Understanding Of Human Growth And Development Social Work Essay


The field of psychology has vast areas of interest, and Human growth and development is one of the most popular topics being studied by social workers today. The purpose of this report is to show how essential it is for a trainee social worker to attain a firm understanding of human growth and development, and to ultimately achieve a foundation of knowledge in this area. This report will show that, with practice, preparation, assessment, reflection and finally application, this foundation of knowledge can be effectively used in positive intervention methods. (Crawford 2006)

There have been many great theorists over the years, all of who had different ideas on human growth and development. This report will highlight and discuss 3 theories based on the work of Erikson, Bowlby and Bronfenbrenner. Furthermore, the report will also throw light on the pros and cons of these theories, identifying and discussing potential issues that may arise from failure to mature, as described in each theory.

Finally, the report will identify the role of social workers in relation to their intervention with a client or family.

The outcome of this report will be a sum-up of the key identifying points of each of the 3 theories. Using practical examples, the report will explore the effects of the theories and outcomes that may arise from failure to mature.

The practical examples used will aid, guide and shape the discussion by highlighting the life span of the individual problems or issues, and will provide an underpinning reason for using each of the theories. Each theory chosen in this report is taken from a different discipline of social science; psychodynamic, sociological and psychosocial. These three disciplines all have a different emphasis, but structured in all of them is the core principle of determining what can potentially influence life course development.

The first theory outlined in this report is Bowlby’s ‘attachment theory’. This theory fundamentally sees the earliest bonds formed between children and their caregivers as a key factor in human growth and development, having an immense impact on progression and continuing throughout life.

This theory will be examined, using social work examples with infants. There will be an explanation of how the theory is vastly important for attaining a firm understanding of the foundational relationships infants build for a healthy development.

The second theory discussed in this report is Bronfenbrenner’s ‘theory of ecological development’. Bronfenbrenner’s theory describes the influences of further environmental factors on children, and their positive or negative development.

For this theory, social work examples will be chosen from older adults in order to help attain an understanding of how environmental factors, at micro and macro levels, can influence social workers in relation to the stages of development.

The final theory discussed in this report is Erik Erikson’s ‘model of life stage development’. This theory addresses identity as an individual moves through the stages of life, and how they negotiate crisis points in a successful or unsuccessful progression, this effecting healthy development.

For this theory, examples of middle-later stages of life will be discussed, and how progression through the life stages can successfully or unsuccessfully result in a healthy or unhealthy development of the individual.

So, what can human growth and development be determined as? Before we discuss in depth the main theories, it would be appropriate to give a definition of human growth and development, and highlight why it is so fundamentally important for social workers to have a firm understanding of the various theories.

According to Baltes cited in Crawford (date), human development is multi-dimensional; it is made up of biological, cognitive and social dimensions. Physically, from the moment we are conceived till the moment we die, we are developing biologically. Our bodies are consistently moving from one biological change to another. Subsequently, the growth of our intellectual and social development comes. This begins from very early stages in the course of life and continues across the span of each life. (Thompson)

Both Freud and Erikson agree that every individual is born with a number of basic instincts, that development occurs through stages, and that the order of these stages is influenced by biological and sociological maturation (Sigelman, and Shaffer 1992).

The Requirements for Social Work Training state that all social work programmes must: “Ensure that the teaching of theoretical knowledge, skills and values is based on their application to practice.” (Department of Health 2002)

Theorists, such as Bowlby, Bronbenfrener and Erikson, have different perspectives on life span development stages and the individual’s evolved behaviour as a consequence or a response to developmental milestones crises. These theories are rooted in the disciplines of sociology, biology and psychology. Each theory provides an explanation, in line with development, for arising issues and problems that individuals face and are all relevant to an understanding of the life course development. (Thompson)

Social work practitioners need to have a wide range of knowledge from a span of theoretical disciplines to ensure that all aspects of an individual’s make-up are considered and appreciated when working with them. (Crawford and walker) Using theory can give an explanation as to why an action resulted in a particular consequence. This can help us review and possibly change our practice in an attempt to make the consequences more effective. (Beckett)

Developmental theory provides a framework for ordering the lifecycle and accounts. For factors that may shape development at specific stages. It discusses the multiple. Bio-psycho-social factors impacting development, explores the tasks to be accomplished. At each stage and considers successes and failures in light of other stages. Developmental theories also aim to recognise individual differences in development. Journal

