Arnold Gesell Maturation Theory Explained


First introduced in 1925, Dr. Arnold Gesell offered a maturation theory of child development which focuses on the course, pattern, and rate of growth that is expected in both normal and exceptional children. Gesell believed that the growth and development of children was influenced by their genetics and their environment, but with the child’s psychological development being the primary driver.

Gesell disagreed with the notion that children developed primarily through external factors. His maturation theory focuses on internal factors, such as the growth of the child’s central nervous system, as their primary influence.

When the spinal cord, brain, and nerves are able to communicate in their complex network it allows for a child’s mind to grow. As it grows, development occurs. When development happens, the behaviors of that child will also change.

How Gesell Came to See Maturation as a Concept

As Gesell developed his maturation theory, he felt that the psychological processes could develop in fixed sequences just as the physical body of a child develops in a fixed sequence. The heart of an embryo, for example, is the first organ to develop every time. Then the central nervous system begins to develop. Peripheral organs then develop afterward.

Gesell also noted that infants gain control over their bodies after birth in a series of fixed sequences. Their lips and tongues gain control first, then eye movement, then gradual control over the shoulders, neck, and limbs. There is a consistent head-to-toe trend in human development.

As part of this development process, Gesell goes beyond the physical factors. He asserts that cultural environments, social environments, and other factors also play a role in maturation. He contends that these forces can be positive and effective when they are applied at the same time as the natural inner “timetables” that are already present.

For that reason, Gesell suggests that teaching children to perform certain tasks should happen only when they are physically and mentally ready for those tasks. Teaching a 3-month-old child to walk, for example, would be ahead of the child’s developmental schedule and could do more harm than good.

How Should Growth Be Measured?

What Gesell noticed in the development of his maturation theory is that behavior develops in patterns. Instead of measuring that growth through a quantitative process, he suggests that the patterns be identified and encouraged. When a pattern can be identified, then the individuals around that child know he or she is ready to begin the next maturation stage.

As part of this identification process, Gesell also realized that there is a certain “balancing act” which occurs during each developmental stage. Children may develop a preference for being right-handed or left-handed over time, but that comes through a process of balancing. Children use both hands and then develop a pattern of preferred use.

This process can be applied to the concept of personality development according to the maturation theory. Personality is like a motor-based behavior. Children may experiment with being introverted or extroverted and then balance those traits out to come up with their personal preference.

Through these processes, it becomes possible to create an individual perspective. It also creates the possibility that young children will tend to behave and see the world in exactly the same way whenever they reach a specific maturity milestone.

Gesell believed that by identifying moments where a child may be over-developed or under-developed, their environment could be changed so that their personal processes could be balanced. The maturation theory was intended to be a guideline, not a catch-all solution that described every child.

Problems with the Arnold Gesell Maturation Theory

Although Gesell intended his maturation theory to be a generalized concept for humanity, his research centered upon households that had a middle-class socioeconomic status. There is no concept of variation that has been built into the theory and there may be an over-emphasis on maturation and an under-emphasis on the environmental factors that could influence the individualized processes for a child.

Gesell was one of the first to conclude that infants have a natural intelligence which allows them to establish their own schedules and awareness of the world. Recent research suggests that Gesell may have under-estimated that natural intelligence.

Yet many specialists, when evaluating the progression a child is making, base their evaluations on a set of norms that Gesell developed through his maturation theory. Should children be held back if they are more advanced? Encouraged to work hard if they “fall behind” their peers? There are still many questions that need to be answered, but this theory offers a good start.