This is a brief history of Gesell Institute of Child Development. You might also be interested in reading the 2013 book “Sixty Years of the Gesell Institute: 1950 – 2010”, available in our bookstore. In addition, you can view this free 60 minute webinar presentation about the History of the Gesell Institute via this link.
In 1911 Dr. Arnold Gesell (1880-1961) founded a clinic that would later be renamed the Yale Child Study Center. He retired from Yale in 1949, just before his 70th birthday. His pioneering research made notable use of the cinematographic technologies that were revolutionary for this time, to document the developmental stages of 10,000 children. Dr. Gesell focused on studying each child’s verbal, motor, social, emotional and cognitive growth. His legacy is the extensive archive he created throughout his life-long research that would later enable parents and teachers to better understand children’s ages and stages of development.
In addition to his work with children, Dr. Gesell trained physicians, nurses and research scholars who would spend their entire careers devoted to studying child development. In 1950, two of his former students and colleagues at Yale, Drs. Frances Ilg and Louise Bates Ames, along with Janet Learned, wanted to open a research institute and nursery school that would continue to explore child development through adolescence. Dr. Ilg, who was in possession of a sizeable inheritance, purchased the properties at 310 and later 314 Prospect St. in New Haven, CT. The first building would be used for research; the second for a nursery school. Both were named in honor of Dr. Arnold Gesell and became known as the Gesell Institute for Child Development. The Institute was incorporated March 30, 1950. Dr. Gesell served as a research consultant until his death in 1961.
Drs. Ilg and Ames thought Janet Learned would be the perfect teacher to organize the nursery program at the new Institute. Dr. Gesell had founded the Guidance Nursery School at the Yale Child Study Center in 1918, and Janet Learned had been its Director since 1938. Learned agreed with Gesell that children were most apt to thrive when parents and teachers communicated well with each other. She left the Gesell Nursery School directorship in 1956 when she married law professor Fred Rodell, but still remained actively involved with the Institute on the Board until her death in 2008.
Teachers for the Gesell Nursery School were mostly hired from women’s colleges in the area, drawing attention from Albertus Magnus College and Southern Connecticut State University. Women also came from Europe as semi-students. The Nursery School first started with only two- and three-year-olds, but soon added in fours. Every child was given a developmental evaluation. Teachers expected parents to watch the testing so that they could better shape their behavioral expectations to match the needs of their child. Janet Learned described the aims of the nursery school in an early brochure as:
Our program is informally structured; responding to the needs, interests and maturity levels of individual children, and of each group as a whole. We plan each day’s activities to make use of a wide variety of materials and spaces to encourage curiosity, resourcefulness, growth and pleasure. We support children in developing relationships with other children and adults. We encourage children to participate in those activities which are satisfying to them, and help them to develop new interests.
Success stories about the Gesell Nursery School spread throughout the country, thanks in part to Dr. Ames’ syndicated newspaper column and live television program, and due to the extensive schedule of lectures and consultations Dr. Ilg was called on to give. Among the staff members trained by the Institute throughout the 1960s were Judy August, who is currently a Gesell Institute Board Member; Jackie Haines, arriving in 1969 from Colorado, a former Institute Director, and still living in New Haven; and Dr. Sally Provence, who passed away as Professor Emeritus of the Yale Child Study Center in 1993.
Anne Brownstein, Gesell Nursery School, Class of 1969 once told Judy August that:
It is likely my experiences at Gesell Institute laid the foundation for my interest in the phenomenological experience of schools and schooling. There are multiple conversations that students and teachers enter into as part of the teaching and learning process, and the physical space in which this process takes place can play an important role as well. The Gesell Institute is a shining example of how a school house and grounds can be active participants in pedagogy, helping to define, mediate and facilitate the educational experiences of both its students and teachers.
While the thriving Nursery School served as a training ground for early childhood educators and pediatricians, other researchers used the facility to begin investigating and discussing the effects of school readiness. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, Dr. Gesell was able to prove in a research study that a large number of the children who were failing in elementary school were not ready to start school when they did. In other words, chronological age does not necessarily coincide with one’s developmental age. This research became the incentive for the publication of many similar developmental assessment programs. However, many teachers and administrators continued to rely on the original Gesell Developmental Observation (GDO) as the one that best served their children.
During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the Institute was thriving. It was highly sought after for its research in vision and speech development. Many began to study how these developments could begin to influence the formation of personality. Vision school fellows began to do their post doctoral work at the Institute. Noted staff and graduates of Gesell Institute include Dr. Richard Apell, Dr. Richard Walker, and Clyde Gillespie. Throughout the years, multiple clinical services focused on vision, speech therapy and psychological counseling for adolescents moved into the Institute and became available to the public. The Gesell Medical Department was added to the Institute in 1972. Due to the introduction of the Institute’s new teenage patients, its name was changed in 1982 to the Gesell Institute for Human Development.
Despite its successes, the nursery school was later unable to sustain itself, and closed at the end of its 29th year in June 1980. Dr. Ilg died the following year at the age of 81. Dr. Ames continued well into the 1990s to teach. She updated and published Gesell Institute’s classic book series on child development (Your One-Year-Old up to Your Fourteen-Year Old), which parents today still find as relevant as they were when first issued in the 1940s under different titles. Dr. Ames died in 1996 at the age of 88.
