In This Article Life Span

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Emerging Adulthood

Social Work Life Span
Terri Combs-Orme
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0089


Social work practice should be based on an understanding of human development and behavior. In recent years these topics have frequently been presented employing a life span framework. The study of development across the life span is based on the premise that development is continuous and transactional from birth to death. Developmental status at any stage of life is influenced not just by proximal events and circumstances but also by the events and circumstances of previous stages, in interaction with individuals' risk and protective factors, both biological and psychosocial. A life span perspective on human development generally includes a focus on the major life stages, that is, specific periods with recognizable important developmental challenges and tasks. In addition, constructs associated with developmental psychopathology are often invoked: resilience, risk, and protective factors in particular. Finally, the life span perspective recognizes the specific historical events that mold generational identities. The sources listed in this entry include general references for an understanding of the life span perspective as well as material specific to the important life stages. A variety of theoretical approaches are included: neurophysiological, which is growing in importance in social work's focus on human development, and the more traditional theories, including ecological, systems, developmental psychopathology, attachment theory, and major child development theorists.

General Overviews

References in this section pertain to the entire life span or to the life span perspective of the study of adult development and were chosen for their diverse approaches. Baltes, et al. 2006 presents a comprehensive view of life span development that integrates neurophysiology and culture. Azmitia 2001 is an applied look at life span issues through the lens of the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain. Different theoretical approaches are discussed by Martin and Martin 2002, Smith-Osborne 2007, and Sneed, et al. 2006. Finally, two works use longitudinal approaches to illustrate development over the life span: the Apted and Lewis 2006 video series and the Werner and Smith 2001 account of the well-known Kauai Longitudinal Research Study.

  • Apted, Michael, dir. and prod., and Claire Lewis, prod. 2006. 49 Up. Granada, Manchester, UK: First Run Features.

    E-mail Citation »

    Seventh installment in Michael Apted's Up series, for which fourteen English children from diverse backgrounds were interviewed about their lives and dreams every seven years, beginning when they were seven years old. Each installment (7 Up, 14 Up, and so forth) is useful for illustrating the major developmental tasks for that stage. Subsequent installments include flashbacks from previous episodes.

  • Azmitia, Efrain C. 2001. Impact of drugs and alcohol on the brain through the life cycle: Knowledge for social workers. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions 1:41–63.

    DOI: 10.1300/J160v01n03_04E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive discussion of the unique effects on the brain of alcohol and other drugs in five stages of life: perinatal, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and over fifty. Explanations of brain plasticity, synaptogenesis, and response to alcohol and drugs during each stage.

  • Baltes, Paul B., Patricia A. Reuter-Lorenz, and Frank Rösler. 2006. Lifespan development and the brain: The perspective of biocultural co-constructivism. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Integrates the intersection between culture and the brain in development over the life span, explaining how cultural experience builds the architecture of the brain at the same time that brain development infuses and influences culture.

  • Martin, Peter, and Mike Martin. 2002. Proximal and distal influences on development: The model of developmental adaptation. Developmental Review 22:78–96.

    DOI: 10.1006/drev.2001.0538E-mail Citation »

    Discusses life span development as a cumulative process of adaptation.

  • Smith-Osborne, Alexa. 2007. Life span and resiliency theory: A critical review. Advances in Social Work 8:152–168.

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    One of the few social work treatments of the life span perspective. Defines and integrates the concept of “resilience” into the perspective. Traces the history of stage theories of human development, including discussions of Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, and others.

  • Sneed, Joel R., Susan Krauss Whitbourne, and Michelle E. Culang. 2006. Trust, identity, and ego integrity: Modeling Erikson's core stages over 34 years. Journal of Adult Development 13:148–157.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10804-007-9026-3E-mail Citation »

    Models Erik Erikson's core stages (trust, identity, and ego integrity) over thirty-four years, from college age through the late 50s, among 175 men and women from the Rochester Adult Longitudinal Study. Supports the hypothesis that each individual would show distinct developmental trajectories.

  • Werner, Emmy E., and Ruth S. Smith. 2001. Journeys from childhood to midlife: Risk, resilience, and recovery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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    Updates the authoritative Kauai Longitudinal Research Study, which followed all children born in 1955 on the island of Kauai from birth to age forty. Follows various trajectories from childhood and adolescence to successful adaptation in midlife.

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