The course of life is different for each individual, and is influenced by the events and experiences that people go through throughout their lives. (Crawford and Walker, 2003) Understanding the impact of transitions within a person’s course of life is important for social work practice, as it aids the social worker in attaining a firm understanding of other people’s lives, so they can effectively intervene with appropriate measures. Using theory can help justify actions and explain practice to service users, carers and society in general. The aim is for this to lead to social work becoming more widely accountable and ultimately more respected. (Beckett )

The use of theories in social work practice underpins how social workers approach their tasks. As social workers, we need to recognise the opportunities to work with people through transitions as an opportunity to grow. We need to try to enable people to use these events to trigger change, move on and develop. (Crawford) When a social worker works with an individual, utilising theories which may relate to a specific situation, will give us more direction in our work. It is clear then that theory is important in practice – both for work with service users and for social work to be more valued in society. (Beckett)

After the definition of human growth and development and the brief discussion of why a theory is important in social work practice, this report will now discuss the attachment theory and will explain why it can be positively used in approach and effectively in practice.4

So, what is the ‘attachment theory’? To start with, let’s define the word attachment; it means a strong emotional bond between two people.

Forming an attachment is based on a two-way interaction. The behaviours from an infant, such as crying, reaching, grasping and making eye contact, and the response of the caregiver both work as a reciprocal process to develop and strengthen attachment. (Woods) According to (Crawford), children use the people they are attached to as a safe base to explore, a source of comfort and a source of encouragement and guidance.

According to (Fahlberg, 1991, cited in Howe), attachment aids children in attaining their full intellectual potential, sorts out what children perceives, assists them in logical thinking, helps them develop a conscience, teaches them to become more self-reliant, aids them in coping with stress and frustration, helps them handle fear and worry, assists them in developing future relationships and helps reduce jealousy.           

In 1953, a psychoanalyst named John Bowlby wrote the book Child Care and the Growth of Love. In this book, Bowlby put forward his theory that the relationship between a mother and her child, during the child’s first year, is of vital importance and can greatly affect the development of the child in later life.

This theory is known as the attachment theory, and it is still being used and discussed today, although it has been altered and adapted to suit the modern day economic environment and the change in the family unit over the past 50+ years. (Jeremy Holmes, 1993)

Bowlby believes that attachment begins at infancy and develops throughout an individual’s life, and that there are many distinctive behavioural control systems needed for continued existence and proliferation. The attachment and exploration systems are the main central points in Bowlby’s attachment theory. (Elliot & Reis, 2003)

(Crawford) Bowlby’s “Maternal deprivation Hypostasis”, the forerunner of the attachment theory, believes that if an infant was unable to develop a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his or her mother or permanent mother substitute, then the child would have difficulty forming relationships with other people, and would be at the risk of behavioural disorders. Bowlby says: “Mother’s love in infancy and childhood is as important for mental health as vitamins and proteins are for physical health.” (Cardwell)

(Bowlby 1988) goes on to say that without a secure base of first attachment relationships, children will not be able to cope with separations of normal life. For Bowlby, the impact of prolonged separation on children is viewed as maternal deprivation. Bowlby describes this as being the temporary or permanent loss to children of their mothers’ care and attention. Bowlby believes that prolonged separation of children from their mothers, especially during the first five years of their lives, is a major cause of delinquent behaviours and mental health issues. (Crawford)

Mary Ainsworth developed a method, whereby a child’s behaviour is observed when reunited with his or her mother after a short separation.  This is known as the ‘strange situation’, and it has become widely used to determine whether the attachment was secure or insecure. Ainsworth’s strange situation is used to measure Bowlby’s hypotheses that early relationship experiences affect later adult functioning. The strange situation procedure consists of eight three-minute episodes that have been arranged so as to create increasing levels of stress for a child that will activate attachment behaviours that researchers can then observe.

