Child Developmental Theories
What Is Child Development?
Have you ever wondered how you learned to crawl and then walk? How about language? How in the world do human beings learn to talk? Developmental psychologists seek to answer these types of questions.
Child development refers to the process through which human beings typically grow and mature from infancy through adulthood. The different aspects of growth and development that are measured include physical growth, cognitive growth, and social growth. Child development focuses on the changes that take place in humans as they mature from birth to about age 17.
When babies arrive in the world, they are tiny, helpless people who depend entirely on adults to take care of all their needs and wants. Somehow, with the proper loving nurturing and care over the next 22 years, they grow to become independent adults who can take care of themselves and others. The journey from infancy to adulthood is an amazing time when children soak up everything in the world around them and mix it with the qualities they are born with in order to mature bit by bit, in every way.
Over the years, people who study children have created theories to explain how children develop. While these theorists realize that every child is special and grow in his or her unique way, they also have recognized that there are general patterns children tend to follow as they grow up, and they have documented these patterns in their theories. This part will cover child developmental theory and applications such as parenting skills, will attempt to explain these fascinating but detailed theories so as to make them more understandable. Specifically, this part will outline the various areas, or channels, of child development that have been recognized, to explain how children tend to develop through each of these channels over time, and to state in simple language the observations of the child development field’s most important theorists.
Developmental channels and Theories of development
First, it is important to understand that children have to grow and develop in many different areas in order to become healthy, happy, productive members of adult society. There are four main areas or channels in which children grow: physical, psychological and cognitive, social and emotional, and sexuality and gender identity.
First, the physical channel is most obvious. Children’s bodies grow in height and weight over the years and change appearance during puberty. Children also develop certain physical abilities during their progression towards adulthood, including crawling, walking, running and (possibly) writing or shooting a basketball.
Secondly, children also develop psychologically and cognitively as their brains absorb more information and they learn how to use that information.
Literally, children have to learn how to think on purpose and to process or organize all the information that comes to them from the environment. They must learn how to solve problems, to talk, and to complete mental tasks such as remembering telephone numbers or using computers.
Thirdly, children grow socially and emotionally. They learn how to interact, play, work, and live with other people such as family, friends, teachers, and employers. They learn how to understand both their own feelings and others’ emotions. They also learn ways of dealing with strong emotions. In order to function well as independent adults, children must develop a sense of self-esteem as they go through the long process of figuring out what shape their identity, or who they are, will take. They develop a sense of morality as they learn the difference between right and wrong.
Finally, children have to develop sexually and form a gender identity. This developmental channel is unique because it spans developments across the other physical, psychological, and social channels. Early on, children learn how their bodies work and look and what it means to be a boy or a girl; they learn how boys and girls are different. As they grow older and enter adolescence and puberty, they continue to learn how their bodies work sexually and how to responsibly handle their sexuality so as to balance their sexual desires and appropriate behavior. They continue to decide for themselves what it means to be masculine or feminine throughout their lifespan.
DEVELOPMENTAL STAGES MILESTONES OF CHILD DEVELOPMENT
Child Development Stages vs. Continuous Development
Different theorists have come to different conclusions concerning how exactly children develop across the various developmental channels. Some theorists believe that children develop smoothly and continuously, but other theorists believe that children develop more discretely in a series of stages, each of which is fairly stable.
Theorists who believe children grow continuously believe that kids constantly add new lessons and skills on top of old lessons and skills as they get older. They believe that children grow at a steady, uniform speed. Even though parents can’t see it with their eyes, children are growing all the time right in front of them. Their bodies make new cells. Their minds learn new skills as they play and interact with other people every day.
On the other hand, theorists who believe children grow discontinuously believe children grow in stages as they seem to develop chunks of abilities and to experience events at certain times in life. To some parents, it may seem that their children learn to do things all of the sudden, like when a baby goes from only being able to crawl to being able to toddle around on two feet almost overnight. Or, parents of young teenagers may say that they were amazed how their children went from thinking that kids of the opposite sex had “cooties” to constantly daydreaming about them. It seems as if these kids are growing lots in spurts at special times and then are not growing so fast for a while in between the spurts.
Both camps, continuous development and staged development, are correct in its own way, of course. While it is true that development is a continuous process that never stops, it is also true that there are stages to growth and those developments unfold at predictable times across the life span. The real difference between the two camps is likely the degree of magnification that each applies to its study, with the stage theorists taking a more distant but broader stance and the continuous theorists viewing things from up close.
