Life span development highlights how and why people change over time (Berger, 2020). This approach takes into account all phases of life not just childhood or adulthood. It is important to understand that development is multidirectional – gains and losses occur at all stages of life. Multiple changes in every direction are a feature of life. Traits appear and disappear; there are increases, decreases and zigzags. Change can occur rapidly and dramatically or it can be gradual – there is both continuity and discontinuity. A change can be sudden because of a critical period – a time when something must occur for normal development to unfold or the only time an abnormality might occur. There are few critical periods in life. Often a development can occur more easily at a certain time, but this development is not exclusive to that time – this is called a sensitive period.

Human development is multidisciplinary with psychology, biology, education and sociology contributing richly, but so too neuroscience, economics, religion, anthropology, history, genetics and more. Development is also multi-contextual (Berger, 2020). All development occurs in a context. There is the physical environment, the family structure and characteristics of the community. The social context is all other people beyond the above categories that influence the individual. Much of development is affected by contexts over the long term. Social play in childhood can affect work habits in adults. The family and neighbourhood contexts predispose adult psychological disorders with differential susceptibility.

Uri Bronfenbrenner emphasised the power of context in development. A naturalist studying an organism also examines the ecology (its relationship with the environment). In the same way developmentalists should take an ecological-systems approach. There are three nested levels: Microsystem (immediate social context), exosystem (local institutions like school), and the macrosystem (larger social setting, cultural values, economic and political processes). Two more systems influence these three: The chronosystem (time – the historical context) and the mesosystem which involves the connection among other systems (parent-teacher meeting).

Plasticity indicates two complementary aspects of development (Berger, 2020). Human traits are moulded (plastic) yet people also maintain an abiding identity (as plastic does). This provides hope but also realism – change is possible but development builds on what has gone before. This is in evidence in the dynamic systems approach. This holds that development is an on-going, always changing interaction between the organism and the environment (and within the organism). Dynamic means that every aspect of the ecosystem is active and in flux all the time. This approach considers all inter-related aspects, all social and cultural factors across time. Not only are individuals mouldable but so too are families and societies. Every brain and body would be different if it was born in another time or place. Longitudinal data is cherished by developmentalist because it shows us at what point in the lifespan to focus on improved health practices, education etc.


Berger, K. (2020). The developing person through the life span. Worth.