Katherine Nelson
OccupationDistinguished Professor Emerita
SpouseRichard R. Nelson
AwardsSRCD Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Child Development Award (1999), APA G. Stanley Hall Award for Distinguished Contribution to Developmental Psychology (2008), Jean Piaget Society Lifetime Achievement Award (2017)
Academic background
Alma materOberlin College, University of California, Los Angeles
Academic work
InstitutionsThe Graduate Center, CUNY

Katherine Nelson (1930 – August 10, 2018) was an American developmental psychologist,[1] and professor.


Nelson completed her dissertation research on the organization of free recall of verbal information in children at the University of California, Los Angeles, under the guidance of W. E. Jeffrey and T. Trabasso.[2] She was a member of the faculty of Yale University prior to joining the faculty of the Graduate Center, CUNY, in 1978.[1]


Nelson was a professor emerita of psychology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY).[3]

Jerome Bruner described Nelson as a "contextual functionalist" seeking "the contexts that give human acts their meaning" while investigating the functions that these acts play in longer-term scenarios.[4] Similarly, Michael Tomasello highlighted Nelson's emphasis on "the function of language and linguistic concepts in children's larger conceptual and social lives and, conversely, how children's emerging understanding of the function of linguistic symbols in larger conceptual and social structures makes language acquisition possible."[5] In addition to conducting seminal research on children's language development and its relation to social and cognitive development, Nelson studied childhood amnesia and the development of episodic memory.[6]


Nelson's book Narratives from the Crib (Harvard University Press, 2006) investigates the cognitive and linguistic development of a two-year-old, based on an in-depth analysis of the child's crib talk (pre-sleep monologues).[4][7]

Her book Language in Cognitive Development: Emergence of the Mediated Mind (Cambridge University Press, 1998) stands in contrast to the theories of Jean Piaget and others that cognitive and linguistic development are independent of each other, and instead views language acquisition as a bridge that connects a child's social and cultural growth with his or her growing knowledge of the world.[8][9] In collaboration with her former doctoral student Robyn Fivush, she developed a theory that parent-child reminiscing about the past plays a foundational role in the formation of autobiographical memory.[10]

She is also the author or co-author of:

Selected articles

Awards and honors

In 1999, Nelson was one of four recipients of the Society for Research in Child Development award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Child Development.[11] In 2001, a symposium in her honor was held as part of the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development,[12] and in 2002 the Journal of Cognition and Development published a special issue in her honor.[13] In 2008, Nelson received the G. Stanley Hall Award for Distinguished Contribution to Developmental Psychology[14] and her book Young Minds in Social Worlds: Experience, Meaning, and Memory received the Maccoby Book Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 7.[15] In 2017, she was honored by the Jean Piaget Society with a Lifetime Achievement Award.[1]


  1. ^ a b c "In Memoriam: Katherine Nelson (1930 ─ 2018)". Society for Research in Child Development. Archived from the original on 2019-04-21. Retrieved 2018-08-29.
  2. ^ Nelson, Katherine J. (1969). "The organization of free recall by young children". Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 8 (2): 284–295. doi:10.1016/0022-0965(69)90103-9. ISSN 0022-0965.
  3. ^ Ph.D. Program in Psychology: Emeritus Faculty, CUNY, retrieved 2011-04-19.
  4. ^ a b Bruner, Jerome (2004), "Katherine Nelson: Contextual Functionalist", in Lucariello, Joan M. (ed.), The development of the mediated mind: sociocultural context and cognitive development, Psychology Press, pp. 239–244, ISBN 978-0-8058-4473-3.
  5. ^ Tomasello, Michael (2002). "Things Are What They Do: Katherine Nelson's Functional Approach to Language and Cognition". Journal of Cognition and Development. 3 (1): 5–19. doi:10.1207/s15327647jcd0301_2. ISSN 1524-8372. S2CID 144403273.
  6. ^ Goleman, Daniel (April 6, 1993), "Studying the Secrets Of Childhood Memory", New York Times.
  7. ^ Falk, Julia S. (1990). "Review of Narratives from the Crib". Language. 66 (3): 558–562. doi:10.2307/414613. JSTOR 414613.
  8. ^ Spencer, Janine (October 16, 1998), "When society is to blame", Times Higher Education.
  9. ^ Rooij, Vincent A. de (1998). "Language in cognitive development: The emergence of the mediated mind by Katherine Nelson (review)". Language. 74 (3): 684–685. doi:10.1353/lan.1998.0150. ISSN 1535-0665. S2CID 210072668.
  10. ^ Nelson, Katherine; Fivush, Robyn (2004). "The emergence of autobiographical memory: a social cultural developmental theory". Psychological Review. 111 (2): 486–511. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.111.2.486. PMID 15065919.
  11. ^ SRCD Awards History: Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Child Development, retrieved 2011-04-19.
  12. ^ "Faculty activities", 365 Fifth: Newsletter of the Graduate Center, Summer 2001.
  13. ^ Zelazo, Philip David, ed. (2002), A Special Issue in Honor of Katherine Nelson: A Special Issue of Journal of Cognition and Development, Psychology Press, ISBN 978-0-8058-9678-7.
  14. ^ "APA G. Stanley Hall Award".
  15. ^ "APA Division 7 Newsletter, Summer 2008" (PDF).