The resulting behaviour was used to classify the child into one of three categories. These categories are insecure avoidant attachment, secure attachment and insecure resistant attachment. Securely attached children were able to balance their need to explore the environment with their need for comfort and support from their caregiver in relation to their feelings of stress.  Insecure avoidant attached children, when stressed, continued to explore the environment, showing minimal need for comfort and support.  The children who were classified as having insecure resistant attachments stop their exploration and return to their care giver show the maximum amount of attachment behaviours. Main (1991) has since identified a fourth category that of the disorganised/ disorientated child. (Cardwell)

According to Bowlby a central tenet of attachment is that:

People developmental representations,

Or internal working models, that

Consist of expectations about the self, significant

Others and the relationship between the two. (Bowlby, 1969, 1973)

The main criticism of Bowlby’s attachment theory came from J.R. Harris. It is often assumed that hard working, kind, honest and well-respected parents will have children who will turn out to be like them. On the other hand, in the case of parents who are bad role models, rude, and disrespectful, the children will end up the same when they become adults. According to Harris, this may be far from the truth.

Harris (2008), believes that a parent does not determine a child’s personality or character, and that a child’s external social factors have more influence than anything else. A good example of this taken from Harris is a child from an immigrant family. Although the parents may well pick up a new language, they will still have an accent from their native language. The child, on the other hand, will learn the new language, and will speak it without an accent. Children are more influenced by their peers than their parents. (Harris, 1998).

Criticisms were also levelled at Bowlby’s theories because of his ideas that he concluded from work he had undertaken with juvenile delinquents who had been separated early in their lives from their mothers. The criticism is that the theories are unrepresentative of the general population, and involved too small a sample.

It was also argued that not all maternally deprived children became juvenile delinquents. But in agreement with Bowlby, Stroufe (1979) stated: “We cannot assume that early experiences will somehow be cancelled out by later experiences. Lasting consequences of early inadequate experiences may be subtle and complex.” (Cardwell)

Research has shown that, contrary to Bowlby’s idea of monotropy (one primary caregiver), children can form more than one significant attachment, and these need not be towards the biological parents, and can be of either sex, although there is often a definite hierarchy. An infant’s attachment to his or her father is as strong as the mother’s in the first few days of life. Then the attachment changes because of the different amount of time available for the parents to interact with the infant, given the work commitments. Both the mother and the father are important attachment figures for their infants, but the circumstances that lead to selecting the mother or the father may differ. For example, the father is usually selected for playing. (Schaffer & Emerson 1964)

According to Parke (1981), “Both the mother and the father are important attachment figures, the father is not just a poor substitute for the mother.” (Cardwell)

When looking at how attachment theory is applied to social work practice, Coulshed (1988) proposed that “psychology has been useful in the degree to which you can apply some of the theories, if you are prepared to see theoretical contributions as ways of enriching your thinking and understanding. You will gain a broad framework of information through which you will recognise the complexities and possible causes of human suffering.”

The attachment theory provides a valuable model in understanding relationships of families in need and promoting new and healthy attachments (Daniel et al 1999).  The attachment theory has had an impact on many areas relating to how children are cared for, including the legal framework it operates under and how services for children have developed. Some of the areas, where clear links can be made to practice being underpinned by the attachment theory has effected changes, are;

When negotiating contact between children and their families it is undertaken from a child centre perspective rather from the adults involved. This may include having closer links with grandparents, relatives and any other persons who the child considers significantly important to them. (Howe)

Attachment theories underpin the policies that are relevant to the development of children in public care, and form the basis for assessing their needs, such as pre-placement and post-placement support systems. The effects of separation and loss that children have experienced can be taken into account when assessing their needs. (O’loughlin)

Social Work as a profession can promote the needs of children through influencing policy and practice e.g. acknowledgement that delays in placing children may be detrimental to their wellbeing should ensure that the adoption and fostering processes can be as speedy and efficient as possible. Likewise, it is clear from research that children are adversely affected by the loss of familiar peers. Children who maintain friendships over time are seen to have greater social skills and better social adjustment. This should also be promoted. (Aldegate et al)

The attachment theory has allowed optimism to develop towards caring for children, as a less distorted and confused picture of child development has emerged. It is now apparent that a healthy development can occur in many different family environments. There are many ‘right’ ways of meeting children’s needs. (O’Loughlin)

The second theory discussed in this report is derived from the discipline of sociology. Sociological theoretical perspectives explain human development by examining the interactions between people and the society in which they live. Sociologist theorists research this by looking at influencing factors at different levels of society. (Crawford)

Unlike other disciplines of human development theories in which service user’s problems are conceptualized on individual terms, sociological perspectives on human development seek to gain a full understanding by locating the person’s problems within his or her experiences in a broader picture of social and historical circumstances. In other words, rather than directly focusing on the problem and the person’s inability to cope, the problem would be assessed in terms of the impact of the economic and political conditions of the day. (Cunningham and Cunningham).

