Child Development Courses

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Combining theoretical perspectives with practical fieldwork, the Child Development Program places the social, emotional, cognitive, and cultural lives of children at the forefront.

Students engage in research throughout the program, reading and learning directly from primary sources such as journals, current research, and the writings of leading psychologists—not textbooks. From the beginning, students are immersed in child development theory, which they relate to their experiences with children in small seminars and one-on-one conferences. Fieldwork opportunities abound, from therapeutic preschools to elementary or secondary schools to child-life programs on pediatric wards.

MA Child Development 2022-2023 Courses

Theories of Development

Graduate Seminar—Fall

“There’s nothing so practical as a good theory,” suggested Kurt Lewin almost 100 years ago. Since then, the competing theoretical models of Freud, Skinner, Piaget, Vygotsky, and others have shaped the field of developmental psychology and have been used by parents and educators to determine child-care practice and education. In this course, we will study the classic theories—psychoanalytic, behaviorist, and cognitive-developmental—as they were originally formulated and in light of subsequent critiques and revisions. Questions that we will consider include: Are there patterns in our emotional thinking or social lives that can be seen as universal, or are these patterns always culture-specific? Can life experiences be conceptualized in a series of stages? How else can we understand change over time? We will use theoretical perspectives as lenses through which to view different aspects of experience—the origins of wishes and desires, early parent-child attachments, intersubjectivity in the emergence of self, symbolic and imaginative thinking, and the role of play in learning. For conference work, students will be encouraged to do fieldwork at the Early Childhood Center or in another setting with children, as one goal of the course is to bridge theory and practice.

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Moral Development

Graduate Seminar—Fall

For thousands of years, philosophers have struggled with questions surrounding the issue of morality. Over the past hundred years, psychologists have joined the fray. While many theories exist, a unifying theme centers upon the notion that childhood is the crucible in which morality is formed and forged. In this course, we will explore the major theories dealing with three aspects of the development of morality: moral thought, or reasoning (e.g., Piaget, Kohlberg); moral feelings (psychoanalytic approaches, including Freud, and the modern work on the importance of empathy and mirror neurons); and moral actions, or behavior (behaviorism, social-learning theory). In addition, we will investigate the possible relations among these three aspects of moral development. For example, how is moral thought connected to moral action? Throughout the course, we will relate moral development theory to the results of research investigations into this crucial aspect of child development. Conference work may include direct experience with children or adolescents, either in the form of detailed observations or direct interaction (interviews, etc.).

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The Power and Meanings of Play in Children’s Lives

Graduate Seminar—Fall

Fieldwork at the Early Childhood Center is required for this course.

Play provides us with an amazing and informative lens for observing the development and complex inner lives of young children. Yet, play is being threatened by increasing amounts of time spent on technology and a growing societal focus on scheduled activities and academic goals. This course will offer an introduction to the many fascinating aspects of play, including the importance of unstructured free play, how play shapes the brain, sensory processing and self-regulation in play, outdoor play, cultural contexts of play, and humor development in play. Through readings, video illustrations, and discussion of student fieldwork at the Early Childhood Center, we will explore the many ways in which play contributes to the complex social, cognitive, emotional, and imaginative lives of children. This course will provide a foundation for the spring course, Early Intervention Approaches for Young Children and Families.

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Speaking the Unspeakable: Trauma, Emotion, Cognition, and Language

Graduate Seminar—Fall

Psychological trauma has been described as unspeakable—so cognitively disorganizing and intense that it is difficult to put the experience and the emotions that it evokes into words. Yet, the language that survivors use to describe their traumas provides insight into the impact of trauma and the process of recovery. This course will begin with an overview of theories of trauma, resilience, and post-traumatic growth, as well as an introduction to the study of trauma narratives and how language reflects emotional and cognitive functioning. We will then explore different aspects of the cognitive, emotional, and biological impact of undergoing a trauma and how these changes are reflected in the language that trauma survivors use as they speak and write about their experiences. We will consider works by experts on trauma and language, including Judith Herman, Bessel van der Kolk, and James Pennebaker, as well as current research in the field of trauma and trauma narratives. Through these readings, we will address topics such as what makes an experience traumatic, how representations of trauma in popular culture color our perceptions of trauma and recovery, the role of resilience and growth following a trauma, and what we can learn from attending to the content and structure of language. This course will be of interest to students who are curious about how the words we use reflect our cognitive and emotional functioning, especially for students interested in pursuing topics such as these at an advanced or graduate level.

