Child development that occurs from birth to adulthood was largely ignored throughout much of history. Children were often viewed simply as small versions of adults and little attention was paid to the many advances in cognitive abilities, language usage, and physical growth that occurs during childhood and adolescence.
Interest in the field of child development finally began to emerge early in the 20th-century, but it tended to focus on abnormal behavior. Eventually, researchers became increasingly interested in other topics including typical child development as well as the influences on development.
Why is it important to study how children grow, learn, and change? An understanding of child development is essential because it allows us to fully appreciate the cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and educational growth that children go through from birth and into early adulthood. Some of the major theories of child development are known as grand theories; they attempt to describe every aspect of development, often using a stage approach. Others are known as mini-theories; they instead focus only on a fairly limited aspect of development, such as cognitive or social growth.
The following are just a few of the many child development theories that have been proposed by theorists and researchers. More recent theories outline the developmental stages of children and identify the typical ages at which these growth milestones occur.
Psychoanalytic Child Development Theories
- Sigmund Freud
The theories proposed by Sigmund Freud stressed the importance of childhood events and experiences, but almost exclusively focused on mental disorders rather that normal functioning.
According to Freud, child development is described as a series of 'psychosexual stages.' In "Three Essays on Sexuality" (1915), Freud outlined these stages as oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. Each stage involves the satisfaction of a libidinal desire and can later play a role in adult personality. If a child does not successfully complete a stage, Freud suggested that he or she would develop a fixation that would later influence adult personality and behavior. Learn more in this article on Freud’s stages of psychosexual development.
- Erik Erikson
Theorist Erik Erikson also proposed a stage theory of development, but his theory encompassed human growth throughout the entire lifespan. Erikson believed that each stage of development was focused on overcoming a conflict. For example, the primary conflict during the adolescent period involves establishing a sense of personal identity. Success or failure in dealing with the conflicts at each stage can impact overall functioning. During the adolescent stage, for example, failure to develop an identity results in role confusion. Learn more about this theory in this article on Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.
Cognitive Child Development Theories
Theorist Jean Piaget suggested that children think differently than adults and proposed a stage theory of cognitive development. He was the first to note that children play an active role in gaining knowledge of the world. According to his theory, children can be thought of as "little scientists" who actively construct their knowledge and understanding of the world. Learn more in this article on Piaget’s stages of cognitive development.
Behavioral Child Development Theories
Behavioral theories of child development focus on how environmental interaction influences behavior and are based upon the theories of theorists such as John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner. These theories deal only with observable behaviors. Development is considered a reaction to rewards, punishments, stimuli and reinforcement. This theory differs considerably from other child development theories because it gives no consideration to internal thoughts or feelings. Instead, it focuses purely on how experience shapes who we are. Learn more about these behavioral theories in these articles on classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Social Child Development Theories
- John Bowlby
There is a great deal of research on the social development of children. John Bowbly proposed one of the earliest theories of social development. Bowlby believed that early relationships with caregivers play a major role in child development and continue to influence social relationships throughout life. Learn more in this overview of attachment theory.
- Albert Bandura
Psychologist Albert Bandura proposed what is known as social learning theory. According to this theory of child development, children learn new behaviors from observing other people. Unlike behavioral theories, Bandura believed that external reinforcement was not the only way that people learned new things. Instead, intrinsic reinforcements such as a sense of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment could also lead to learning. By observing the actions of others, including parents and peers, children develop new skills and acquire new information.
- Lev Vygotsky
Another psychologist named Lev Vygotsky proposed a seminal learning theory that has gone on to become very influential, especially in the field of education. Like Piaget, Vygotsky believed that children learn actively and through hands-on experiences. His sociocultural theory also suggested that parents, caregivers, peers and the culture at large were responsible for the development of higher order functions.
As you can see, some of psychology's best known thinkers have developed theories to help explore and explain different aspects of child development. Today, contemporary psychologists often draw on a variety of theories and perspectives in order to understand how kids grow, behave and think.
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Berk, Laura E. (2009). Child Development. 8th ed. United States of America: Pearson Education, Inc.
Erikson E (1968), Identity, Youth, and Crisis, New York: Norton