graduate study in psychology at Clark University, under the influence of G. Stanley Hall, one of the pioneers in the study of child development. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1906, Gesell moved to the East Side in New York City where he taught elementary school.
In 1911, Gesell was appointed an assistant professor of education at Yale University, where he established the Yale Psycho-Clinic (later the Clinic of Child Development). He served as the director of the clinic from 1911 until 1948. This clinic became the main center in the U.S. for the study of child behavior. There he spent some of the most fruitful years of his career, conducting numerous studies and developing the theories for which he became famous. In the early 1910s, Gesell decided to study medicine, since a medical degree was still regarded as an essential credential for any kind of research in child development. In 1915, he gained his M.D. from Yale.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Gesell conducted numerous studies on child development, becoming the nation’s foremost authority in this field. The tests that he developed were widely used in assessment of children’s intelligence. He wrote some of his most well known works in this period, including Infant and Child in the Culture of Today (1943) and The Child from Five to Ten (1946).
By the end of his career, Gesell served as a research consultant at the Gesell Institute of Child Development in New Haven, Connecticut until his death. He died May 29, 1961 in New Haven.
Gesell was initially interested in retarded development, and he spent several years in research of Down’s syndrome, cretinism, and cerebral palsy. However, he soon became aware that retarded development could not be fully understood without knowledge of normal development. He thus turned to the study of normal behavior, especially the mental growth of babies.
He developed a method to precisely record and measure behavior in a strictly controlled environment. Gesell used a movie camera and a one-way mirror to observe and record children at play, without their being disturbed. He recorded some 12,000 children of various ages and levels of development—the study that became the foundation for his theories of child development. He later trained other researchers in how to collect the data and make valid reports.
Based on his studies, Gesell concluded that all children pass through certain maturational stages—developmental milestones—in essentially the same manner. Children progress through these stages naturally over time, and independently of learning. Gesell noticed that four major areas are included in that development: motor, linguistic, adaptive, and personal-social behavior. He produced a scale—The Gesell Developmental Schedules—that included all four areas to measure normal children development. This scale measured whether children developed normally or deviated from expected growth, for use with children between four weeks and six years of age. This scale was the first such scale ever created, and was widely used in subsequent research in medical and educational fields.
Gesell applied his research to adoption studies. He used his scale to determine whether a child had reached certain developmental milestones and thus whether the child could be adopted. It eliminated many problems with adoption, especially those related to giving an appropriate child to the right parents. In 1926, he wrote:
[Adoption] can not be entrusted altogether to good will or to intuitive impulse, or even to unaided common sense. There are too many opportunities for error and miscarriage. The combined critical judgment of the social investigator, the court, the physician, and the mental examiner should enter into the regulation of adoption…. Systematic psychoclinical examinations not only will reduce the wastes of error and miscarriage but will serve to reveal children of normal and superior endowment beneath the concealment of neglect, of poverty, or of poor repute. Clinical safeguards can not solve all the problems of child adoption but they can steadily improve its methods and make them both more scientific and humane.
Gesell also argued that the best method to raise children is through reasonable guidance, rather than through over-permissiveness or over-strictness. In other words, since most of the children’s growth is based on the natural unfolding of hereditary characteristics already present inside the child, parents need to help those characteristics to be expressed in a positive way. Too much permissiveness or too much rigidity would hinder normal child development. He wrote:
The child’s personality is a product of slow gradual growth. His nervous system matures by stages and natural sequences. He sits before he stands; he babbles before he talks; he fabricates before he tells the truth; he draws a circle before he draws a square; he is selfish before he is altruistic; he is dependent on others before he achieves dependence on self. All of his abilities, including his morals, are subject to laws of growth. The task of child care is not to force him into a predetermined pattern but to guide his growth.
Gesell’s work, however, was criticized on several grounds. One of the most important objections was that he used only white, middle-class parents and children for his subjects, thus decreasing the validity of his studies. He was also accused of ignoring individual and cultural differences in growth patterns.
Gesell constructed the "Gesell dome," a one-way mirror shaped as a dome, under which children could be observed without being disturbed. Measurements done in these sessions (which were filmed and extensively annotated) contributed to the establishment of a theory of developmental milestones, which has continued to be used by child health professionals for decades.
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