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Arnold Gesell
Maturation Theory
By Erica Noel and Ashley Hausmann
Photo courtesy of California Polytechnic State University, Thomas C. Dalton / College of Liberal Arts
 Born in Alma, Wisconsin in June 1880.

 He graduated from Stevens Point State Normal High School

and taught there from 1898-1901. He became the principal at
Chippewa Falls high school from 1903-1904. He completed his
undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin at Madison
in 1903.

 Dr. Gesell went back to school for his Ph. D. at the

recommendation of his high school psychology instructor,
Edgar Swift. Dr. Gesell transferred twice before finishing his
M.D. from Yale in 1915. While attending school, Dr. Gesell was
teaching at Yale in the Department of Education (Dalton,
“The Father of Child
 Dr. Gesell was one of the first theorists to notice there was
minimal established research on typical child development.
He is known as the “Father of Child Development” because he
was one of the first people to do research in this field and
paved the way for future research and theorists. The
prevailing theory during this time period was his theory
regarding maturation.
 Historically, Dr. Gesell created the foundations that all other
child development research is based on today. Dr. Gesell is
also known for being the first recognized school psychologist
(Gesell Institute, 2017).
 Dr. Gesell was appointed a position into the State Commission
on Child Welfare where he helped explain the needs and
educational status of children with disabilities (Dalton, 2005).
Influences for Dr. Gesell
 A major influential person for Dr. Gesell was his teacher
and advisor G. Stanley Hall.

 G. Stanley Hall founded the American Journal of

Psychology in 1887 which is where Dr. Gesell’s
dissertation “Jealousy” was later published.

 Throughout Dr. Gesell’s research, Hall advised and

suggested practices that influenced his theories. Hall
suggested Dr. Gesell observe infants in his research
(Dalton, 2005).
 Dr. Gesell developed the Maturation Theory after years
of research observing over 10,000 children.

 Dr. Gesell was the first researcher to using a one-way

mirror to record observations of the children he was
researching. This paved the way future researches
would observe their subjects. This allowed the
researchers to observe the children in a more natural
environment with minimal influences (Gesell Institute,
Photo courtesy of Gesell Institute
 Dr. Gesell noticed that children will go through the same
cyclical stages as they develop but these stages do not always
happen at the same chronological age for every child (Cassel,
1991). Teachers need to be aware that their students may be
in different developmental stages and they need to
individualize their teaching styles to meet the needs of each
student. Throughout his research Dr. Gesell observed verbal,
motor, social, emotional and cognitive development.

 Dr. Gesell had 12 stages of maturational development and

focused on 4 primary developmental areas: Motor Behavior,
Language Behavior, Adaptive Behavior, and Personal-social
Behavior (Ball, 1977).
12 Cyclical Stages of

Picture courtesy of Russell Cassel/Reading Improvement

Developmental Stages
 Dr. Gesell’s explanation of maturation and
developmental stages is that all children will cycle
through the same stages as they mature. He states all
children will go through the stages in the same order
but will hit each stage at their own pace. It was stated
that this process happens regardless of experiences and
it is genetically ingrained to happen. “For example, the
neural mechanisms for walking are laid down before the
child can walk” (Ball, 1977, p.237).
 To observe these stages, typical or not, we observed a
child at Family Child Learning Center who has been
diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Motor Behaviors
 Including coordination and body control: sitting, crawling,
standing, cruising, walking, grasping, reaching, and
manipulation of an object (Ball, 1977).

 In our observation of a preschool aged classroom we observed

a male child of approximately 3 years old who has a diagnosis
of Autism Spectrum Disorder. This child was observed to have
Motor behaviors that were consistent with a typically
developing 3 year old and matched the description of Dr.
Gesell’s levels of maturity. This child was observed to have
great balance, to be walking well, and is able to pick up and
manipulate toys. This child would be considered to have the
same chronological and developmental age in regards to his
motor skills.
Language Behaviors
 Including babbling, spoken words, facial expressions,
gestures, and other forms of communication with others (Ball,

 Our observations of the same child showed that his

chronological age and developmental maturational age were
not the same. A typically developing 3 year old would be
saying words and phrases to communicate with others. The
child we observed did not use any words for communication.
The child was observed to squeal, hum, and use gestures as
his forms of communication.

 Using Dr. Gesell’s levels of maturity, this child would be on a

level 5 chronologically but he is closer to a level 1
Adaptive Behaviors
 Including reaching for and handling objects, hand-eye
coordination, and reactions to new toys (Ball, 1977).

 Our observations of the same child showed that his

chronological age and developmental maturational age
were not the same. A typically developing 3 year old
would be playing with toys functionally.

 We observed the child to move from one toy to the next

exploring the toy but without functionally playing. We
would describe this child to have a chronological age of
stage 5 but he is developmentally at stage 3.
Personal-Social Behaviors
 Including a child’s interactions to those around him, such as:
smiling, responses to a mirror, toilet training, and feeding
(Ball, 1977).

 A typically developing 3 year old would be completely or

almost potty trained, have secure attachments, and
understand feeding routines/expectations.

 In our observation, this 3 year old was observed to not be

potty trained, have attachment concerns in regards to his
parents, and did not seem to have a good understanding of
meal time routines. We would classify this child to have a
developmental stage of 3, not matching his chronological
stage of 5.
Family Child Learning Center
 FCLC has a preschool classroom that includes typically
developing children and children who have been diagnosed
with Autism Spectrum Disorder. These teachers will need to
individualize their communication styles as well as activities
to meet the children where they are at, regardless of their
chronological age and what developmental stage they are at.

 For example, we observed some students only given verbal

directions while others received visual prompts and a picture
schedule. We also observed an array of toys able to meet the
differing developmental ranges of each child; a typically
developing child may use the ramps when playing with a car
but the child we observed was holding the car and spinning
the wheels.
Gesell Institute Video

 Educators today must remember that all children will go

through the different maturational stages when they are
ready; it is also important for educators to realize that
children will go through each stage in the same order
regardless of their chronological age or what other students
the same age are doing.

 For example, the teachers at FCLC cannot expect the child

we observed to start communicating in sentences without
learning to communicate with single words first, regardless of
what is expected of him because of his chronological age.
Impact Today
 Dr. Gesell did much to change how state institutions care for
and educate children with disabilities. His work did a lot to
show a child’s temperament, environment, and heredity could
influence the pace of development, but it will not detour the
order in which each maturation level occurs (Gesell Institute,

 The Gesell Child Developmental Age Scale (GCDAS) was later

created and used to show that all children will go through the
same stage but at different times and can be used to show
how slow or accelerated a child may be (Cassel, 1991).

 Gesell focused on building on a child’s strengths rather than

focusing on what they cannot do (Dalton, 2005).
Picture courtesy of Russell Cassel/Reading Improvement
 Ball, R. S. (1977). The Gesell developmental schedules: Arnold Gesell
(1880-1961). Journal Of Abnormal Child Psychology, 5(3), 233-239

 Cassel, R. N. (1991). Using revised Gesell age scale to assess progress in

early child development. Reading Improvement, 28203-208.

 Dalton, T. C. (2005). Arnold Gesell and the maturation controversy.

Integrative Physiological And Behavioral Science: The Official
Journal Of The Pavlovian Society, 40(4), 182-204.

 Gesell Institute of Human Development. (2010, July 13).

Gesell Institute [Video File]. Retrieved from https://

 Gesell Institute. (2017). Gesell institute of child development. Retrieved