This chapter will present child development as though it happens in stages. By thinking about stages, child development can be summarized in general groupings that can be more easily understood.
Developmental Stages and Milestones of Child Development
Often, developmental stages are defined by milestones. A milestone is a sort of marker that tells you where you are while traveling. The term is drawn from literal stone markers that were used to mark the passage of each mile on early roads. Today, the term milestone is used more figuratively, to indicate that a developmental stage has been achieved. Often, special milestones mark children’s accomplishments, such as walking in infancy and entering school in early childhood, and these milestones can help
Mark children’s movement inside and between developmental stages.
Children build new skills and developments on top of old skills and developments from stage to stage; each stage is cumulative. A child is able to run bases in a game of baseball in the middle childhood phase because she was first able to walk near the end of her infancy stage.
Entry and exit from the various developmental stages tends to occur at particular ages. Often, a child’s stage of development can be figured out by a child’s age because children generally experience the same stages at the same ages. However a child’s age only provides a clue as to his stage; it does not determine it. Every child develops at his or her own speed. It is the tasks and skills children master that truly identify what stage they are in. Because of this, different children of the same age can be expected to be at different developmental stages.
Children’s development does not happen uniformly, but rather, it progresses along at its own rate. Just because one child is potty trained at age three and his neighbor is potty trained at age three and a half does not mean that one is brighter than the other. Furthermore, children can develop the different channels at different rates. For example, a twelve-year-old’s body may have already gone through puberty and look like adolescence’s body, but that child may not have the cognitive and social abilities of an adolescent quite yet. It will take a little longer for their mind to catch up with her body.
Keep this lack of developmental sameness in mind as you read the chapter in this book. Whenever a document suggests ages that children reach specific milestones, keep in mind that these are general average ages that research has found children develop these skills. In reality, children reach milestones across a wide range of ages. Sometimes children will appear to even skip an entire developmental stage in some channels as they advance quickly in a short amount of time.
Also keep in mind that there are some situations in which children become severely inhibited and unable to reach certain milestones within an acceptable time frame. Developmental delays in a child’s functioning caused by disease, injury, mental disability, problems developing in the womb, environmental reasons, trauma or unknown causes can keep some children from developing properly or can even cause children to regress and go backward into some stages in some channels.
Sensitive periods in child development
In order to understand how children move between stages, it’s important to understand how children take in stimuli from the environment and use it to grow. Most theorists agree that there are periods in children’s lives in which they become biologically mature enough to gain certain skills that they could not have easily picked up prior to that maturation. For example, research has shown that babies and toddlers’ brains are more flexible with regard to learning to understand and use language than are older children’s brains.
Children are ready and open to develop certain things during specific stages; however, it doesn’t just happen. Instead, they need proper environmental stimuli to develop these abilities. For example, babies have the ability to grow in length and weight in amazing amounts during the first year, but if they’re not fed and nurtured enough during that time, they will not have the tools and building blocks to grow and will not grow and thrive. This is why it’s so important for parents and caregivers to understand how their children are growing in all ways and channels and to know what stimuli, or stuff, they need to give their children to help them thrive.
From time to time children without any cognitive or physical problems at birth may not be able to develop certain milestones during the stage or time period they are most receptive. There may be an injury, illness, caregiver neglect or abuse, or a shortage of needs such as food or medical care, that make it difficult for a child to absorb all the basic building blocks and stimulation they need to gain certain abilities at certain times in life. When this occurs, affected children will generally have a harder time gaining those abilities even if they later get special attention and resources designed to help them compensate. It’s like children have a window of opportunity when they are ready to grow in certain ways if they have the right stuff and tools in their environment. When that window closes, it will never be as easy to grow in those ways again. Theorists disagree about how important it is for children to have that special stimuli at each growing stage in order to reach their milestones. Some theorists call these times critical periods, but other theorists call them sensitive periods.
The difference between critical periods and sensitive periods is subtle. Theorists who believe in critical periods believe that children who do not get special stimulation during their window of receptivity are going to be “stuck” forever and never gain the abilities they should have gained in that period. However, other theorists believe that those very sensitive times in a child’s life are just sensitive periods. They agree that children who do not get the right nurturing at the right times to jumpstart their developmental potential are going to have problems later in life, but they do not think that this inability to develop is permanent.
