Providing Age-Appropriate Patient Education: Introduction

To provide effective patient teaching, you must consider the patient’s age and developmental level. Knowing your patient’s developmental level will help you select the most effective teaching strategies. The three developmental areas you will be assessing are the patient’s physical maturation and abilities, psychosocial development, and cognitive capacity.

Specific developmental issues characterize each age group. Infancy is the time from birth to the first 12 to 18 months of life. During this time, the infant is totally dependent on others to meet basic needs. The toddler period is the time from when a child begins to walk until around 3 years of age. The years between 2 and 3 are a significant time for physical and emotional development. Motor development progresses significantly, and the child begins to have a degree of physical and emotional independence while still maintaining a close relationship with the primary family unit. During the pre-school period-generally between ages 3 and 6-a child shows increasing interest in and involvement with his age group peers. Most pre-schoolers are able to relate to their peers and have beginning social interactions with many people. From 6 to 12 years of age, the interests of school age children turn away from their immediate family to the wider world. The school age child has enough maturity to begin to relate to other people as individuals. Adolescence is characterized by the onset of puberty and is associated with a significant amount of personal exploration. Adolescence ends when the young person demonstrates his or her readiness to assume full financial, emotional, and social independence. In Western societies, this usually occurs between 18 and 21 years of age.

During young adulthood-from approximately 21 to 39-individuals focus on selecting an occupation or career, choosing and learning to live with a partner, and starting and raising a family. During middle adulthood, individuals work at establishing themselves in a marriage and mature in their career choice. Most middle-aged adults between ages 40 and 65 begin to face adjustments to physiological changes that occur with maturity. Older adults must make adjustments to decreased physical strength, a declining health status, retirement from the work force, reduced income, decreasing independence, and the deaths of spouse, siblings, friends, and self.

Psychologist Jean Piaget’s work on cognitive development is a useful guide in knowing what teaching approach to take for teaching infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers, school aged children, and adolescents. Table 12 reviews Piaget’s life stages as they relate to children’s concepts of health and illness.

Teaching parents of infants