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Didactics - 17 : Psychology of Development IV



A : Recap

Last week we looked at theories of the cognitive development of the child. We saw that the Behaviourist approach, which regards all human learning as based on the S- R model, through reinforcement, could not explain the development of human thought. 
Jean Piaget's work provided the beginnings of an answer to the question of how children do grow into thought, but we saw that his scheme of stages had come to be considered as over rigid, and his belief that the environment was of little importance has been questioned. 

Vygotsky, and his followers, such as Jerome Bruner, emphasized the importance of interaction between the child and either adults, or more advanced peers, and advanced the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development. 

Vygotsky also sees the development of language as essential to the development of thought, whereas for Piaget, it is of less importance.

B : Introduction

Today we are going to look more closely at the adolescent. Adolescence is a watershed in the development of the child, for it is, as Michael Rutter points out, through the changes wrought during this period, that the individual passes from childhood to the possibility of parenthood. Any teacher who is to work in the secondary education system needs to have some idea of both the physical and the psychological changes that their charges go through, and also needs to be aware of the social nature of adolescence. 
Adolescence itself is not to be equated with puberty, but pivots around it. Puberty is an essentially biological process, whereas adolescence is social; the person that we refer to as the teenager is a modern invention. Essentially, it points to a special status that is posited upon the development of mass schooling through to the age of 16 or later, and the partial exclusion of young people from the world of work

This produced a mass of young people who were neither children, in that they were capable of full sexual intercourse and reproduction, as well as being as large as and probably more vigorous than adults, nor are allowed the full adult status of playing the role of wage-earner. 

In many societies, people of this age, and particularly the young men, are looked upon as being a source of danger. It is not infrequent to find pubertal and immediately post-pubertal youth hived off from the rest of society into specialized groups or even sent to live apart from their families in special camps. Some attempt is usually made to give them an important role to play - thus in pastoral societies, they guard the cattle and do the fighting - just as in France, young men do military service. This keeps them out of mischief and ensures that they have an outlet for any aggressive impulses. 

Often their change of status from childhood to adulthood is marked by a series of initiation rites, which may include learning the lore of the tribe, the infliction of bodily wounds, and subjection to psychological stress. Those who pass through such tests are then accorded adult status. 

It has been said that modern youth suffers from the fact that there are no clearly marked boundaries to the ages of life, that there is no precise point when the individual can say to him or herself that he or she is now an adult. And indeed, it may seem that adulthood is bestowed in some areas and withheld in others, so that the young person can never be sure of how she will be defined by significant adults. The young may themselves be rather ambivalent over such questions, finding it pleasant to be treated as a child under some circumstances, and irksome under others. The adult who disciplines is regarded as a patronising martinet, the adult who supports as a surrogate, and probably in many ways superior, parent. 

However, we should not make too much of the strains of adolescence. Whilst, as with any other period of life, there are difficulties and tribulations, most young people enjoy this period, move easily between their parents' homes, the world of school and the world of their peers. 

Much has been made of the 'generation gap' which separates the older generation from the rising generation at this time, but those who have looked closely at the behaviour and the relationships of adolescents stress that, while there are, of course, frequent spats between parents and children over such things as staying out late, clothing and hairstyles, in the main, teenage children appreciate their parents, feel close to them, and find their feelings largely reciprocated.