For example, infancy is the time when children first learn they can trust an adult or parent to take care of all their needs, keep them safe, and give them love. Some infants live in orphanages where there are far too many babies for the few nurses and staff members to take care of them. These children go through their first years with hardly any touch or affection that would teach them to trust and to show affection to caregivers. If these children are eventually adopted by a loving family later on in their childhood, they often have trouble adjusting to having an affectionate, loving parent. There have been many cases in which children who start out in that kind of orphanage environment never gain the ability to show affection and emotion toward family or even the ability to show remorse or compassion toward other people, no matter how loving and nurturing their adoptive family was being in their middle childhood and on. Such a child’s ability to trust and love would have essentially become “stuck” in infancy, even though the rest of their body continued to grow. The question of whether the critical period idea or the sensitive period idea is more correct boils down to whether this stuckness can be overcome, in full or in part, in the child’s later life.
Theorists who support sensitive periods believe that while it will be far more difficult for the child and the child’s teachers and caregivers to learn what was not learned during the window of opportunity, these children can still develop the missing capacities and skills later that they did not develop earlier. While some children do seem to get stuck permanently, there is evidence to support the sensitive period idea as well.
Some children born in the same understaffed orphanages who are later adopted do go on to learn to love, to trust, and to show affection to their family and friends. In these situations, the families have to have extreme patience and perseverance as they nurture these older children because they are not going to be able to learn that trust and love as fast and as easily as infants.
However, it’s also important to remember that critical or sensitive periods can also affect children in other ways than just neglect or deprivation. For example, there is a critical or sensitive period for language acquisition that occurs during infancy. Children begin learning how to understand and create language from the time they’re born. They will absorb and copy the language they hear all around them during that critical or sensitive period early in life. However, for many different reasons, children, and adults, may leave their original home and move to a new country or region where people speak a different language. They will need to learn to understand and create the new language, even though they were not exposed to it during that early important period. However, while it will take more time and special tutoring, many children, and adults, can learn a new language proficiently later in life. (different parts of the brain are used for sensitive period learning, vs. later learning, but both can get the job done)
MAJOR CHILD DEVELOPMENT THEORIES AND THEORISTS
Though many scientists and researchers have approached the study of child development over the last hundred or so years, only a few of the theories that have resulted have stood the test of time and have proven to be widely influential. Among this core group of theories are five that will serve as the basis for the documents in this book. These are:
Freud’s psychosexual stage theory
Erikson’s psychosocial stage theory
Kohlberg’s moral understanding stage theory
Piaget’s cognitive development stage theory
Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory
Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual stages of development theory
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a Viennese doctor who came to believe that the way parents dealt with children’s basic sexual and aggressive desires would determine how their personalities developed and whether or not they would end up well-adjusted as adults. Freud described children as going through multiple stages of sexual development, which he labeled Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency, and Genital.
In Freud’s view, each stage focused on sexual activity and the pleasure received from a particular area of the body. In the oral phase, children are focused on the pleasures that they receive from sucking and biting with their mouth. In the Anal phase, this focus shifts to the anus as they begin toilet training and attempt to control their bowels. In the Phallic stage, the focus moves to genital stimulation and the sexual identification that comes with having or not having a penis.
During this phase, Freud thought that children turn their interest and love toward their parent of the opposite sex and begin to strongly resent the parent of the same sex. He called this idea the Oedipus Complex as it closely mirrored the events of an ancient Greek tragic play in which a king named Oedipus manages to marry his mother and kill his father. The Phallic/Oedipus stage was thought to be followed by a period of Latency during which sexual urges and interest were temporarily nonexistent. Finally, children were thought to enter and remain in a final Genital stage in which adult sexual interests and activities come to dominate.
Another part of Freud’s theory focused on identifying the parts of consciousness. Freud thought that all babies are initially dominated by unconscious, instinctual and selfish urges for immediate gratification which he labeled the Id. As babies attempt and fail to get all their whims met, they develop a more realistic appreciation of what is realistic and possible, which Freud called the “Ego”. Over time, babies also learn about and come to internalize and represent their parents’ values and rules. These internalized rules, which he called the “Super-Ego”, are the basis for the the developing child’s conscience that struggles with the concepts of right and wrong and works with the Ego to control the immediate gratification urges of the Id.
By today’s rigorous scientific standards, Freud’s psychosexual theory is not considered to be very accurate. However, it is still important and influential today because it was the first stage development theory that gained real attention, and many other theorists used it as a starting place.
Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stage theory
Erik Erikson (1902-1994) used Freud’s work as a starting place to develop a theory about human stage development from birth to death. In contrast to Freud’s focus on sexuality, Erikson focused on how peoples’ sense of identity develops; how people develop or fail to develop abilities and beliefs about themselves which allow them to become productive, satisfied members of society. Because Erikson’s theory combines how people develop beliefs psychologically and mentally with how they learn to exist within a larger community of people, it’s called a ‘psychosocial’ theory.
