Continuous development in developmental psychology is the idea that a person’s mental, physical, emotional, and social abilities gradually unfold over time.
This process typically starts at birth and can continue into adulthood. However, one’s growth rate may fluctuate during different stages of life.
As an illustration, when an infant is born they are almost completely incapable of speaking and walking. However, as time progresses and their environment becomes more familiar to them, and these skills manifest themselves naturally.
Definition of Continuous Development in Developmental Psychology
Continuous development, often referred to as continuity, is a principle suggesting that the processes of growth and development are not abrupt changes but rather gradual, interrelated transitions.
Slee and Shute (2014) state simply that:
“…the continuous viewpoint emphasizes slow, methodical changes over time” (p. 13).
This means that skills development, such as language or motor ability, will occur over time with little fluctuation between stages.
For instance, when people learn to speak, their language skills will not increase from zero to fully proficient overnight but will progress gradually.
As mentioned by Ostman and colleagues (2015),
“…the continuity theory of normal ageing by Atchley (1989) defines continuity as an adaptive strategy that promotes both individual preference and social approval” (p. 2).
If viewed from this perspective, continuous development may be seen as an adaptive process that helps individuals adjust and cope with the ever-changing environment.
Continuity suggests that growth occurs incrementally over time, emphasizing the importance of viewing the development process holistically rather than focusing on separate aspects individually.
Examples of Continuous Development
- Cognitive development: Cognitive development refers to the growth and expansion of one’s mental processes over time, such as problem-solving ability, working memory, and capacity for abstract thought. This process begins at birth and can continue until adulthood. For instance, if you take to complete puzzles or practice problem-solving techniques, you may able to improve your cognitive skills even into adulthood.
- Language development: Language development is the gradual language acquisition from infancy through adulthood. It includes understanding grammar, building vocabulary, and developing phonology (the study of sounds). So, if you are learning a second language, your progress in terms of understanding and speaking is likely to occur gradually.
- Motor development: Motor development includes the physical maturation of a person’s abilities, such as gross motor (the ability to use large muscle groups), fine motor skills (the use of small muscles), and coordination between the two. As you watch toddlers grow and evolve in activities such as running, playing sports, or pedaling a bicycle, it is easy to witness their progress over time.
- Social-emotional development: A key term in sociocultural psychology, social-emotional development entails understanding one’s interactions with their environment, being able to identify and regulate emotions, building connections with others, and cultivating a sense of self. Here, too, development is continuous and gradual. For instance, children learn to recognize their own emotions and those of others over time as they interact with different people and situations.
- Sensory integration: Sensory integration is the process by which an individual’s senses develop to interpret information from their surroundings, such as recognizing smells or tasting food. Let’s take, for example, the ability to distinguish between different colors; as a child grows, their brain gradually learns to differentiate between colors.
- Adaptive skills: Adaptive skills are the capacity to alter behaviors in order to more efficiently interact with others and fit into different social settings. If, for instance, you are learning to manage your emotions or adjusting your behavior in order to be accepted by others, the ability to do so is likely to evolve over time.
- Attention-regulation skills: Attention-regulation skills are related to an individual’s ability to pay attention and focus on tasks for extended periods of time. This often requires self-control or adjusting motivation levels depending on the situation. For instance, if you can pay attention to a lecture for an entire hour without getting distracted, your attention-regulation skills will likely develop over time.
- Intuition development: Intuition development refers to developing one’s understanding of what is true or right without having explicit knowledge or relying on logical reasoning. This is an important skill for making decisions, as it can often give us a gut feeling or “sixth sense” about certain situations.
- Metacognition: Metacognition is defined as “thinking about thinking” or reflecting upon one’s own mental processes, such as making decisions, analyzing information, problem-solving, etc. For example, if you can reflect on your mistakes and learn from them, that is a sign of good metacognitive skills.
- Moral reasoning: Moral reasoning involves using judgment to decide what is right vs. wrong based on ethical principles. Of course, small children cannot usually understand moral reasoning fully. Still, as they mature and gain experience, their moral judgments become more sophisticated.
Continuous vs. Discontinuous Development
Continuous development sees human development as a gradual and ongoing process, while the discontinuous approach views human development as progressing through distinct stages based on human genetics (Sternberg & Okagaki, 1989).
Continuous development, also known as continuity theory, suggests that growth and development occur gradually over time (Östman et al., 2015).
This means that individuals typically progress through a set of stages, such as language acquisition or motor skill proficiency, with little to no fluctuation in between.
