Twenty Years of Dynamic Systems Approaches to
Development: Signiﬁcant Contributions, Challenges,
and Future Directions
ABSTRACT—After more than 20 years of theory and empir-
ical research, dynamic systems (DS) approaches to devel-
opment have yielded new insights into and understanding
of processes of stability and change. Despite this progress,
these approaches have only begun to realize the promise
they hold for the ﬁeld. In the brief articles in this section,
4 of the most prominent DS developmentalists provide
critical evaluations of the DS approach by answering
three questions: (a) What are the greatest contributions of
the DS approach to development over the past 20 years?
(b) What is your evaluation of the progress of DS-inspired
empirical research? (c) What are the challenges and nec-
essary directions for DS in the next 20 years? These criti-
cal evaluations should illuminate DS theory and research
to date and inspire the next generation of researchers to
continue this work.
KEYWORDS—dynamic systems; development; methodology
Like most people, I periodically pause to take stock of my life
and work. I consider my past achievements and failures and, in
light of that reﬂection, generate andrevisemyfutureplansand
goals. The same is true for communities of scientists working in
a common domain. Whether in the form of meta-analyses or
review papers, periodic aggregations of the information that has
been produced help us more effectively direct future progress.
Similarly, this special section is a critical self-evaluation, by four
of the top scholars in this area, of the contributions of dynamic
systems (DS) approaches to development over the past 20 years.
Following the pioneering efforts of the early systems theorists
(e.g., von Bertalanffy, 1968), psychologists began to hone
systemic theories into more formalized models of development.
The rise of these views reﬂected the transformation of the nat-
ure–nurture debate into a more integrated appreciation of the
multiplicity and complexity of forces that shape development.
Sharing common organizational and systems terminology, these
approaches include developmental systems theory (Ford &
Lerner, 1992), the ecological framework (Bronfenbrenner, 1979),
contextualism (Dixon & Lerner, 1988), the transactional perspec-
tive (Sameroff, 1983), and the epigenetic view (Gottlieb, 2007).
Of all of these systemic accounts of development, the DS
approach has emerged as the most prevalent and dominant in
developmental psychology in terms of the number of proponents
and volume of direct empirical tests (Fogel, 1990, 1993, 1995;
Fogel & Thelen, 1987; Granic, 2005; Granic & Hollenstein,
2003, 2006; Lewis, 2000, 2005; Lewis & Granic, 2000; Smith &
Thelen, 1993; Spencer & Scho
¨ner, 2003; Spencer et al., 2006;
Thelen, 1989; Thelen & Smith, 1998; van Geert, 1991, 1994,
1998a, 1998b; van Geert & Steenbeek, 2005; Witherington,
2007; see Figure 1).
Part of the reason DS has been more successful than other sys-
temic approaches is that it is based on formal systems properties
documented in the physical sciences. DS explanations of devel-
opment emphasize change over time by incorporating principles
of self-organization, multiply determined and softly assembled
behavior, feedback loops, attractors, phase transitions, and
embodiment (e.g., Lewis, 2000; Smith, 2005; Spencer et al.,
2006; van Geert, 1998a, 1998b, 2000; van Geert & Steenbeek,
2005). Theoretical accounts of development from a DS
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Tom Hollenstein, Department of Psychology, Queen’s University,
62 Arch St., Kingston, ON K7L 3N6, Canada; e-mail: tom.hollen-
ª2011 The Author
Child Development Perspectives ª2011 The Society for Research in Child Development
Volume 5, Number 4, 2011, Pages 256–259
CHILD DEVELOPMENT PERSPECTIVES
perspective range from a focus on the most fundamental real-time
dynamics (e.g., van Geert, 1997a, 1997b; van Geert & Steenbeek,
2005; van Geert & van Dijk, 2002) to self-organizing processes of
neural and emotional development (e.g., Lewis, 2005; Lewis,
Lamey, & Douglas, 1999). DS theory has been applied to speciﬁc
classes of developmental phenomena (e.g., dynamic ﬁeld theory:
Spencer, Simmering, Schutte, & Scho
¨ner, 2007), identiﬁed as a
metatheory (e.g., Granic & Hollenstein, 2006; Granic & Patter-
son, 2006; Lewis, 2000; Witherington, 2007), and promoted as a
new grand theory of development (e.g., Spencer et al., 2006).