Erikson’s stages are, in chronological order in which they unfold: trust versus mistrust; autonomy versus shame and doubt; initiative versus guilt; industry versus inferiority; identity versus identity confusion; intimacy versus isolation; generativity versus stagnation; and integrity versus despair. Each stage is associated with a time of life and a general age span. For each stage, Erikson’s theory explains what types of stimulation children need to master that stage and become productive and well-adjusted members of society and explains the types of problems and developmental delays that can result when this stimulation does not occur.
For example, the first psychosocial stage is trust versus mistrust, and it spans from birth to about age one year. During this phase, if children are consistently provided all their basic needs such as food, clean diapers, warmth, and loving affection and soothing from caregivers, they will learn that they can trust other people in their environment to love them and to take care of them, and they will believe the world is good. If infants are neglected and not given these things consistently or if they are taken care of roughly and unpredictably, they will learn to question their caretakers and to believe that others will not always be there to support them when it’s needed.
Learning to trust others is the first necessary step to learning how to have loving, supportive relationships with others and to have a positive self-image.
The second stage, autonomy versus shame and doubt, spans ages one to three years. When children are autonomous, they feel confident that they can make their own choices and decisions and that they will be positive experiences. Young children become autonomous when caregivers are supportive and give children the safe space to make their own decisions and to experiment with their bodies and problem-solving skills without shaming or ridiculing the child. When children feel shame and doubt, they believe that they are not capable of making valid decisions and not capable of doing everyday tasks. This will begin stunting a positive self-esteem as these small children start seeing themselves as “stupid.”
The third stage, initiative versus guilt, spans ages three to six years. When children develop initiative, they continue to develop their self-concept and gain a desire to try new things and to learn new things while being responsible for their actions to some extent. If caregivers continue to give children a safe space to experiment and appropriate stimuli to learn, the children will continue to find their purpose. However, if caregivers try to create too many strict boundaries around what children can do and to force too much responsibility on kids, children will feel extreme guilt for their inability to complete tasks perfectly.
This is just a taste of Erickson’s ideas. Hopefully, these paragraphs will help explain his way of thinking and organizing development. The rest of Erikson’s stages will be outlined in detail in future documents in this book as they become age-related.
Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral understanding stage theory
Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) described three stages of moral development which described the process through which people learn to discriminate right from wrong and to develop increasingly sophisticated appreciations of morality. He believed that his stages were cumulative; each built off understanding and abilities gained in prior stages. According to Kohlberg, moral development is a lifelong task, and many people fail to develop the more advanced stages of moral understanding.
Kohlberg’s first ‘preconventional’ level describes children whose understanding of morality is essentially only driven by consequences. Essentially, “might makes right” to a preconventional mind, and they worry about what is right in wrong so they don’t get in trouble. Second stage ‘conventional’ morality describes people who act in moral ways because they believe that following the rules is the best way to promote good personal relationships and a healthy community. A conventional morality person believes it is wrong to steal not just because he doesn’t want to get punished but also because he doesn’t want his friends or family to be harmed.
The final ‘postconventional‘ level describes people whose view of morality transcend what the rules or laws say. Instead of just following rules without questioning them, ‘postconventional‘ stage people determine what is moral based on a set of values or beliefs they think are right all the time. For example, during the Vietnam War, many Americans who were drafted to be soldiers opposed the war on moral grounds and fled to Canada rather than fight. Even though this behavior was against the law, these people decided that these particular laws did not follow the higher rules they believed in, and they chose to follow their higher rules instead of the law.
Jean Piaget’s cognitive development stage theory
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1990), created a cognitive-developmental stage theory that described how children’s ways of thinking developed as they interacted with the world around them. Infants and young children understand the world much differently than adults do, and as they play and explore, their mind learns how to think in ways that better fit with reality.
Piaget’s theory has four stages: Sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. During the Sensorimotor stage, which often lasts from birth to age two, children are just beginning to learn how to learn. Though language development, and thus thought, does begin during this time, the more major tasks occurring during this period involve children figuring out how to make use of their bodies. They do this by experiencing everything with their five senses, hence “sensory,” and by learning to crawl and then walk, point and then grasp, hence, “motor.”
