The Life-Span Developmental Approach to Counseling

The life-span development approach addresses the basic nature versus nurture debate by allowing for both. Just as our physicals selves are determined by both genetics and lifestyle, so are our emotional selves. As a Licensed Professional Counselor, I plan to consider life-span development to specialize in counseling a specific type of person with hopes of becoming well-versed, and therefore more helpful, in the types of experiences that group faces.

“Personality can be better understood if it is examined developmentally” (Santrock, 2006, p. 45). Considering cognitive, biological, and socioemotional development throughout life will provide context, guideposts, and reasonable expectations for counselors. Life-span development theories also provide a useful place to start when offering emotional support as a counselor.

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Understanding an individual’s previous stages of development and environment can give a counselor and individual a common place from which to start counseling. Most of the developmental theorists discussed in section one of SantrockSigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Konrad Lorenz, and to an extent B. F. Skinnerfocused mostly on early or childhood development. Early development, when considered in a life-span context of development, can give an LPC insight in an individual’s personality. Regardless of specialization, a counselor can weigh early behaviors against his or her contemporary observations, giving them a fuller context.

“Actual development requires more than genetic loading: an environment” (Santrock, 2006, p. 98). Two cognitive developmental theories support Santrock’s assertion of environmental influence on early development. First, Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory defines how a person behaves as how a person adapts to his or her environment. An individual’s behavior is an adaptive process driven by a biological drive to obtain balance between schemes and the environment (Huitt and Hummel, 2003). This theory states that development is a byproduct linking and relating our experiences to each other, starting with general environmental knowledge, until a person’s cognitive ability is composed of more abstract reasoning.
The second cognitive theory emphasizes social and cultural environment. Vygotsky’s theory points to our relationships with others as the definitions of ourselves (Nicholl, 1998, par. 13).
Two other theories of early development link environment with biology. Sandra Scarr, a behavior geneticist, theorizes that heredity and environment are correlated. Author Judith Harris theorizes that heredity and peer environment are the sole factors in a person’s development, and therefore parents have no affect on the development of their children.
The life-span perspective should probably make room for familial environment: family of origin and family of choice. Assuming Harris is correct, a life-span approach to counseling will allow that children and spouses do influence an adult’s development.

Environmental factors on a micro level feature the nuclear family; macro-level factors can include social mores, regional cultural norms, and even national identity. Santrock points out that each of these factors “influences our understanding of children and adults and informs our decisions as a society about how they should be treated” (2006, p. 9). A counselor can guide a person to examining the correlation between environment and societal attitudes, and then the impact on his or her own development.
Providing a social support such as counseling from a life-span perspective must include physical context. Age is an obvious, but significant, biological concern. Erikson’s theory of development defines periods throughout our lives by eight common crises. The stages continue until death, although each stage has an optimal time (Boeree, 1997, par. 27). Familiarity with each stage’s crisis is the foundation of counseling from a life-span development perspective. Focusing on one stage’s crisis is the foundation to specialization in a counseling practice. Helping an individual understand their current crisis may offer many reassurances, but specifically realizing that every stage of life has an optimal time. He or she will develop toward each new stage, building upon and learning from the previous stages. With a focus on a life-long growth process, a counselor can help an individual benefit from even the developmental tasks he or she feels were resolved unsuccessfully.

Gender roles is another example of biological factors shaping development. Erikson’s theory assigns the early adult developmental period an “intimacy versus isolation” crisis. Huitt (1997) compares this stage to the early adult crisis defined in the Bingham-Stryker model, outlined in the 1995 book Things will be different for my daughter: A practical guide to building her self-esteem and self-reliance:
In the Bingham-Stryker model the crisis is emotional and financial self-sufficiency. The difference may lie in gender expectations. Boys are expected to become self-sufficient; the male crisis is one of establishing intimacy. Girls are expected to establish relationships; the female crisis is autonomy in terms of taking care of themselves emotionally and financially.

A life-span perspective in counseling should allow that we inherit more than physical traits from our biological parents. Behavioral genetics Although studying how genes and environment interact is difficult, researchers keep trying. Synthesizing results from several different family, twin, and adoption studies, Sherman et al (1997) state that genetics play a moderate role in emotional stability.
“It is important to recognize that, although theories are helpful guides, relying on a single theory to explain development is probably a mistake” (Santrock, 2006, p. 53). Life-span development is a multi-faceted approach to counseling. Using these and other theories gives a licensed professional counselor a variety of tools for counseling. I expect these theories to help me determine a specialty in my future practice, relying on the overlap and complexity of working in terms of an entire human life.

References?Boeree, C. George. (1997). Erik Erikson: 1902 to 1994. Shippensburg, PA: Shippensburg University. Retrieved 21 June 2005 from

Huitt, W. (1997). Socioemotional development. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved 22 June 2005, from

Huitt, W., ; Hummel, J. (2003). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved 21 June 2005 from

Nicholl, P .M. (Trish). 1998. Vygotsky. Palmerston North, NZ: Massey University. Retrieved 21 June 2005 from

Santrock, John H. (2006) Life-Span Development. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


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