Child Development Theories

Paul Main

What are the central child development theories, and how have they shaped our thinking?

What are the central child development theories?

Child development theory is the study of children's cognitive, emotional, social, physical, and behavioral growth over time. Theories help us understand how children develop and learn. They're used to predict future behavior and guide our teaching methods.

There are many different child development theories, each with its own set of beliefs and assumptions. Some theories are based on scientific evidence, others are not.

Some theories include Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development, Kohlberg's Moral Stages, Jean Piaget's Theory, Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, and Lev Vygotsky's Social Learning Theory.

Each theory offers a unique perspective on child development. Each theory has strengths and weaknesses. Which theory you use depends on your goals and needs.

If you're interested in learning more about child development theories, this article outlines some of the predominant theoretical ideas within this domain.

Over the decades, many theories have attempted to explain the various complex aspects of child development. These include domains such as cognitive theory, behavioral theory, Psychosocial and Psychosexual theories. They all aim to shed light on the growth of a child from one level to another as well as help us understand how to provide the appropriate type of provision to optimise the development of the child.

This is a topic that is complex and full of interconnected ideas that cannot be explained without each other. This field of study helps us learn why children behave in certain ways, and by digging deeper, we might begin to understand how behavior is related to family, age, and personal makeup. Psychologists that are experts in developmental issues, endeavor to expound, understand and forecast behavior at the different levels of a child’s life.

For us to understand a person’s development, the theories of development mentioned above have to come into the picture in order to be able to explain different aspects of human growth.

Background of Child Development

The theory of development provides an outline for thinking about the growth of an individual and knowledge. So, why study human development? Is there something we can learn from the psychological aspects of development? If you are one of those people who usually wonder about the human mind and why a person thinks or behaves the way they do, studying the theoretical concepts can provide you with a sound understanding of human development.

Changes in our understanding

Historically, there was never a great emphasis on the cognitive abilities of a child from birth to adulthood. Child development interest, in the beginning, began in the twentieth century, though it inclined more focus on unusual behavior. Other topics that caught the eye of the researchers consisted of influences and also the topic of typical child development.

Understanding the changes

Is it important to learn about children’s growth, learning capabilities, and changes that occur in their lifetime? Of course, it is especially important. It aids us in understanding the emotional, physical, cognitive, social, and educational growth that children typically go through from birth all the way to adulthood.

Grand theories, which aim to define each component of the theory of development by extensively adopting an approach stage, are the foundational theories of child development. The other theories are "micro theories" since they only cover a small portion of the development, including social or cognitive development.

Psychosexual Developmental Theory

Sigmund Freud originated with the Psychoanalytic theory. Working with patients diagnosed with mental disorders, he realized that unconscious desires and childhood experiences influenced behavior. According to him, conflicts that occur during each of these stages of development can have an all-time influence on a person’s behavior. He, therefore, suggested one of the best-known grand theories of child development.

Freud's psychosexual theory, explains that child development happens in a succession of stages centred on various pleasure zones throughout the body. In each phase, the child experiences dilemmas that play an important role in their development.

Freud hypothesised that the energy of the libido was focused on different erogenous areas at particular stages such as the oral stage and the genital stage. If progress failed in a particular phase, fixation at that point in development could result in influencing an adult‘s behavior.

If a child does not fully develop in a certain stage, then what happens? According to Freud, each successful stage results in the healthy development of one’s personality. It is important to solve conflicts that occur in each stage so that fixations can be avoided since they can influence the child’s personality. Other child theories depict that personality continues to evolve throughout a lifetime. Freud believed that early experiences played a vital role in determining development. He believed that by the age of five, personalities are already determined.

Psychosocial Developmental Theory

Early in the twentieth century, the psychoanalytic theory had a strong influence. Freud inspired a lot of individuals who went on to broaden their perspectives and develop their theories as a result. Following the pattern of neo-Freudians, Erick Erikson’s ideas gained popularity.

This is an eight-phase theory that describes change and growth all through a lifetime, directing its attention on social contact and encounters that arise during different phases of development.

While Erikson’s theory shared some common ideologies with Freud's, interestingly, it is not similar in many ways. Rather than focusing on sexual interest as a driving force in development, Erick believed that interacting socially and experiencing played significant roles.

The human development 8-stage theories explained the process from birth through death. People experience developmental conflicts at every step, which have an effect on how they operate later in life and how they continue to progress.

In contrast to previous developmental theories, Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory emphasizes a person's growth over the course of their entire lifespan. At every stage, a structural crisis that marks a significant turning point confronts both adults and children. Effectively dealing with the challenges of each phase leads to the occurrence of a lifetime psychological benefit.

Erik Eriksons psychosocial developmental theory
Erik Eriksons psychosocial developmental theory

Behavioral Theories of Child Development

Early in the twentieth century, a brand-new school of thinking known as behaviorism emerged and quickly grew to dominate developmental psychology. It was once thought that for psychology to become a scientific field, it had to only study observable and quantifiable actions.

