Humans are at their most vulnerable and impressionable states when they are mere children. In this state, they are like an open book, in many ways; silently taking in the world around them while remaining relatively quiet the entire time. However, this also means that the environment that a child is raised in has a monumental impact on their development, for better or worse. This means that the environment a child is raised in can be one of the most significant factors toward its development, and that growing up within the right environment is crucial for most children. This paper will examine the implications of this theory, and examine a few examples of the impact the environment a child grows up in can have on their physical and mental development.
One of the most important real-world examinations of this concept is known as the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. This project’s purpose was to examine the impact the environment has on children raised in foster care and compare that with those who are raised within birth families: a much more natural setting (Nelson et al., 2013). This study is oftentimes considered to be a “true experiment” because it satisfies many of the criterions for an experiment. That is to say, it examines different sets of criteria, utilizes a consistent factor with which to judge these criteria against, and, finally, draws conclusions from this examination (Myers, 2011). The population for the study, in this case, would be the young children and toddlers, many of whom were given over to the government in the first place because the parents could not take care of them properly (Nelson et al., 2013). The samples, in this case, would be taken directly from the population of young children and toddlers within Bucharest, since these children are prime candidates for the study due to the dichotomy between their environments (i.e. some are raised within state-governed foster homes, while the others simply live relatively normal lives with their families).
Every scientific study performed contains an independent and dependent variable, and this study is no different, of course. Independent variables are usually concrete, and, in studies, represent causes of whatever problem or concept is being examined (Myers, 2011). The independent variable for this study is the environment that the children are exposed to. This is because this independent variable is absolute and generally unchanging, making it ideal for studying the effects of environmental impact (Nelson et al., 2013). Dependent variables are the exact opposite of independent variables, and represent the effect, usually because of the independent variable (Myers, 2011). As for the dependent variable, this role falls to the children themselves (Myers, 2011). This is because they depend on the independent variable, their environment, to change. As such, these children and their environment are inexorably linked, for better or worse, and the study intends to find out just how the two are linked.
Sensitive periods are, quite simply, periods of a child’s life where their brains are much more open and sensitive to external stimuli, especially their environment (Nelson et al., 2013). This means that sensitive periods are an important factor in this study, which largely concerns many of the same concepts; namely, the impact of the environment on the development of a child’s psyche. Surprisingly, the study found that children who spent their early lives in an institution possessed IQs in the low to middle 70’s, while those in foster care had IQs in the low to middle 80s and, finally, those who grew up within a normal birth family had IQ numbers around 100: around average (Nelson et al., 2013). This shows a startling connection between sensitive periods, a child’s environment, and the psychological development of that child. It demonstrates that children are much more open to their environment than many people would believe. This also helps to reinforce many of the pre-existing notions surrounding neurological development and psychology in children, which have often found similar results concerning sensitive periods as this study (Myers, 2011).
IQ is a method for researchers and scientists to measure intelligence, especially in young children. While not an entirely accurate method for gauging it, it does serve its purpose fairly well as a means to compare and contrast (Nelson et al., 2013). IQ is a popular method to measure intelligence to measure intelligence because IQ is affected by a number of external factors, including, among other things, parental intelligence, as well as external environment (Myers, 2011). Again, these factors are much easier to observe in children, and thus it is a crucial variable within the Bucharest Early Intervention Project because of its sensitivity to these external factors (Nelson et al., 2013). IQ is also largely affected by experiences of children, especially at an early age. By performing enriching activities, especially with adult supervision to guide them, IQ can increase dramatically, while those who choose to languish, often within the institutionalized setting, will end up with a lower IQ (Nelson et al., 2013). IQs are directly related to sensitive periods for children because both IQ and sensitive periods occur at similar times in a child’s development, meaning that they are extremely receptive to their environment during this time, and, as such, must be monitored carefully (Myers, 2011).
Attachment is another important concept within the field of early childhood development, especially within the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. Essentially, attachments are a crucial part of socialization and social development, especially for a young child, because they represent an emotional investment on the part of the individual, and form a significant portion of the external environment for the child (Nelson et al., 2013). In the case of the institutionalized children, they form fewer attachments because they do not have the parental figures that foster and birth parent children have, creating another marked disadvantage for children who grow up institutionalized (Nelson et al., 2013). These attachments are also important because they represent some of the first and most important experiences that form connections in the brain (Myers, 2011). This means that children with experience in attachment will be more mature, emotionally, than those who are of the same age and have formed no attachments. Attachments have a significant impact on children because these attachments are formed during the sensitive periods of a child’s development; making the bonds formed during these attachments even stronger (Myers, 2011). This is also why a child growing up institutionalized could face emotional problems many years down the road, because their sensitive minds failed to form the attachments necessary for living a happy life.
The most logical conclusions that may be drawn from this evidence regarding environmental impact on the development of a child are that it has a profound impact on virtually every level. The evidence first found that children’s minds are experiencing what are known as sensitive periods, which means that they are already extra-sensitive to their environment around them. Compounding this is the development of a number of important facets of a child’s personality, such as their IQ and attachments to other children and parental figures, all of which have a lifelong effect on the child. The Bucharest Early Intervention Project, in particular, found that children who grow up in natural, birth families grow up much healthier, from a mental standpoint, than those who grow up in foster families or in institutions. This is because they fail to form these same attachments, generally, when in foster care or an institution, and receive much more personal care and attention within their “real,” birth families. The most important lesson learned from the study is that there is no substitute for family, real or otherwise, because even the foster children formed more attachments and ended up with higher IQs than those who grew up institutionalized.
Myers, D. G. (2011). Exploring psychology, 8th edition. Macmillan.
Nelson, C. A., Fox, N. A., & Zeanah, C. H. (2013). Anguish of the abandoned child. Scientific American, 308(4), 62-67.