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Neurodiversity and Clinical Psychology

Graduate Seminar—Fall

Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? —Harvey Blume, The Atlantic, 1998
Defects, disorders, diseases can play a paradoxical role by bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life that might never be seen or even be imaginable in their absence. —Oliver Sacks

This seminar focuses on the concept of neurodiversity and the potential impact of this concept in understanding certain clinical concerns. To some authors, the concept of neurodiversity is of simple relation to the concepts of biodiversity or genetic diversity, with a focus on different ways in which brains might develop. To other authors, the term describes a social/political stance in viewing difference. That is the concept of neurodiversity that will be explored in this course, as it relates to current and developing ways of understanding difference related to several ways of presenting traditionally-termed “disorders” within mental health treatment. Definitions of the term “neurodiversity” vary, with one conference defining it as “a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation” (National Symposium on Neurodiversity, 2011). From that point of view, such differences are not necessarily pathology but, rather, differences to be celebrated and respected. This is in stark contrast to deficit models of taxonomy of mental illness, such as catalogued in the DSM 5. The course will provide an overview of this form of disorder description in order to frame points of view that contain distinctly different and sometimes opposed assumptions. We will explore ways in which these views have influence regarding the spirit of intervention (e.g., correction versus accommodation). Readings will explore important, related continuums of essentialist versus contextualist understandings of these presentations to help us understand how the focus of interventions varies based on underlying assumptions. The course begins with a focus on these points of view regarding autism, as this is the area where the neurodiversity movement first gained the powerful momentum of self-advocacy and framed the larger debate regarding challenges to the deficit model. Since that initial momentum, the neurodiversity concept has also been applied to other areas of difference: dyslexia, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and others. The course also incorporates an older literature regarding the sometimes-assumed link between mental illness and creativity debate, which is complex, as well as literature focused on potential overlooked strengths and abilities that may exist within these populations. We will consider work in this domain such as that of Kay Jamison, Oliver Sacks, Naoki Higashida, and others. Most of all, the course aims to increase student understanding regarding potential heightened abilities, as well as challenges, in neurodiverse populations.

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Clinical Perspectives: Challenges to Child and Adolescent Development

Graduate Seminar—Spring

How do varying childhood experiences impact children’s mental health and wellbeing? What happens when the course of development is affected by trauma or depression? This seminar will focus on challenges that arise in child and adolescent development, drawing upon approaches in clinical psychology, developmental psychology, and cultural psychology/clinical ethnography. We will analyze how particular psychological experiences and behaviors have been typically understood as abnormal or pathological and how they are intertwined with the experience of child development. We will also explore critical commentaries on clinical diagnosis and treatment in order to analyze the merits and drawbacks of the common approaches to these issues. Students will learn about the clinical categories of conditions such as ADHD, autism, depression, and anxiety, as compiled in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). We will look at case examples to illuminate the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, course, and treatment of such psychological conditions in childhood and adolescence. Through readings and course discussion, students will be invited to question the universal applicability of Western clinical approaches that rest on particular assumptions about normality, behavior, social relations, human rights, and health. We will also explore how diagnostic processes and psychological and psychiatric care are, at times, differentially applied in the United States according to the client’s race/ethnicity, class, and gender and how clinicians might effectively address such disparities in diagnosis and care. Students will complete conference projects related to the central themes of our course and may opt to work at the Early Childhood Center or a local community program that serves children or adolescents.