C : Puberty

The change from primary school to secondary school takes place at roughly the age at which children begin to go through puberty. This is a period when changes are considerable, and affect the morphology, the intelligence and the emotional life of the person. . Let us look first at some of the physical changes 
  1. the growth spurt
  1. Age of onset is related to nutrition and to genes
  1. part is social in origin - differences in nutrition related to social class or levels of development.
  2. but genes also important - if growth slows down due to illness, it tends to catch up again afterwards - Tanner.
  1. from 10.5 to 13 years old for girls and 12.5 to 15 for boys - Tanner (1970) suggests that this two-year difference is one of the most significant facts about human biological development.
  1. height has a positive social value in most societies -
  1. related to the situation of the child, in which taller people - adults - have more power and are therefore regarded as superior.
  1. reinforced in adulthood by differences in nutrition between higher social strata and lower social strata - which ensure that, on average, members of dominant groups are taller than members of subordinate groups.
  1. also related to height differences between male and female - are females inferior because they are smaller or is being smaller a lower status attribute because it is associated with being female?
  1. girls are bigger than boys between ages of 10.5 and 13.
  1. at the moment of their awakening to sexuality, girls find themselves momentarily possessed of a characteristic that is associated with social dominance.
  1. similarly, boys find themselves possessed of a characteristic associated with social inferiority.
  1. what might be the possible consequences?
  1. girls look to rather older males as objects of their desire.
  1. see boys of their own age as being 'childish' or babies.
  1. boys deny their sexuality and define girls as being 'stupid', choosing psychological of social characteristics, rather than purely physical ones.
  1. reinforcement of the male peer groups as a defence against girls
These phenomena - to the extent that we can agree that they do exist - may be exacerbated by the social system within which they are placed. Where membership in a specific age group is determined by the bureaucratic criteria of date of birth, contacts between members who are at different stages in the maturational process are inevitable. In social systems where the date of birth is not known, group membership may be determined by specific signs of maturation - the first menstruation for girls, or the growth of a beard for boys. The social and psychological effects of differential maturation will be very different. 
  1. intrasexual differences
  1. some groups mature earlier than others.
  1. part of this difference is certainly genetic - related to family or ethnic origin.
  1. part is social - differences in nutrition related to social class or levels of development.
  1. early maturity - in the United States - has been associated with :
  1. higher of self-confidence.
  1. higher degree of popularity - both intra and intersexual.
  1. greater school success during the period of puberty.
  1. higher levels of personal happiness.
  1. for girls, the picture is slightly more complicated - early maturity is a disadvantage in elementary school, but an advantage in secondary school.
  1. in later life, it appears that late-maturers, who suffered during early adolescence, catch up with their peers and show greater degrees of empathy and tolerance for others (Jones, 1954)
  1. there is an increase in strength and athletic capacity - muscle strength increases rapidly, particularly in boys, as does lung power.
  1. primary sex characteristics
  1. girls tend to menstruate for the first time at around 13 (USA) and boys reach sexual maturity at about 15.
  1. menarche - the first period - does not mean that the girl is immediately fertile - there is usually a period of between one year and 18 months when she is infertile, and full fertility is probably not reached until the early 20s.
  1. evidence of genetic determination - menarche is more likely to occur closer in time for identical than for sororal twins.
  1. but also affected by nutrition and standard of living - the age of menarche has been dropping steadily in advanced societies.
  1. there is evidence that sexual interests become stronger after menarche - but is this biologically determined or is it a question of social expectations? We don't really know.
  1. Boys tend to become wary of girls - a little scared? while girls regard the boys as childish .
  1. secondary sex characteristics
  1. appearance of adult body-hair - pubic hair, then armpits, and, for boys, chest and facial hair.
  1. enlargement of the larynx in boys - the voice breaks.
  1. for girls, the beginning of puberty is usually signalled by the start of breast growth.
  1. emotional changes
  1. as we have seen, there is a distancing from parents, and a greater attachment to the peer group.
  1. the egotism of the infant, which is characterized by difficulty in seeing the other person's point of view, is replaced by the egoism of the adolescent, who is capable of integrating the other's point of view, and who is often highly sensitive - conforming behaviour, embarrassment at the behaviour of parents etc.
  1. Studies in the United States suggest that physical good looks become extremely important. Jersild (1952) asked adolescents in fourth grade to write an essay on "What I Dislike About Myself" - 11% of boys and 16% of girls mentioned physical characteristics. In sixth grade - 17% of boys and 31% of girls and by ninth - 32% of boys and 53% of girls. By 12th grade, the figures dropped to 10% of boys and 30% of girls, and by junior and senior years only 8% of boys and 12% of girls mentioned physical attractiveness.
  1. 40% of girls in one study (USA) seem to worry about their bodies - about becoming too tall (20%) or too fat (20%)
  1. is adolescence a time of psychological stress? Rosen, Bahn & Kramer - referrals to psychiatric clinics - highest rates occur between 9 & 15 - peaks at 9/10 and 14/15. Boys twice as likely to be referred as girls.
  1. but - this may be derived from particularities of the school system :
  1. peak ages are ages of transition from one institution to another, or of important examinations.
  1. the fact that boys are referred more than girls - related to the fact that a number of studies have shown that school is less well-adapted to boys than to girls - the female universe?
  1. intellectual changes
  1. according to Piaget - development of the formal operational stage - the young person is capable of abstraction. He or she can form hypothesis about the results of their actions or the actions of others. However, they may allow the power of their reasoning to run away with them.
  1. the capacity to envisage numerous alternatives may lead the young person into difficulties - anxiety over choice.
  1. development of moral relativism. Judge an act in terms of motivations and circumstances.
  1. rules are seen as enabling devices rather than as moral absolutes - flexibility.
  1. Bruner/Donaldson - cognitive processes become disembedded - context free. Illustrate through language - ability to use non-indexical expression.
  1. Erikson - adolescence is the age when the individual must resolve the problem of identity - relating internal feelings to the judgements of others. Doubts about sexual identity and about occupational identity.


Developmental psychology can give us an understanding of some aspects of adolescence. The teenager is passing through a stage of physical and mental change that can only be paralleled by the early years of childhood and the last years of life. At the same time, he or she is subjected, in our societies, to the need to succeed at school, to pass public examinations and/or make a first entry into the labour market, and also to take responsibility over the choice of a partner for a long-term emotional commitment. 
For a large number of adolescents, the concerns of the school are less than vital - they have many other things to do with their lives, and one may, indeed, think that this is probably the worst time in a person's life to ask them to spend long hours memorizing the irregular verbs of a foreign tongue, the use of which is not immediately evident. Teachers should be aware of this, although it should not be seen as an excuse for low expectations - we can understand why young people are often distracted, why they do not always work as hard as we would wish them to, and why they often resent our authority, without becoming tolerant of bad work. 

(If you wish to comment or ask a question, please write to atmason@timothyjpmason.com)

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Timothy Mason

IUFM de Versailles

Sections :



Age-bands and

Initiation ceremonies

Moody adolescents and the Age Gap


The growth spurt

Intrasexual differences

Primary sex characteristics

the menarche

Secondary sex characteristics

Emotional Changes

Intellectual Changes


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