child development theoriesAdults represent an incredible diversity. Some are successful and responsible and some are more like children in adult bodies. Then there are people that falls somewhere in the middle of those spectrums. Not all people are the same, but what exactly determines how a person ends up. Many people have studied that question throughout history and developed certain theories for how development occurs. The interesting thing about adults is that all of them basically start at the same place, as children. Children grow up, and psychologists have been studying their development for many years to determine whether nature or nurture impacts a child’s development more.

An understanding of the more popular child development theories can help parents and educators understand how to properly influence a child’s development so that they become one of the successful and responsible adults. This course will help you to understand the way children develop from birth to 6 years. If you’re a parent of children, you have specifically have a lot invested in how your children turn out. Here is a great course of the art of parenting well-adjusted children.

Child Development Theories

Though there have been many child development theories and the study of child development is always ongoing, you’ll find a summary of some of the more prominent child development theories below, including their proponents, strengths, and some of the weaknesses people have encountered. After understand more about the child development theories, you can begin to develop a more cohesive understanding of what works best in helping children to development well.

Maturational Theory

The Maturational Theory of child development was developed by a psychologist and pediatrician named Arnold Gesell. Gesell’s theory was shaped by the assumptions that development is based in biology, children alternate between good and bad years in development, and that body types share a connection with personality development. The Maturational Theory focuses on physical and mental development, and Gesell saw these developmental patterns being determined by a child’s heredity. Gesell observed and recorded the changes he observed in the growth and development of children from infancy through adulthood. The Maturational Theory takes the stance that environment has no affect on a child’s development. In fact, if a child suffers from any developmental problem, it is believed that the problem lies within the individual child and not as the result of the child’s environment and circumstances. Within the Maturational Theory of child development, children are expected to exhibit certain behaviors according to a maturational timetable. This can be very helpful for parents and educators to see a list of normative behavior for children at a specific age.

Behaviorist Theory

If the Maturational Theory is based primarily in biology and heredity, the Behaviourist Theory focuses on the other end of the spectrum by basing child development on environmental factors. Essentially, the way a child develops in the Behaviorist Theory is determined by the external conditions that influence particular elements of their development. B.F. Skinner was one of the primary proponents of the Behaviorist Theory. His contribution concerned a system of reward and punishment. Skinner believed that a person’s behavior could be shaped one way or another by providing rewards for behavior that is desired and punishments for behavior that not desired. Diversity in the way that children develop is found in the diversity of rewards and punishments that children experience throughout their lives. Whereas in the Maturational Theory, any negative development issue is considered to originate within the child, in the Behaviorist Theory, it would be considered to originate exclusively in the environment of the child. The Behaviorist Theory can often be observed simply by watching how children’s’ behavior is often shaped by what earns reward and what earns punishment. Parents and educators often rely on the Behaviorist Theory to reinforce positive and healthy behavior while trying to eliminate negative and destructive behaviors.

Cognitive Theory

Jean Piaget was a psychologist who was specifically interested in the process of cognitive development in children. Through observations and tests, Piaget developed a theory of child development that centered on a child’s cognitive development. His findings revealed that children think on a different level than adults, and they go through a process from simple to more complex cognitive ability. The process of development involves a child interacting with the world, developing an understanding about the world in which they find themselves, experiencing discrepancies with their understanding and the way the world actually is, and reorganizing their previous discoveries about the world into a new understanding. Piaget broke his cognitive theory into four stages of development.

Piaget believed that all children around the world experienced these four stages of cognitive development in this sequence. However, he acknowledged that not all children would reach each stage at the same age, and some children may not even reach all the stages. He believed the order of the stages was universal, no matter what type of environment the child came from. One of the most important implications of the Cognitive Theory of child development is the need for children to be active in exploring the world around them and making discoveries. The idea is to encourage children to learn by doing.