One theorist whose theory has being particularly influential in the study of human development is Uri Bronfenbrenner 1917 – 2005.

Bronfenbrenner developed a theory to explain how everything in a child and the child’s environment affects how a child grows and develops. His theory is known as the ecological systems theory, and it approaches a child’s development by looking at different levels of interaction, from family, local communities and schools to economic and political conditions that are all influential to the development of the individual in his or her course of life. He uses the terms Microsystems, exosystem and macrosystem. He suggests that there is a reciprocal process of interaction, in that the child is both influenced by and influences his or her environment at each of the levels. (Crawford)

The ecological environment is thought of as:

“Nested structures encircled within and inside the other like a set of Russian dolls. Starting with the most inside to the outside, these networks are described as micro systems, meso systems and macro systems” (Brunfenbrenner, 1994).

The work of Bronfenbrenner has been particularly influential in social work practice and is the model that underpins the framework for the assessment of children in need and their families (department of health, 2000 cited in Crawford). The theory also encourages social workers to grasp the concept and understanding of the sociological imagination, and develop this in relation to service users’ own lives and practice. As social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments (NOSS), this approach, therefore, helps social workers to locate service users within an understanding of the bigger picture that underlies their lives. (NOSS)

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Applying an ecological approach can be best understood as looking at persons, families, cultures, communities and policies, and identifying and intervening upon strengths and weaknesses in the transactional processes between these systems. A practical example of this in practice would be the use of the ecological perspective when carrying out assessment and for planning intervention for older adults in the community. Although it is theoretical, it is very practical, as it provides a kind of a map to guide us through very confusing terrain Stevenson 1998 cited in aldegate)

The population of the UK is ageing. Over the last 25 years, the percentage of the population aged 65 and over increased from 15 per cent in 1984 to 16 per cent in 2009, an increase of 1.7 million people. (Gov statistics)

Elderly individuals are vulnerable and in need of social services because they often live alone, and can be subject to numerous health difficulties, such as difficulties in functional ability.

As senior adults experience an increased need for care, it is predicted that, in many cases, family caregivers will begin to have a higher level of physical, emotional and financial burden. All of these issues combined warrant an increase in research related to meeting the needs of the elderly and their families living in our communities (Crawford).

EST is an ideal approach for assessing the needs of elderly adults living in communities. Given the rapidly increasing numbers of baby boomers reaching retirement age and beginning to require extended support, it is important for communities and families to address the best fit for the senior adult later in life. EST addresses the micro, meso and macro systems that are an extension of the individual, and works to obtain resources in order to improve support and expand networks necessary to maintain good quality of life for senior adults. (Journal)

The ecological perspective analyzes how well the individual or family fits with their environment, and is based on the assumption that when a person or group is connected and engaged within a supportive environment, functioning improves. In order to determine the best fit, usually for an individual, there is an examination of the difference between the amount of social support needed by the person and the amount of social support available in the existing environment. Once this assessment has taken place, the social worker engages with the individual and works together with him or her to offer the support needed. One unique feature of the ecological model is its distinguished concept of human development within an environmental perspective. (Bekett)

Social work practice has an overarching meta-paradigm that emphasizes the person in the environment. This meta-paradigm is linked with an ecological systems perspective as a focus of attention. EST is compatible with this belief system and helps support a theoretical approach for practice at the micro, meso and macro levels with individuals, families and communities.

Social workers need to be aware of how the changing needs of families will affect psychosocial and emotional factors for the elderly individuals and their family caregivers. Examples of such issues include geographical location of family members when the senior adult is in need of care, role reversal when there is a shift in the family system and a parent becomes more dependent upon an adult child, and the anticipated grief and bereavement as spouses and adult children care for elderly family members over an extended period of time.

The final theory of discussion is Erick Erikson’s eight stages of man. Erikson’s theory is an extension and modification to Freud’s psychoanalytical theory on explaining the development of the personality through childhood stages of psychosexual development. Erikson, however, provides a more comprehensive framework for human lifespan through a series of genetically influenced sequence of psychosocial stages. “The term psychosocial describes an approach that considers the impact of both the individual psychology and the social context of people’s lives on their individual development.”(Crawford) Each stage involves a battle between contradictory resultant personalities, and each stage has either adaptive or maladaptive qualities. To develop into a healthy, mature adult, the adaptive must outweigh the maladaptive. (Richard Gross, 2005). In other words, he suggests that people confront a series of developmental challenges or conflicts, each occurring at particular and predictable times or stages in their lives.

