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Gesell's infant growth orientation: a composite.

Early child development sequences were studied in the beginning of the 20th century and in the process uncovered some relevant conclusions about early post-natal life. This might have been the very beginning of some principles of what has bcome known as Developmental Psychology or how humans grow. The writer has tried to codify the essentials of this activty from Gesell's infant research.


Growth is a process of organization. It is a unitary and an integrative process; if it were not unitary, the organism would lack wholeness; if it were not integrative, the organism would lack individuality ... This principle (motor priority) is so fundamental that virtually all behavior ontogenetically has a motor origin and aspect. Vision, for example, has a motor as well as sensory basis; likewise, speech, mental imagery, and conceptual thought. Even emotions trace to motor attitudes and tensions." Arnold Gesell

What follows are interpretations of conclusions drawn from Arnold Gesell's analysis found primarily in "Infancy and Human Growth" (1928) and "Infant Development "(1949), and secondarily in class notes (1948-49).

Dr. Gesell helped establish the Yale Clinic for Children in 1911 when he joined the Yale staff. He continued his work until 1949. His interest in children and how they developed propelled him in this direction, resulting in many professional writings elucidating observations made through "'new media": movie camera, a "photographic dome" with moveable camera and an isolation cabinet for newborns. One-way vision screens were also considered quite innovative at the time. Concealed microphones transmitted verbal responses in the case of observations of young children. Technology of the times became quite effective in the studies of human development as well as other aspects of human relationships. The Gesell Institute of Child Development at New Haven continued his work from 1948 until his death.

The following focus is on concepts of infant growth, which can be considered as more than theory, especially today after 50 years of historical supportive research. Such concepts are the basis for Gesell's Infant Development Schedule, an evaluation instrument.

1. Maturation in the infant comes from genes. The central nervous system becomes dominant and unifies the total organism as the infant develops and moves from one cycle of growth to the next. One cycle follows the other in an orderly fashion. In like manner, infant behavior can be observed and recorded. Growth then is the process leading from one level to another level of organization; all infants mature in behavior roughly at the same time or the large percentage does. In other words, most children sit at six months, stand at nine months and walk at twelve months but not always. These then become expectations based on studies by Gesell and other researchers. This is also found to be essentially true of other aspects of motor development; reaching, grasping, rolling over, smiling and so forth.

2. Gesell also speaks of cepahlo-caudad growth in the infant which means children essentially develop from head to toe. The head he states is "very precocious"; the fetal head itself is near in size to the length of the trunk. At five months after birth the head can be controlled while the trunk remains flaccid at that particular time of development. The trunk then strengthens cervically and later in the lumbar region itself. Eyes and mouth as well are much in advance over hands and feet. The infant further advances from progress in prone behavior to creeping and then walking. If one takes note early postnatally, eyes are very much advanced and the infant can follow moving objects sometimes showing fear or joy for the presenting stimulus.

3. Another movement of growth, proximal distal is from the body axis out to the appendages or extremities. This direction can be found in the form of reaching for-and manipulation of objects, ultimately showing an ability to gross kinds of grasps and finally to grasps with thumb and forefinger. Refinements come gradually as the infant grasps at first with palm, and three digits, and later thumb and forefinger. There are time periods within which one can expect this to occur. The infant starts with random and thrashing arm movements, settling down to the thumb and index finger at about 12 months, prehension as it is called. It represents once again a behavior pattern found in all infants but may vary from one newborn to another; extreme variations from the expected model should be noted and observed closely from month to month. These individual deviations may be quite significant long-term.

4. Readiness is of course primarily an internal matter. The question therefore: "Is the child ready maturationally" to roll over, grasp, creep, crawl, sit up, stand and walk. If not then this stage will not be met or achieved by the child the reasons of which would be unknown at the time. If the infant is ready neurogically, it will be achieved or accomplished. Sometimes this is early; sometimes this is later than expected or later than what the milestones are projected to be. Growth is "progressive and unalterable" except for disease or trauma. The reality of growth can be found, as indicated previously, in patterns of behavior, such as sitting up, walking, and running. These are powerful and irrepressible forces. If there is obstruction present of some kind the infant tends to struggle and may overcome. The infant may then substitute or compensate and so in turn the behavior supported by readiness may manifest itself and become realized. The next level of behavior is most urgent for the infant who will not let "Sleeping dogs lie" until he has accomplished that particular stage of development through persistence.