During the preoperational stage, which often lasts from ages two though seven, children start to use mental symbols to understand and to interact with the world, and they begin to learn language and to engage in pretend play. In the concrete operational stage that follows, lasting from ages seven through eleven, children gain the ability to think logically to solve problems and to organize information they learn. However, they remain limited to considering only concrete, not abstract, information because at this stage the capability for abstract thought isn’t well developed yet. Finally, during the formal operational stage, which often lasts from age eleven on, adolescents learn how to think more abstractly to solve problems and to think symbolically, e.g., about things that aren’t really there concretely in front of them. As is the case with Erikson and Kohlberg, Piaget’s ideas will be developed in greater depth in future documents.
Urie Bronfenbrenner ecological system theory
Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) developed the ecological systems theory to explain how everything in a child and the child’s environment affects how a child grows and develops.
He labeled different aspects or levels of the environment that influence children’s development, including the:
The microsystem is the small, immediate environment the child lives in. Children’s microsystems will include any immediate relationships or organizations they interact with, such as their immediate family or caregivers and their school or daycare.
How these groups or organizations interact with the child will have an effect on how the child grows ; the more encouraging and nurturing these relationships and places are, the better the child will be able to grow.
Furthermore, how a child acts or reacts to these people in the microsystem will affect how they treat her in return. Each child’s special genetic and biologically influenced personality traits, what is known as temperament , end up affecting how others treat them. This idea will be discussed further in a later chapters about child temperament.
Bronfenbrenner’s next level, the mesosystem, describes how the different parts of a child’s microsystem work together for the sake of the child.
For example, if a child’s caregivers take an active role in a child’s school, such as going to parent-teacher conferences and watching their child’s soccer games, this will help ensure the child’s overall growth. In contrast, if the child’s two sets of caretakers, mom with step-dad and dad with step-mom, disagree how to best raise the child and give the child conflicting lessons when they see him, this will hinder the child’s growth in different channels.
The exosystem level includes the other people and places that the child herself may not interact with often herself but that still have a large affect on her, such as parents’ workplaces, extended family members , the neighborhood, etc.
For example, if a child’s parent gets laid off from work, that may have negative effects on the child if her parents are unable to pay rent or to buy groceries; however, if her parent receives a promotion and a raise at work, this may have a positive effect on the child because her parents will be better able to give her physical needs.
The Macro system
Bronfenbrenner’s final level is the macro system, which is the largest and most remote set of people and things to a child but which still has a great influence over the child .
The macrosystem includes things such as the relative freedoms permitted by the national government , cultural values, the economy , wars , etc. These things can also affect a child either positively or negatively.
All of these theorists’ ideas will influence and inspire the coming chapters in this book the chapters will concern child development, both from theoretical perspectives, and also from applied perspectives, in the form of parenting skills coverage. Chapters cover four stages of child development, defined for the purpose of this book to be:
Infancy (covering birth to age two)
Early Childhood (covering ages two to seven)
Middle Childhood (covering ages seven to eleven)
Adolescence (covering ages eleven to twenty-two)
This breakdown of ages provides rough correspondence with the stage theories of Piaget, Erikson, and Bronfenbrenner too. Within each stage, a ‘theory’ document will describe how development typically proceeds through the major developmental channels, including physical, mental, emotional and social, and sexual developments. A second ‘applied’ document will address appropriate parenting skills in light of what is known about children’s development within each stage.
It’s important to remember that while these documents will make general statements about when developments occur in a child’s life, each child will nevertheless develop at his or her own speed, and that even within a given child, certain channels may progress faster than others. For example, a twelve-year-old may have the physical growth and change of an adolescent but mentally still be in the concrete operational stage. This is normal because often one aspect of a child’s being will mature faster than another. Most of the time, given the right nurturing and stimuli, everything will catch up in the end.
These ages are just an average and should be looked at as a general guide rather than a rule.
When babies are in infancy, they are changing from being totally dependent on caregivers to learning to walk, to talk, to play alongside others, and are realizing they are their individual selves. When children enter early childhood, they continue to improve their large and small motor skills as they run and move more smoothly. They also grow mentally and socially as they enter school and other places where they interact with children. During middle childhood, children continue to grow and improve physically, while also growing mentally as they attend school. They maintain friendships in large same-sex groups and begin forming ideas about gender roles and jobs. During adolescence, people go through puberty as their bodies mature and become capable to reproduce. Teens attempt to assert their individual identity while still needing rules and limits to continue to help them make good life decisions. During later adolescence, young adults begin the tasks of finding a life calling or job and of finding or creating their own next-generation family.
Even more milestones and more in-depth information will be explained in future articles. Hopefully, they will give you the tools that as a caregiver you need to give your children the best possible basis to grow and to succeed.
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