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Early Intervention Approaches for Young Children and Their Families

Graduate Seminar—Spring

This small seminar will explore several early-intervention approaches for young children and their families, with a particular emphasis on the theory and technique of play therapy. While this course will focus mostly on child-centered play therapy (CCPT), we will also look at the methodology of other types of approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and DIR/Floortime. In addition, course material will highlight cultural considerations, therapeutic work with parents and caregivers, challenges in therapeutic treatment, self-reflection, self-regulation, and interoception. Readings, class discussions, group play-based activities, and video illustrations will provide students with both a theoretical and introductory clinical basis for play-based therapeutic work with young children in early intervention.

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Puzzling Over People: Social Reasoning in Childhood and Adolescence

Graduate Seminar—Spring

We humans tend to find other people the most interesting “objects” in our lives, and for good reason. As infants, we are completely dependent upon other people for our very survival; and, throughout our lives, other people serve as the social bedrock of our existence. We are a social species, one that derives “fitness” through our abilities to read the social terrain and figure out social meaning in our interactions with others. There are a range of timely questions to address: How do we do this, and how does it develop throughout childhood? Are we “hardwired” in some ways to feel what other people are feeling? What about the special case of childhood autism? How do our emotions interact with our cognitions about the social world to affect our views of self and other and of our future social lives? What would cause us to have a relatively good or poor “emotional IQ,” and what are the consequences? What are the roles of family and childhood friends in this process? These are some of the issues that we will address in this course. The opportunity will be available for hands-on fieldwork with children, so as to observe children puzzling over people in real life.

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Mindfulness: Science and Practice

Graduate Seminar—Spring

Mindfulness can be described as nonjudgmental attention to experiences in the present moment. For thousands of years, mindfulness has been cultivated through the practice of meditation. More recently, developments in neuroimaging technologies have allowed scientists to explore the brain changes that result from the pursuit of this ancient practice—laying the foundations of the new field of contemplative neuroscience. Study of the neurology of mindfulness meditation provides a useful lens for study of the brain in general, because so many aspects of psychological functioning are affected by the practice. Some of the topics that we will address are attention, perception, emotion and its regulation, mental imaging, habit, and consciousness. This is a good course for those interested in scientific study of the mind. One of our two weekly meetings will be devoted to a mindful yoga practice.

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Culture and Mental Health

Graduate Seminar—Spring

This interdisciplinary course in psychology and anthropology will address mental health in diverse cultural contexts, drawing upon a range of case studies to illuminate the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, course, and treatment of mental illness across the globe. We open the course by exploring questions of the classification of mental illness to address whether Western psychiatric categories apply across different local contexts. We explore the globalization of American understandings of the psyche; the exportation of Western mental disorders; and the impact of psychiatric imperialism in places like Sri Lanka, Zanzibar, Oaxaca, and Japan. Through our readings of peer-reviewed articles and current research in cultural psychology, clinical psychology, and psychological and medical anthropology, we will explore conditions such as depression and anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, susto, and mal de ojo in order to understand the entanglements of psychological experience, culture, morality, sociality, and care. We explore how diagnostic processes and psychiatric care are, at times, differentially applied in the United States according to the client’s race/ethnicity, class, and gender. Finally, we explore the complexities of recovery or healing, addressing puzzles such as why certain mental disorders considered to be lifelong, chronic, and severe in some parts of the world are interpreted as temporary, fleeting, and manageable elsewhere—and how such expectations influence people’s ability to experience wellness or (re)integration into family, work, and society. Several of our authors will join us as invited guest speakers to talk about their current work. Students will conduct conference projects related to the central topics of our course.