5. A maturing infant might move forward in a particular behavior pattern but then may regress and show an inclination to return to a previous more immature behavior. This is sometimes called.regression; for example after learning how to walk the child might elect to crawl again, which could startle the mother. This is simply a way the child seeks control, stability and greater integrity. The child may be realizing himself by way of new thrusts toward more advanced behavior. Growth then is sporadic and uneven in this sense.

6. Infant growth moves from the general to the specific. This is an important facet of human development. It rests upon the principle of generalized movement by the infant directed toward more specific actions and precision as time passes. This can be seen readily in the infant whose movements are random at first when attempting an act, then becoming more exact and deliberate, from flailing arms to more specific hand control and finally finger coordination as the infant tries to "pick up" from a flat surface; this represents neuro-muscular maturation, reaching first with an entire limb in an awkward manner and then concluding with natural, self devised restrictions imposed on the arms facilitating more finite hand/finger aptitude. Time and genes allow for this kind of growth; external interferences can do little under this organic sequence.

7. The tonic neck reflex, sometimes called the fencing position, is a precursor to more complicated motor-eye-posture responses later in life involving more difficult activity like playing the violin, boxing, throwing and so forth. It represents practice, if you will, enabling both symmetrical and asymmetrical poses; the eye first sees the fist and movements of the fist; the eye-head-hands and body work together in developing to the point where later the infant regards the moving fist. It can be seen at one week but solidifies at four to six weeks. It might be seen in the fetal child two months before birth. The posture is head to one side, one arm extended, and the other arm flexed toward the shoulder. It is a reflex attitude and the infant directs vision toward the hand or fist in extension.

Everything that occurs is readying the infant for future steps toward a higher form of behavior patterns that can be used efficiently to solve problems.

Example of Growth Gradient

"On the basis of our normative data it is possible to draw up a condensed tabulus summary of growth gradient whereby the infant perfects his eye/hands coordinations. The growth of behavior patterns is typified in the reactions to a red 1-inch cube stimulus object.

12 weeks-Regards cube momentarily.

16 weeks-Looks from cube to hand.

20 weeks-Grasps cube on contact. (tactile)

24 weeks-Reaches and grasps on sight.

26 weeks-Transfers cube from hand to hand.

32 weeks-Grasps cube with one hand and then a second cube with the other.

36 weeks-Pushes one cube on table with another cube.

40 weeks-Combines two cubes, one in either hand.

44 weeks-Removes cube from cup, and inserts without release.

48 weeks-Picks up and releases several cubes one by one.

52 weeks-Releases cube in cup.

15 months-Builds a tower of 2 cubes.

18 months-Builds a tower of 3 cubes (vertical array).

24 months-Builds a wall of 3 cubes (horizontal).

36 months-Builds abridge of 3 cubes (combining vertical and horizontal)."

Conclusions from Gesells studies

A. "The infant has a mind.

B. The infant comes by his mind as he comes by his body, that is. through the organizing processes of growth.

C. He develops as a unitary action system

D. This action system is manifested in patterns of behavior, which are governed by deep-seated ontogenetic laws of developmental sequence

E. Graded functional tests of behavior can therefore be utilized to determine the maturity of the growing action system and the integrity of the underlying nervous system."


During the early part of the twentieth century the data concerning the organization and the development of children, the infant in particular, were uncovered through research channels by one Arnold Gesell who led the way at the Yale Clinic for Children, (1911-late 40's), the purpose of which was both service and research. Some of the outcomes of his research regarding infant growth and associated orientations were herein presented. Hopefully these are being absorbed by academia and utilized as part of the teaching schedule for students, interns and residents in fields related to the young child, such as medicine, pediatrics, pre school and child psychology. Management of young children and their enhancement in life can only be realized through knowledge and the inventive means of application of same. Gesells infant growth interpretations are addressed and condensed by way of the following terminology: general to the specific; growth stages; infant growth lines from top to toe and center to perifera; the tonic neck reflex; maturation; readiness; motor emphasis; internal infant drive to achieve; orderly and successive sequences of growth; and developmental integration. Hereditary endowment then plays a chief role in shaping the infants behavior and the order of growth in the human species. But the road map varies with individual differences and deviations allowing for room within which individualization may present itself. Finally, the neurology of the infant is pre-ordained and growth follows that dictum.

William C. Daly, Ed.D., Consultant, Clinical Psychologist, Mulberry Center, Harrisburg Medical Complex, 1114 W. Barnett Street, Harrisburg, Illinois 62946.
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Author:Daly, William C.
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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