One of the main elements of Erikson’s psychosocial stage theory is the development of ego identity. Ego identity is the conscious sense of self that we develop through social interaction. According to Erikson, our ego identity is constantly changing owing to new experience and information we acquire in our daily interactions with others. In addition to ego identity (Quote), Erikson believes that a sense of competence also motivates behaviours and actions. Each stage in Erikson’s theory is concerned with becoming competent in an area of life. If the stage is handled well, the person will feel a sense of mastery, which he sometimes refers to as ego strength or ego quality. If the stage is managed poorly, the person will emerge with a sense of inadequacy. (Quote)

In each stage, Erikson believes people experience a conflict that serves as a turning point in development. In Erikson’s view, these conflicts are centred on either developing a psychological quality or failing to develop that quality. During these times, the potential for personal growth is high, but so is the potential for failure.

Erikson’s eight life stages:

1.     Basic trust versus mistrust

2.     Self-control versus shame and doubt

3.     Initiative versus guilt

4.     Competence versus inferiority

5.     Identity versus role confusion

6.     Intimacy versus isolation

7.     Generativity versus stagnation

8.     Ego-integrity versus despair

Erikson suggests that whereas the outcome of moving through a life stage is unfavourable, the individual will find it more challenging to meet the trials of the next stage. Erikson further suggests that if individuals fail to develop through a stage, they may return to unsettled earlier points in their lives. (Crawford)

Stage five is commonly associated with adolescence Erickson 1995 recognised this as the critical crisis of adolescence in the eight stages of development – identity versus role confusion. He believes that a successful transition through childhood would lead to a progressive success to resolve this stage (Crawford). Erikson considers the fifth stage, that of adolescence, in the developmental process to be of particular importance.  He considers that by the end of this period of psychosocial moratorium, adolescents should have achieved ego identity,  that is the integration of their own ‘self’ perceptions into their core identity which is both psychological and social. But he notes that some young people experience difficulty or find it impossible to commit themselves to adult roles, thus characterizing this as a period of identity crisis. When adolescents fail to achieve ego identity, it is considered to be identity role diffusion. 

Applying Erikson’s model to social work can help identify with individuals whether or not they have progressed successfully at previous life stages. It can also help individuals clarify and address their strengths, expectations and limitations, a duty expected of the social worker according to NOSS Key role 1(Crawford).

The psychosocial perspective enables social workers to consider the influences of the relationship between the internal world of the service users and the social environment in which they live. (Howe 1987 cited in Crawford)

However, Erikson’s stages are criticised alongside other psychosocial stage approaches to human development because they do not incorporate difference and diversity. They are culturally specific and differences between sexuality and gender are not easily explained, because the theory was developed from a male perspective. Crawford

Being too fixed and deterministic in real life, it is not possible to divide one’s life into neat stages. The theory also does not consider the significance of social change in different societies and across different cultures. The model suggests there are universal experiences that all people encounter. Anthony Giddens 1991 cited in Crawford argues that modern society is continually changing, and that people pursue many different paths through their lives.

Erikson describes the concept of a life cycle as implying some kind of self completion (Erikson, 1982 p. 9 cited in Crawford). This use of the word cycle can be criticised for implying a circular process whereby, in the later years of life, there is a return to the dependency of childhood. (Crawford)

In conclusion this assignment has looked at

Social workers need to develop an understanding of theories from a range of disciplines in order to take a holistic approach to their practice. (Crawford)

Whilst it is important for social workers to have knowledge of these theories, none of the theories can be easily applied to explain a person’s course of life. One theory may be relevant to a particular person at a particular moment in time. For example, one theory may be useful for child development, but not so useful in explaining the challenges of life events that influence growth and development in later life. (Crawford and Walker, 2003) All people are individuals and deserve the right to be treated as such. To do anything less would be seen as an act of oppressive practice. Social workers need to draw on many different resources and theories available to them in order to truly meet service user’s needs. (Beckett 2007)




Approximately 250 words