Continuity and Discontinuity in Development

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  • 0:01 Development
  • 1:41 Continuity & Discontinuity
  • 3:10 Nature Vs. Nurture
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Expert Contributor
Annie Rey

Annie Rey received her MS degree from Florida International University. She has taught Psychology courses at FIU and at Pasco Hernando State College.

Do people grow and change slowly over time, or do they make sudden steps forward into new phases in their lives? In this lesson, we'll examine the continuity and discontinuity theories of developmental psychology.


Imagine that you are standing at the base of a large mountain. You want to go from where you are standing now, all the way at the bottom, to the very top peak of the mountain. Development is a lot like going from the bottom of a mountain to the top. Development is the process of growth and change that everyone experiences.

Think about babies: when they are first born, they can't even hold their heads up; someone must support the head so it doesn't just loll back. As they grow, though, their necks become strong, and they are able to hold their heads up and even move them around.

As they continue to grow, babies learn to sit up, and then to crawl and eventually to stand and walk. Children learn to run, skip, jump and cartwheel. Teenagers might learn the steps to a complicated dance. Adults who have their own babies might learn how to move quickly to catch a child who is falling. Older adults learn how to walk with arthritis in their joints or with an artificial hip or knee.

All of these are examples of development that happen during a person's life span. And those are only some of the physical ones: there are also emotional, social and intellectual growth that can occur throughout a person's life.

But how do people develop? How can you get from the bottom of the mountain to the top? Let's look closer at two competing theories about development - continuity and discontinuity - and what they have to do with the classic 'nature versus nurture' debate in psychology.

Continuity and Discontinuity

Let's go back to that mountain that you want to climb. You're standing on the very bottom of the mountain, and you want to get to the top. But when you look closer, you notice that there are two ways up. On one side of the mountain is a path that involves walking uphill until you get to the peak. On the other side, someone has carved stairs into the side of the mountain so that you can climb up to the peak that way.

The path is a lot like the continuity view of development. Proponents of the continuity view say that development is a continuous process that is gradual and cumulative. For example, a child learns to crawl, and then to stand and then to walk. They are gradually learning how to walk. It's just like hiking up the mountain path: a slow, steady ascent that leads to the top.

On the other hand, some people see development as consisting of different stages. The discontinuity view of development believes that people pass through stages of life that are qualitatively different from each other. For example, children go from only being able to think in very literal terms to being able to think abstractly. They have moved into the 'abstract thinking' phase of their lives. As you can imagine, discontinuous development is like walking up the stairs: a series of stages, or steps, that get you to the top of the mountain.

Nature vs. Nurture

It might seem odd that psychologists can't agree on whether development is a continuous process or whether it happens in stages. To understand the continuity-discontinuity issue, it's important to understand another fundamental debate that has shaped psychology over the past 150 years. The nature versus nurture debate hinges on the following question: are people more shaped by their biology or by their environment?

Let's look at an example of how the nature versus nurture debate might play out. Imagine a boy who is very good at basketball. Is this an inherent skill that he has? Or has he just practiced basketball more than others? Is he better than others because he's taller than most people, or is he better because he's worked with some of the best coaches in the country?

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Additional Activities

Discussion topics about continuity and discontinuity in human development:

Discussion topic 1

Does personality develop continuously or discontinuously as we grow and mature? Discuss and give examples.

Food for thought: Do sociopaths and psychopaths wake up one day with the troubled personality that they have? Or did they gradually and slowly get there?

Discussion topic 2

Does mental development and thinking progress continuously or discontinuously as we age? Discuss and give examples.

Food for thought: In terms of language acquisition, we often encounter a child with a limited vocabulary one day but then find that same child with an exponentially larger vocabulary shortly thereafter. How do we explain this type of development in light of the continuity and discontinuity themes?

Discussion topic 3

Do motor skills advance continuously or discontinuously through childhood development? Discuss and give examples.

Food for thought: Let us think about the way children move and locomote. Typically, a child is born with reflexes. She then develops gross motor skills, crawls, stands, walks, runs and eventually develops fine motor skills. Do these skills and abilities build upon each other? Does one skill form the foundation for the next skill? Or do the skills emerge in distinct stages and steps?

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