American psychologist and pediatrician whose principal area of study was the mental and physical development of normal individuals from birth through adolescence.
Arnold Gesell was born in Alma, Wisconsin, and received his bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin. In 1906, he earned his Ph.D. from Clark University, where he was motivated to specialize in child development by studying with the prominent American psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924). Gesell received his M.D. from Yale University in 1915. After briefly holding a
position at the Los Angeles State Normal School, he was appointed an assistant professor of at Yale University, where he established the Clinic of Child Development and served as its director from 1911 to 1948. He was later a consultant with the Gesell Institute of Child Development. Gesell's early work involved the study of mental retardation in children, but he soon became convinced that an understanding of normal development is necessary for the understanding of abnormal development.
Gesell was among the first to implement a quantitative study of human development from birth through adolescence, focusing his research on the extensive study of a small number of children. He began with preschool children and later extended his work to ages 5 to 10 and 10 to 16. From his findings, Gesell concluded that mental and physical development in infants, children, and adolescents are comparable and parallel orderly processes. In his clinic, he trained researchers to collect data and produced reports that had a widespread influence on both parents and educators. The results of his research were utilized in creating the Gesell Development Schedules, which can be used with children between four weeks and six years of age. The test measures responses to standardized materials and situations both qualitatively and quantitatively. Areas emphasized include motor and language development, adaptive behavior, and personal-social behavior. The results of the test are expressed first as developmental age (DA), which is then converted into developmental quotient (DQ), representing "the portion of normal development that is present at any age." A separate developmental quotient may be obtained for each of the functions on which the scale is built.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Gesell was widely regarded as the nation's foremost authority on child rearing and development, and developmental quotients based on his development schedules were widely used as an assessment of children's intelligence. He wrote several best-selling books, including Infant and Child in the Culture of Today (1943) and The Child from Five to Ten (1946), both co-authored with Frances L. Ilg. Gesell argued, in widely read publications, that the best way to raise children requires reasonable guidance, rather than permissiveness or rigidity. His influence was also felt through the many child psychologists and pediatricians he helped educate. Eventually, the preeminence of Gesell's ideas gave way to theories that stressed the importance of environmental rather than internal elements in child development, as the ideas of Jerome S. Bruner and Jean Piaget gained prominence. Gesell was criticized for basing his work too rigidly on observation of a small number of research subjects who were all children of white, middle-class parents in a single New England city. He was also faulted for allowing too little leeway for individual and cultural differences in growth patterns.
Although the developmental quotient is no longer accepted as a valid measure of intellectual ability, Gesell remains an important pioneer in child development, and is recognized for his advances in the methodology of observing and measuring behavior. He also inaugurated the use of photography and observation through one-way mirrors as research tools. Gesell was also a prolific author, whose other books include An Atlas of Infant Behavior (1934) and Youth: The Years from Ten to Sixteen (1956).
See also Infancy
Ames, Louise Bates. Arnold Gesell: Themes of His Work. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1989.
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