Psychoanalytic Theory

Sigmund Freud is probably the most well-known psychologist in history, and his Psychoanalytic Theory of child development was based on the idea that a child’s behavior is greatly determined by unconscious desires in the child. Freud understood the human mind to be divided into three controlling concepts. He believed that all children are born with certain innate selfish desires that drive their behavior. He called the part of the mind where these self impules orginate the “id.” The “id” also functioned as the first stage of development in Freud’s model. Freud believed that children would begin to learn that not every desire they have will be met, and this would teach them to develop an appreciation for the way things are and an acceptance that things won’t always go their way. He called this stage the “Ego” Furthermore, Freud believed that children would begin to develop certain values and morals, which he called the “Super-ego. In Freud’s theory, the Super-ego would team up with the Ego to regulate the selfish impulses of the Id. Freud’s theory also concerned a child’s personality development would be determined by the way the child’s parents dealt with the child’s inherent sexual and aggressive desires. Check out this course for more information on the psychology of personality. As a result of the Psychoanalytic Theory of child development, any problems in behavior in a child are often attributed to unconscious processes or desires within the child. A negative implication of the Psychoanalytic Theory was the tendency to base negative developmental patterns within a child on the child’s parents, specifically the mother of the child. Clearly, if you rely on a model of child development that believes development is highly influenced by a child’s nurture or the environment that surrounds them, it’s clear that a parent’s actions do have a serious influence on the child’s development, but placing all of the blame on parent interaction isn’t telling the whole story.

Psychosocial Theory

The Psychosocial Theory of child development is based on the work of psychologist Erik Erikson. Erikson’s work focused on the development of personality in children, and he believed that a child’s personality development occurred in stages. He also held that a child’s personality was greatly impacted by the social interactions and experiences they go through during their lifetime. Children develop a sense of identity based upon the social interactions they experience. Each social interaction has the potential of impacting or reinforcing a person’s identity. Below is a brief summary of the 8 stages of Erikson’s theory.

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust (birth-18 months) – During this stage, a child develops trust when their needs are met in a consistent manner.
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (2-3 years) – Children learn to develop control over their own physical skills, feeling a sense of autonomy.
  3. Initiative vs. Guilt (3-5 years) – Children begin to exert control over their environment and begin taking initiative.
  4. Industry vs. Inferiority (6-11 years) – A child’s interaction with their peers as well as encouragement from authority figures helps them to develop self confidence.
  5. Identity vs. Role Confusion (12-18 years) – Adolescents begin asserting their independence and begin forming personal identity.
  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation (19-40 years) – People in this stage develop loving intimate relationships with other people, and experience this as a deep need.
  7. Generativity vs. Stagnation (40-65 years) – Adults in this stage feel the need to develop something that will outlast them. For many, this means parenthood.
  8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair (65-death) – People in this stage need to be able to reflect on the life they’ve lived and be satisfied on what they accomplished.

The Psychosocial Theory helps to understand the unique contribution that social interaction has on a person’s development over the course of their lifespan. The theory also covers more than just child development, but development over the course of a person’s entire life.

Multiple Intelligences Theory

The Multiple Intelligences Theory, developed by Howard Gardner, is a more recent theory in the area of child development. Gardner believed that not all children learn the same, and cognitive processes within a group of children might be quite diverse. Hence, Gardner suggested a multiple intelligences approach to helping children learn. Gardner believes there are 8 types of intelligences:

  1. Mathematical-logical
  2. Linguistic
  3. Musical
  4. Visual-spatial
  5. Bodily kinesthetic
  6. Interpersonal
  7. Intrapersonal
  8. Naturalist

The Multiple Intelligences Theory of child development focuses on the hardwiring of the individual child’s mind. One child may fall under linguistic intelligence while another falls under interpersonal intelligence. For that reason, the two children won’t learn the same. Gardner’s approach saw a need to individualize instruction toward children, or provide differentiating instruction. In this theory, nature dictates the type of nurture each child should receive.

Bringing it all Together

Each of the child development theories above make important contributions to how people understand the way children develop and learn. It’s important to understand that no one theory addresses every aspect of the way a child develops. For that reason, it is important to gain important insight from each of the theories and understand that children are impacted by nature and nurture. Parents and educators need to be intentional about understanding the way individual children are hardwired, then they will be able to know how to shape their development in the best way possible. Child development is an area where there is always more to learn. Take a look at this course for more information behind the psychology of human development.


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