One of Dr. Ilg’s most important legacies was the formation of the National Lecture Staff (NLS) in 1970. This nation-wide network grew out of Dr. Ilg’s work with Gesell-trained educators across the country. Women and men who believed and followed Dr. Gesell’s approach to child development carried on workshops for teachers and parents to introduce them to the Gesell Developmental Observation assessment and to show them how to use it properly. The NLS are a carefully selected, highly educated and intensively trained group of skilled professionals who come from diverse administrative backgrounds, such as school superintendents, principals, pre-school teachers, elementary school teachers, high school teachers, university professors and special education professionals. Today, the NLS work together to provide a comprehensive program for staff professional development, in-service trainings, and workshops across the country on how to administer the newly updated Gesell Developmental Observation-Revised.
When the Gesell Medical Department at the Institute closed in 1989 due to financial hardships, the two buildings on Prospect Street were sold to Yale University. The Institute used a part of the proceeds to endow a chair at the Yale Child Study Center in honor of Arnold Gesell. The Arnold Gesell Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology, was first awarded to Dr. Linda Mayes, who continues to hold it today. She also serves on the Institute’s Advisory Council. Past Gesell Institute Directors include Dr. Sidney Baker (1978-87), Dr. Erik Esselstyn (1987), Frank Logue (1988-90), and Jackie Haines (1990-2002).
During the 1990s Jackie Haines, along with her Administrative Assistant Annette Watert, kept the Institute and the NLS alive by supplying loyal Gesell Developmental Observation customers with the assessment, as well as promoting and scheduling workshops across the country. Because members of the Board could not quite agree on the future direction of the Institute, its footprint in New Haven all but disappeared. Jackie Haines retired in 2003, and Annette Watert retired in 2011.
When Elyse Waterhouse was appointed Director of the Institute in 2002, policies and procedures for both Gesell Institute’s Board of Directors and staff were re-examined and clarified. In addition to updating the Institute’s business practices, Waterhouse explored requests from universities in China who were interested in the GDO training, and also moved the distribution of Gesell publications from the publisher to in-house at the Institute. This helped to increase revenue by extending Gesell’s control over its own promotion and sales. She also introduced the possibility to earn course credit from an affiliated university for early childhood educators and assisted in the production of Gesell’s promotional DVD, “Ready for Kindergarten.” When Elyse left the Institute in 2007, the organization was ready to launch a national search for a new director.
In November 2007, Gesell Institute’s Board of Directors hired Marcy Guddemi, PhD, MBA, a nationally recognized child development advocate and expert, who has considerable experience in educational assessment publishing. She immediately embraced the leadership position and set three things in motion at the Institute: begin a re-norming study for the GDO; work in collaboration with other early childhood agencies in New Haven, CT and connect with the city’s public schools; and to once again have a recognizable face in the early childhood education industry. Dr. Guddemi saw the dramatic need for Gesell Institute to have a new professional image, sell updated products and utilize NAEYC’s annual conference as a place to reintroduce educators to the Institute and Gesell philosophy. These initiatives led to the re-positioning of Gesell Institute as an advocate for young children by providing support and resources to parent and teachers nationwide. Dr. Guddemi also aligned the Institute with those who emphasized the value of learning through PLAY. In addition, since Gesell Institute now focuses on researching the development of children ages from infancy to Grade 3, Dr. Guddemi changed the organization’s name back to Gesell Institute of Child Development in 2011.
In October 2010, Gesell Institute celebrated its 60th anniversary by completing the GDO re-norming study that Dr. Guddemi began three years before. Dr. Guddemi announced the new psychometric findings at Gesell Institute’s LEADership(Learn, Educate, Advocate, Do!) Conference, a nationally recognized event that was used to widen an understanding of the critical importance of the early years in education and life-long development. Contributing to the national conversation about early childhood and leadership in educational policy, esteemed speakers such as Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, Dr. Ed Zigler, Joan Almon, and Dr. Jacqueline Jones from the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. generated the motivation of educational leaders toward change. Approximately 300 people were in attendance at this one day, stand-alone event. It drew attention from school administrators, Board of Education members, early childhood coordinators, parents, psychologists, researchers, policy makers, and other important decision makers from around the country.
In 2012, Gesell Institute released to the public free of charge the electronic proceedings from their LEAD Conference. Gesell Institute’s Community Early Childhood LEADership E-Kit is an interactive CD-ROM that contains important information from conference keynote speakers, panelists and early childhood development professionals. Complete with speeches, thought papers, audio files, video and multiple PowerPoint presentations, this valuable tool provides viewers with the motivation they will need to begin their own community conversations about education reform, how to hold discussions about implementing quality early childhood programs in their area and understand the best practices found in research.
Today, Gesell Institute thrives once again in the same building, at 310 Prospect Street in New Haven, CT. The Institute shares offices with the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, School of the 21st Century, and Yale’s Oral History of American Music Project.
Gesell Institute would like to thank Virginia Wilkinson, Norman Heimgartner, Jackie Haines, and Jennifer Pelton for their work on this abridged version of Gesell Institute’s history.