Discontinuous development, on the other hand, proposes that development can occur rapidly in large steps or leaps, meaning the individual may skip certain stages instead of transitioning between them gradually (Sternberg & Okagaki, 1989).
For example, Montessori’s planes of development theory is discontinuous because it envisages children as going through rapid growth, followed by plateaus, then rapid growth again. Here, children are seen as going through discontinuous stages.
The primary difference between is how individuals are perceived to grow and develop, with continuity theorists believing growth and development must occur gradually. Discontinuity theorists believe rapid jumps or leaps can also take place.
Additionally, this distinction has implications for practitioners studying growth and development who must decide which approach to use when observing their subject’s progression.
Theories of Continuous Development in Developmental Psychology
There are many different theoretical approaches to continuous development. Still, the most popular ones are Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory and Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory.
Here is a brief overview of both:
1. Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory
Vygotsky’s theory states that an individual’s development is based on their interactions with their environment and those around them and their ability to internalize these experiences (Vasileva & Balyasnikova, 2019).
This means that language, thinking, values, and other elements of an individual’s experience can be learned from those around them.
Sociocultural theory also has the core concept of “scaffolding,” which refers to providing external support to help learners understand certain information and tasks until they become proficient enough to do it without assistance (Arshad & Chen, 2009).
Here, learners are seen as developing slowly through teacher or parents scaffolding learning – one small step at a time, rather than relying on biological development to progress learning in fits and starts.
According to Vygotsky’s theory, sociocultural interactions always impact a child’s development and learning in an ongoing manner. It implies that the learning process is never-ending as it stems from day-to-day experiences.
2. Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Theory
Bronfenbrenner’s theory takes into account both the person themselves as well as their environment when considering development (Tudge et al., 2009).
It views growth and development as occurring within four distinct systems or layers:
- microsystem (immediate environment),
- mesosystem (interactions between different elements in the microsystem),
- exosystem (the relationship between systems outside the individual),
- and macrosystem (cultural norms/values).
Consequently, this theory acknowledges that there are several factors impacting an individual’s growth (Tudge et al., 2009).
For example, a child’s development and learning would be influenced by the structure of their family (microsystem) and the values of society at large (macrosystem).
Bronfenbrenner’s theory is an ongoing process, as one constantly grows and develops due to the impact of external environmental factors.
Critique of Continuous Development in Developmental Psychology
The concept of continuous development has been criticized for its lack of recognition of biological factors in development.
For example, those who hold the belief that development happens in stages and ‘leaps’ argue that the continuous perspective fails to acknowledge that most children develop skills at clear and distinct points in time. The continuous perspective fails to acknowledge this. It merely thinks learning happens slowly, based on cultural contexts, and the support of a more knowledgeable other.
In response to this, continuity theorists like Barbara Rogoff look at other cultures and demonstrate how child development can appear to happen at different rates in different cultures, demonstrating that development seems to be more about ‘nurture’ than the growth of discontinuous stages (‘nature’).
Continuous development in developmental psychology is a popular theory that seeks to explain how growth and development occur over time.
It focuses on the idea that learning and development are always occurring and that individuals linearly progress through stages of development.
The two primary theories under this umbrella are Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory and Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Theory.
They both emphasize the role of the environment in influencing an individual’s growth and argue that development is ongoing rather than static.
In spite of its prominence, this methodology has been decried for a variety of grounds. These critiques include ignorance of personal variances, prioritizing age-related categories, and overlooking nonlinear paths.
Arshad, M., & Chen, W. H. (2009). Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory of literacy scaffolding children to read and write at an early age. Wacana, Journal of the Humanities of Indonesia, 11(2), 319. https://doi.org/10.17510/wjhi.v11i2.164
Östman, M., Ung, E. J., & Falk, K. (2015). Continuity means “preserving a consistent whole”—A grounded theory study. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being, 10(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.3402/qhw.v10.29872
Shute, R. H., & Slee, P. T. (2014). Child development. Routledge.
Sternberg, R. J., & Okagaki, L. (1989). Continuity and discontinuity in intellectual development are not a matter of “either-or.” Human Development, 32(3/4), 158–166. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26767390
Tudge, J. R. H., Mokrova, I., Hatfield, B. E., & Karnik, R. B. (2009). Uses and misuses of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of human development. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 1(4), 198–210. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1756-2589.2009.00026.x
Vasileva, O., & Balyasnikova, N. (2019). (Re)Introducing vygotsky’s thought: From historical overview to contemporary psychology. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(1515). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01515