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‘Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Review of article ‘Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development by Oscher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L. and Rose, T. (2018)

Dr. Louise Gilbert

Although fairly long , this very readable paper is clearly set out and is informed by multiple current and credible research sources. It is the second of a trilogy of papers (the third has yet to be published), written by David Oscher and colleagues. The first paper, “Malleability, Plasticity, and Individuality: How Children Learn and Develop in Context” focused on explanation of the physiological factors that inform development. The third paper (yet to be published) will focus on how policies can use current knowledge and understanding to increase equity and opportunity for children in the USA.

Withstanding that we are not working in the USA, the first two papers do provide a great review of current literature and offer the reader much ‘food for thought’- all in one place. The researchers and financial support for the paper are American and driven by a shared non-profit focus to promote policies, research, educators and community groups to advance evidence-based policies to support empowering and equitable learning for all children.

This paper, rather than aligning to specific disciplinary approaches to knowledge, clearly states that it adopts a ‘developmental systems theory’ to explore the psychological, social and economic factors and contexts informing development and behaviour. These systems can be explored individually, however, child development is seen as the ongoing interaction within and between the systems over a period of time. Development is complex and reflects the integration of the ‘underlying processes of neural malleability and plasticity with the dynamic relational interconnectedness of children and the adults with whom they interact in their social, cultural, and physical context’ (Oscher et al., 2018:PG).

Contingent and reciprocal relationships between children and adults are proposed as foundational and integral to children’s social, emotional and cognitive developmental outcomes. Although this idea is not new, Oscher et al. bring the attention of the reader to a need to define or operationalise what is meant by ’relationships’, particularly in regard to promoting ‘developmental relationships. They propose that to promote effective intervention these relationships need to provide ‘enduring emotional attachment, reciprocity, progressive complexity of joint activity, and a power balance that allows for transferability to new settings’ (Oscher et al., 2018:3). Whilst reading this paper, my mind was drawn to the fact that Emotion Coaching was a vehicle that promotes much of what is advocated as effective practice.

The article goes on to state that developmentally important relationships do not operate in a vacuum but reflect and inform immediate and ongoing environmental, social and political structures. Focussing initially on influential micro systems, the role of relationships with families, caregivers, childhood settings, schools and between educational practitioners are summarised to provide a good overview of the current literature. Although the literature addressing the macro-level systems, such as poverty, education and racism, are informed by the American experience, the discussion is pertinent and transferable to the UK experience.

Oscher et al. also acknowledge that within childhood there is a continuum of recognisable periods of expected physiological and psychological maturational developments, needing activation. Relational and contextual factors that support or undermine children’s development outcomes, including intergenerational transmission of adversity and advantage, are covered in detail.

Oscher et al. (2018: 17) suggest that a system-informed approach to child development support a more holistic and realistic approach to build ‘developmentally rich’ settings. The contribution of adverse and nurturing experiences on child development trajectories are referenced throughout and the concluding section suggests ‘we already know enough to act we can cease doing things that hurt children (e.g., exclusionary discipline) and start doing things that help children (e.g., providing access to high-quality child care to all children)’ (Oscher et al., 2018: 19). Critical, robust translational research of multi-disciplinary scientific knowledge should inform policy and practice at all levels, as well as the measures and methods used to assess progress.

Through discussion of the importance of relationships and environments, this article provides an interesting, up to date overview of current literature in regard to child development outcomes. Although illustrative examples are based largely on American sources, the fundamental messages are relevant to all working with children. Oscher et al (2018) put forward a strong argument to see children’s individual and collective development as integral to and responsive of current and future environmental, economic, social experiences. The importance and power of developmentally supportive relationships to promote social, emotional and cognitive skill development and buffer adversity now needs to be foundational to all policy development now and in the future.

Paper citation: Oscher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L. and Rose, T. (2018) Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science. [Online]. Available at:

This full paper can be freely downloaded from:

The first paper in this trilogy “Malleability, Plasticity, and Individuality: How Children Learn and Develop in Context” is freely available from:

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