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University of Iowa News Release

May 19, 2005

UI Conference To Examine Theories Of Child Development

A University of Iowa conference June 19-22 will gather an international group of researchers to discuss current child development theories. "Connectionist and Dynamic Systems Approaches to Development: On the Cusp of a New Grand Theory or Still Too Distributed?" will focus on two theories of child development, both of which emerged in the 1990s: dynamic systems theory and connectionist approaches.

According to these theories, children develop step-by-step through dynamic, self-organizing processes. Many factors come together to produce behavioral change, including brain changes, bodily changes and environmental changes. Although the two perspectives share many concepts, they have been applied to very different phenomena; thus it is unclear exactly how they relate to one another. Their relationship, however, is a critical issue as the two theories have an increasingly important impact on the field of developmental science.

The three-day conference will bring together a core set of scholars affiliated with each approach to determine whether these are two separate theories of development or one grand theory. To sharpen this dialogue, speakers from a related viewpoint -- developmental systems theory -- will also participate, as will a second group of scholars with general expertise in developmental and cognitive psychology.

"Dynamic systems principles have been used to radically change physical therapy for infants with Down Syndrome," John Spencer, conference organizer and associate professor of psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences said. "These ideas are also catching hold in psychotherapy, neurorehabilitation and occupational therapy. Connectionist principles, on the other hand, have been very influential in understanding developmental disorders, particularly those related to brain injury such as stroke in early childhood."

Spencer said that support has been made available to involve graduate and post-doctoral students. "This will make sure that the conference is appropriately focused on both the future of these two theories as well as on the future scholars who will move these ideas forward. Consistent with this forward-looking theme, we also will prepare an edited volume, to be published by Oxford University Press," he said.

Not only will the publication serve to elucidate the relationship between these two new and promising theories, but also, Spencer said, "The results of this conference will impact the well-being of children because grand theories of development shape how people think about children, influencing national policy, educational curricula, and parenting practices."

Sponsors of the conference are the UI Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, Department of Psychology, the Graduate College and the National Science Foundation. Partial support for the conference comes from the Obermann Center's Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fund, which funds research and symposia contributing to knowledge of children and their families. Jay Semel, Director of the Obermann Center, notes that the Fund has supported symposia on topics ranging from literacy to bicycle injuries.

Anyone wishing to attend the conference may register online until June 1, For more information, contact John Spencer at 319-335-2482.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Media: Mary Geraghty Kenyon, 319-384-0011,; Program: John Spencer, 319-335-2482; Writer: Jennifer K. New