Empirical investigations based on the DS approach have been
used to study a wide range of developmental phenomena includ-
ing motor development (Thelen & Ulrich, 1991,1995), the A-not-
B error (Thelen, Scho
¨ner, Scheier, & Smith, 2001), object recog-
nition (Smith & Thelen, 2003), spatial cognition (Simmering &
Spencer, 2008), embodiment and representational states (Spen-
cer & Scho
¨ner, 2003), language development (Bassano & van
Geert, 2007; van Geert, 1991, 1995), peer interactions (Martin,
Fabes, Hanish, & Hollenstein, 2005; Steenbeek & van Geert,
2007, 2008), mother–infant communication (de Weerth & van
Geert, 1998, 2002; Fogel, 2006; Hsu & Fogel, 2001, 2003), brain
development (Lewis, 2005), developmental transitions (Granic,
Hollenstein, Dishion, & Patterson, 2003; Lewis, Zimmerman,
Hollenstein, & Lamey, 2004), antisocial and externalizing behav-
ior (Dishion, Nelson, Winter, & Bullock, 2004; Granic & Lamey,
2002; Granic, O’Hara, Pepler, & Lewis, 2007; Hollenstein, Gran-
ic, Stoolmiller, & Snyder, 2004), adolescent emotional transac-
tions (Hollenstein, 2007; Hollenstein & Lewis, 2006;
Lichtwarck-Aschoff, Kunnen, & van Geert, 2009), and identity
development (Lichtwarck-Aschoff, van Geert, Bosma, & Kunnen,
2008). Thus, from the pioneering work of Fogel and Thelen
(1987) to the most recent cutting-edge research by Spencer, van
Geert, Lewis, and others, the DS approach is poised to advance
developmental theory and methods well into the 21st century.
FORMAT OF THE CRITICAL EVALUATIONS
As I explained above, it is necessary to critically evaluate the
work to date in order to realistically assess the promise of DS
approaches and their likelihood of fulﬁlling that promise. Four of
the top DS scholars have contributed to this critical evaluation.
These scholars represent four distinct theoretical and methodo-
logical orientations; thus, their viewpoints and discussion will
represent the subtle diversity in the area. Alan Fogel was one of
the ﬁrst developmentalists to introduce DS approaches, and his
articles and books continue to be inﬂuential in the ﬁeld. He is
best known for his work on mother–infant dynamics and infant
emotional expressions. Paul van Geert, the most proliﬁc contrib-
utor, has published on DS theory and techniques for 20 years on
a variety of developmental phenomena (e.g., the development of
syntax, infant expressivity, and social interactions), using both
simulation and observational techniques. John P. Spencer, a stu-
dent of Esther Thelen, has continued her motor development
research, extending DS concepts to the study of embodied cogni-
tion with an emphasis on the development of visuospatial cogni-
tion and working memory. Marc Lewis has provided numerous
detailed theoretical and empirical accounts of socioemotional
development by applying DS principles, especially to the rela-
tions between real-time and developmental-time scales. His
more recent work integrates neural dynamics in order to model
the emergent properties of socioemotional habits and personality
over the course of development.
Each of the four scholars will answer three questions:
1. What are the greatest contributions of the DS approach to
development over the past 20 years?
2. What is your critical evaluation of the progress of DS-inspired
3. What are the challenges and necessary directions for the next
The goal of this collection is ultimately to guide research over
the next two decades. The next generation of scholars will have
to continue this work in the context of an increasing need for a
comprehensive account of developmental processes of change
and stability. A member of the next generation of DS theorists,
David Witherington, therefore also provides a commentary on
the senior DS scholars’ responses. From these four contributions
and the commentary, it is clear that the achievements far out-
weigh the failures of the past 20 years, but there is still much
work to be done to fully realize the promise of a DS approach to
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Figure 1. Frequency of dynamic systems (DS) publications over the past
20 years (obtained via Psycinfo).
Child Development Perspectives, Volume 5, Number 4, 2011, Pages 256–259
20 Years of Dynamic Systems 257
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