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Doing Research With Young People: Research, Policy, and Activism

Graduate Seminar—Spring

How is research conducted with young people? What are the ethical dilemmas when working with children, adolescents, and young adults? Instead of focusing on traditional research methods on subjects, this course will explore the possibilities of conducting research with, or alongside, young people. This is an interdisciplinary course, and our readings will be pulled from a variety of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, history, anthropology, education, criminal justice, and critical childhood studies. First, we will examine the sociohistorical context of children, adolescents, and youth. Next, we will investigate the rights of young people and the policies that designate them as protected populations. This course will survey a number of different research methods with youth participants, including but not limited to interviews, mapping, narrative analysis, youth participatory action research, and visual and performative research. We will apply a critical eye to a number of case studies of young people dismantling systemic oppression and working toward racial, immigration, and environmental justice. Students will develop their own conference project, focusing on how to conduct research with young people.

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The Mind-Body Connection: Psychophysiology Research Seminar

Graduate Seminar—Spring

Your heart beats faster, your palms sweat, and your pupils dilate—all at once. Is this because you are exercising? Or did someone you really like just walk into the room? Psychophysiology is the experimental study of these bodily, or peripheral, signals, which are thought to be important “read-outs” of a person’s emotional state (e.g., fear, happiness, anger). In this course, students will gain a foundational understanding of the field of psychophysiology, which is the study of the relationship between signals recorded from the body and brain to emotional and cognitive states. In the first third of the semester, we will cover the biological processes that give rise to peripheral autonomic arousal (e.g., heart rate, respiration, electrodermal activity to measure sweating, pupillary responses, brain activity) and how these responses are naturally regulated by the brain and body in a process called homeostasis. We will also survey the brain areas that may be responsible for developing a conscious awareness of, and ascribing meaning to, the signals from the body. We will discuss major theories of emotion and the mind-body connection, including the James-Lange Theory, the Somatic Marker Hypothesis (Damasio), the Neurovisceral Integration Model (Thayer & Lane), and the Polyvagal Theory (Porges), among others. Through in-class labs and discussions of relevant research papers in the second third of the semester, students will learn how to measure peripheral markers of arousal (e.g., heart rate, respiration, electrodermal activity to measure sweating, pupillary responses) and relate those signals to emotionally provocative events. In the final third of the semester, in their small lab groups, students will oversee seminar discussions on applications of psychophysiology as it relates to a special topic of their choice, including social interactions, sleep and dreaming, marketing and consumerism, psychopathology (mental health), social justice, and more. Through conference work, students will identify a topic of personal interest to explore through the lens of psychophysiology and, after performing a literature review, propose a hypothetical research question that incorporates one or more of the methods that we discuss in class. At the end of the semester, students will present their conference work at the Sarah Lawrence poster symposium.

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Critical Urban Environmentalism, Space, and Place

Graduate Seminar—Spring

In North American countries, 83.6 percent of residents live in cities as of 2020, and 56 percent of the world’s population is urban. Traditional environmental movements focus on the “natural” world, and the built environment tends to be undertheorized and perhaps underanalyzed. Yet, urban spaces are also sites of resistance, as residents create community gardens from vacant lots, paint public-housing project exterior walls, and lobby for city government support of the built environment. This course explores paths toward humanistic urban revitalization and civic engagement through community partnership. We will read in three main domains: knowledge of local and global urban environments; physical, mental, and social/community health; and theory and philosophies of urban environments. The relationship between urban sustainability and social dynamics, such as ethical decision-making and sociopolitical power relations (Sze, 2020), seem to lead to a particular set of public-private solutions. These are implemented from the top downward, without input from stakeholders and residents, with serious implications for resident health. In turn, health is strongly affected by the urban physical environment, infrastructure, pollution, population density, and the concomitant social environment (Galea and Vlahov, 2005). And as development occurs, long-time residents of neighborhoods are being displaced. How can we ensure that the health and welfare of all denizens are developed as well as purported positive economic change? The community-partnership/service-learning component is an important part of this class. For one morning or afternoon per week, students will work in local community agencies to promote health-adaptive, person-environment interactions within our community.

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