According to the behavioral perspective, every action a person takes has an impact on the environment. Many behaviorists, including B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson, maintained that relationships and strengthening processes are the only ways in which learning takes place.

Behavioral theories emphases on how environmental interaction influences behavior and is grounded on the models of theorists such as John Ivan Pavlov, B. F. Skinner, and B. Watson. The theories deal only with what is observed. Growth is viewed as a response to stimuli, reinforcement, rewards, and punishments. This theory differs significantly from other development theories since it does not consider personal emotional development or thoughts but in its place, it focuses only on how experience shapes our personality.

This method of child development gave rise to the two significant learning modalities known as operant and classical conditioning. Operant conditioning employs punishment and reinforcement to alter behaviors while classical conditioning consists of learning by teaming up an earlier neutral stimulus with a naturally occurring stimulus.

Jean Piaget's Cognitive Developmental Theory

Among the most significant ideas within child development is the work of Jean Piaget. The swiss psychologist dominated this field of study with his Cognitive Developmental Theory. This theory focuses on the cognitive development or thought processes of the child. It examines how the said thought processes impact how we interact and comprehend the world around us.

Among the widely accepted theories of cognitive development was brought forward by theorist Jean Piaget. The proposal was an impression that seems recognizable now but helped transform how we consider child development: Children think differently than adults.

This cognitive theory aims to explain and describe how mental processes and states arise. It also examines how various ways of thinking affect how we perceive the outside world and engage with it.

Child intellectual development

When studying the development of children, the steps and order of a child's intellectual development were then explained by Piaget. The developmental stages are:

  • Sensorimotor Stage: This is between birth and two years during which the baby's knowledge of the world is limited to her/his motor activities and sensory awareness. Simple motor reactions prompted by sensory cues constitute the entirety of behavior.
  • Preoperational Stage: It is between two and six years when a child learns to use language. At this phase, children do not yet comprehend solid logic and they are unable to mentally manipulate information. 
  • Concrete Operational Stage: This is between seven years and eleven years in the course of which children start having doses of understanding of mental processes. They begin thinking logically about physical events but have difficulty understanding unreal or imaginary concepts.
  • Formal Operational Stage: This is a phase between twelve years to adulthood. It is a phase when people develop the ability to comprehend abstract ideas. Deductive reasoning, logical thought, and systematic planning also occur during this phase.

Jean Piagets cognitive developmental theory
Jean Piagets cognitive developmental theory

Bowlby's Attachment Theory

John Bowlby suggested one of the earliest theories of social development that explain how the initial relationships with caregivers played a key role in child development and continued to impact social relationships throughout life. His attachment theory proposed that children are born with an instinctive need to form connections. These attachments ensure that the child receives care and protection, which helps them survive. These attachments are described by clear developmental characteristics and motivational outlines.

Ultimately caregivers and children engage in behaviors intended to safeguard proximal development. Children try to remain near and linked to their caregivers because they offer a secure haven and starting point for exploration.

In adolescent psychology, researchers have also expanded upon Bowlby's initial work and have proposed that several diverse attachment models exist. A trusting relationship is more likely to emerge in children who get trustworthy care and support.

Bandura's Social Learning Theory

This theory is founded on the work of Albert Bandura, a psychologist who without doubt believed that the conditioning and strengthening process could not adequately explain all of a person’s learning. For instance, can the conditioning process account for learned behaviors that have not been strengthened through classical conditioning or operant conditioning? Agreeing with social learning theory, behaviors can also be learned through modelling and observation.

Children learn new skills and gain new knowledge by imitating the behaviors of others, such as parents and peers. Bandura's developmental theory suggests that observation plays a significant role in learning, but this observation does not certainly need to take the form of observing a live model. As an alternative, people can also learn by listening to verbal interaction about how to perform a behavior.

Observing either imaginary or real characters displaying behaviors in films or books.

Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky, a different psychologist, put forth a fundamental learning theory that has since grown to be highly important, particularly in the realm of education. Vygotsky just like Piaget believed that children learn actively and through life experiences. In accordance with his sociocultural theory, the development of higher-order cognitive abilities was the responsibility of parents, other adult caregivers, peers, and the culture at large. In his view, learning is essentially a social process.

Vygotsky’s developmental theory also presented the concept of the zone of proximal development, which is the gap between how a person can use help and what a person can do without help. They are able to gradually acquire and expand their abilities and scope of understanding thanks to the support of more informed individuals.

Vygotsky zone of proximal development
Vygotsky zone of proximal development

Reaching your own conclusion on child development

It is evident that some of psychology's most eminent theorists have created ideas to aid in the discovery and justification of various stages of child development. All of these hypotheses have a significant impact on our comprehension of child development, even though not all of them are widely recognized today.

Today's modern psychologists commonly rely on a variety of ideas and points of view to understand how kids develop, think, and also how they behave. These theories represent just a fraction of the various viewpoints on child development.

There are many diverse aspects that affect positive childhood development. Psychological, physical and emotional development are all critical areas that are highly connected throughout infancy. How children develop physically and intellectually is influenced by their genes, their environment, and the relationships between these factors.