Basic Theories and Principles of Child Development

child with blocksPlease keep in mind, that all of the theories and principles listed here are just brief summaries or references. You should take child development classes to really get, and understand, these concepts and philosophies.

What we know about child development is rooted in developmental theories. Over the years, psychologists and other scientists have developed a variety of theories to explain observations and discoveries about child development. I am going to summarize many of them below. Again, there is a lot more to each of them, and you will surely study them in your child development classes.


Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Freud believed that the way parents dealt with their child’s basic sexual and aggressive desires would determine how the child’s personality developed. Freud also thought that all babies were born with instinctive selfish urges which he labeled the “Id”. As a child experienced that not all his or her whims were met, he or she developed a more realistic appreciation of what is realistic and possible, which Freud called the “Ego”. Over time, Freud believed, babies learn values or morals, which he called the “Super-Ego”. The Super Ego, he thought, then worked with the Ego to control the selfish urges of the Id.

Erik Erikson (1902-1994)
Erikson believed that personality develops in a series of stages. In each stage, Erikson believed children experience conflicts that affect development. He believed these conflicts are based on either developing a psychological quality, or failing to develop that quality. During these times, the potential for success and development is high, but so is the potential for failure. Below are Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages that occur during childhood and adolescence, and a brief summary for each:

Social, emotional development begins with the first of Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages, Trust vs. Mistrust. An infant develops trust when he experiences his needs being met in a consistent, nurturing relationship with a primary caregiver. In a secure relationship, an infant can form attachments.

Erikson’s second Psychosocial Stage, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, says that toddlers strive to be autonomous. We can help them to get there by supporting them when they struggle and being there for them, but not always doing for them. Toddlers also need to be able to make simple choices that allow them to decide things for themselves and build self esteem and confidence.

In his third Psychological Stage, Erikson says that preschoolers begin to assert their power and control over the world through directing play and other social interaction, allowing them to feel capable and able to lead others.

Erikson’s fourth Psychological Stage occurs between ages 5 and 11. At this age, children develop self confidence by interacting with their peers and through encouragement and praise by parents and teachers.

The fifth Psychological Stage, Identity vs. Confusion, suggests that encouraging adolescents to explore their independence strengthens their sense of self and their ability to be self-sufficient and gives them the feeling of being in control of their own world.

Jean Piaget (1896-1990)
Piaget believed that early cognitive development occurs through a process where actions prompt thought processes, which influence the actions the next time around. He talked about Schemas which describe both the mental and physical actions involved in interpreting and understanding the world. New information acquired through an experience is used to modify, add to, or change previously existing schemas.

He believed cognitive development follows a fixed process of four stages that are the same for all children, though they may arrive at each stage sooner or later than their peers. His first stage is Sensori-Motor (0 – 2 years); in this stage, the child is learning about the world around him through his senses. This is the stage, Piaget said, where infants learn about object permanence, that a person or object still exists, even if the infant cannot see it. The second stage is the Preoperational Stage (2 – 7 years); in this stage, the child sees his world as if it revolved around, and for, him. Piaget’s third stage is the Concrete Operational Stage (7 – 11 years); though not yet able to think in the abstract, children in this stage are starting to mentally solve problems, develop concepts such as numbers, and are getting better at understanding and following rules. Piaget’s final stage is the Formal Operations Stage (11 years and up); in this stage, the child is able to think, not just in terms of the concrete, but also in the abstract. He is now able to hypothesize and see his world as it could be, not just as it is.

Also around ages 7-11 years, children begin to start losing teeth. This can also effect the child's emotional health according to Dr. Adam S. Brisman. Dr. Brisman is an oral surgeon in the New York city area and treats a lot of children who have severe teeth or jaw health issues. The emotional impact of these issues is profound, says Dr. Brisman.

Piaget tells us that children learn differently than adults because they do not yet have the experiences and interactions needed to interpret information. Especially as infants, children are constantly gathering information though their senses. They learn about their world by watching, grasping, mouthing and listening. They learn to avoid danger for example, not by reading a caution sign, but by experiencing ‘hot’ or falling from a the chair they just climbed up on. But, it is not just activities and sensory experiences that help children to develop; they also learn through interactions with adults and their peers.

Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005)
Urie Bronfenbrenner developed the Ecological Systems theory to explain how a child’s environment influences a child’s development. In his model, there is a hierarchy of influence levels. He puts the child, who comes with his own temperament and conditions, in the middle, or Micro System. The nuclear family, or Meso System, has the greatest influence on a child’s emotional development since, hopefully, his first attachment is to his mother or other primary caregiver. The community a child lives in and the school(s) he attends, the Exo System, also have a substantial amount of influence on his social emotional development; in particular, the early childhood program he attends, and the relationships he establishes with his teacher or provider. Bronfenbrenner’s Macros System, or society, which includes culture, government and public policies, comes next. The final system, the Chrono System includes transitions such as moving, changing schools, divorce and other life changes that can effect a child’s social emotional development.

Arnold Gesell (1880 – 1961)
By studying thousands of children over many years, Gesell came up with “milestones of development” – stages by which normal children typically accomplish different tasks. These are still used today.

B.F.Skinner (1904 – 1990)
Skinner coined the term operant conditioning and believed children’s behavior and learning can be shaped by providing rewards and punishment.

Alfred Bandura (1925 – )
Bandura believed that children can learn new information and behaviors by watching, or observing, other people. This was referred to as the social learning theory.

Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934)
Vygotsky believed in the sociocultural theory – that children learn actively and through hands-on experiences, and that parents and caregivers and peers have a role in a child’s development. Children, he said, learn best when new information is scaffolded for them. He called the area of cognitive development, from where a child starts out to where he could get to with scaffolding, the Zone of Proximal Development.

John Bowlby (1907 – 1990)
John Bowbly is thought to be the first to introduce the attachment theory. He believed that early relationships with caregivers play a major role in child development, and continue to influence social relationships throughout life. If an infant’s parent or caregiver is consistently dependable, the child will develop an attachment, or bond, with his or her parent or caregiver, and will feel secure enough to explore the world around him.

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