Developmental Direction

The principle of developmental direction, one of Gesell’s  five  principles  of  maturation,  assumes  that development is not random but proceeds in an ordered and orderly fashion. The fact that development systematically proceeds from the head to the toes is a good example of how at any point a developmental trend will be more advanced in the head area than in the foot area. Thus, at birth, the newborn infant is relatively more mature in neuromotor organization in the head region than in the leg region, and coordination of the arms precedes coordination of the legs. This trend is described as the cephalocaudal (or head to tail) trend.

Another example is how development is more advanced at the center of the body compared to its periphery. The movements of the shoulders show considerably more organization early in life than the movement of the wrists and fingers. This proximodistal (or near to far) trend can also be seen in the child’s grasping behavior, which at 20 weeks is quite crude and dominated by upper arm movements. By 28 weeks, however, with the increasingly sophisticated use of the thumb, the grasping is dominated by increasingly finer motor skills. Both the cephalocaudal and proximodistal trends illustrate Gesell’s contention that development (and behavior) have direction and that this direction is basically a function of preprogrammed genetic mechanisms.


  1. Ames,  B.  (1989).  Arnold  Gesell:  Themes  of  his  work. New York: Human Sciences Press.
  2. Gesell, (1935). Cinemanalysis: A method of behavior study. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 47, 3–26.
  3. Walter, Morgan, M., & Walter, L. (1996). Prepare for a literacy program. Retrieved from lingualinks/literacy/PrepareForALiteracyProgram/Index.htm